“Some people genuinely think one lives this lifestyle,” laughs Hugh Bonneville, sitting on the grass in a field in front of Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey. The sun is glistening through the trees and for a moment it really does feel like another, probably better, world. And this is all part of Downton Abbey’s appeal, Bonneville says.
“There is a nostalgia in these troubled times that we look for something that’s a little bit less frenetic, a little less panicky, a little bit less nasty. Even though the social world around Downton in real life would have been pretty horrendous for 90% of the population of this world, our telly world, our fictional world seems to be a nice little retreat to go to sometimes.”
Series three, he says, will see a return to a gentler pace of life at Downton Abbey after the cataclysm of the First World War.
“The entire nine episodes have taken place over about 18 months so there's a much slower pace to things developing. I think that’s given Julian [Fellowes] the scope to really explore the character relationships at a gentler step. The freneticism or the impact of the First World War in the second series blew the emotions of the house apart. It made for a very extreme graph on the oscilloscope if you like, a wave pattern of big emotions here, there and everywhere because of the impact of the outside world. This series the outside world still impacts on the house, obviously, but it's in a much more nuanced way.”
That’s not to say there won’t be troubles aplenty for his character Robert, Earl of Grantham.
“After the end of the war and the Spanish flu and Matthew and Mary finally resolving that they're going to be together, I think part of him feels that life will return to how it was before the War: the old order will be restored. But of course life isn't like that - the changes that were brought about by the First World War and its aftermath are things he’s going to have to face.”
For a start there’s a huge estate to finance when Robert, as Bonneville puts it, “is not a man of figures.”
“You're beginning to see the cracks in the country house estate as a notion, what with the social changes brought about after the First World War. The big estates really did start to have to fight for survival.”
It is up to Robert to lead that fight, in spite of business not being his strong point. “Ultimately what Robert cares about is the family, be that his own family or the larger family of the estate - that’s his passion and he will do anything that will stop it falling apart.”
Robert also has to deal with the arrival of his mother in law: never an easy time. But as in this case she was played by Shirley MacLaine, Bonneville says he was more than happy to see her.