Hugh Bonneville Says Stick to Your Guns

The "Monuments" Man and "Downton" patriarch holds forth on matters of decorum.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty

Best-known to American television audiences as the patriarch of PBS’ hit “Downton Abbey,” actor Hugh Bonneville stars this week in the George Clooney-directed film “The Monuments Men” based on the true story of a group of experts who went into World War II combat zones to rescue priceless works of art that were at risk of destruction.

Mr. Bonneville brings his elegant English manners to some particularly sophisticated questions this week, offering advice on matters of art appreciation, global entertainment distribution, writing style, and when to quietly slink out of a situation pretending you didn’t see anything.


Brendan Francis Newnam: Millions of “Downton Abbey” fans don’t need to be reminded Hugh plays the benevolent patriarch Lord Grantham on that show, currently in its fourth season on PBS.  He’s also starred in a number of plays and films, the latest being the George Clooney-directed World War II movie “The Monuments Men”- it opens in theaters this weekend.  And Hugh, welcome.

Hugh Bonneville: Thank you very much — lovely to be here.

Rico Gagliano: Lovely to have you.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And we should point out you are wearing 21st century clothes…

Hugh Bonneville: Yeah, and I haven’t got a Labrador with me, so…

Rico Gagliano: For once!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is that a hoodie almost?

Hugh Bonneville: I am wearing a very nice cashmere hoodie, thank you very much!

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s very nice, no, no, it’s nice! I just like this juxtaposition of you in that.

Rico Gagliano: It’s a little disconcerting, I have to say.

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George Clooney and Hugh Bonneville plot their next move. Photo by Claudette Barius.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But let’s talk about this movie you’re in. You play one of this band of soldiers who’ve been tasked to recover troves of art stole by the Nazis. These guys aren’t given much respect by the soldier-soldiers, who are engaging in combat.  And it occurs to us that you are an artist… you’re well-known now, but did you ever have to defend your pursuit of art against maybe more practical pursuits?

Hugh Bonneville: Well there was a time in my life where I kept my passion for acting sort of in the closet. I mean, I used to do plays, but I felt I had to pretend I was gonna get a proper job, a sensible job.

So I did flirt with the idea of becoming a lawyer. Clearly there’s a link — I used to love going to watch the advocates in the law courts you know. I wanted to see the theater of it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And they get to wear those wigs.

Hugh Bonneville: And the wigs are gorgeous.

Rico Gagliano: It’s kind of like a hoodie.

Hugh Bonneville: But no, I took the plunge when I was at my second year at university. I came out to my parents and said you know, “I’d love to give it a go for a couple of years.” And they said, “Well, we’ve seen you do enough plays, and we’re behind you.”

I often wonder if they had said “Don’t be so ridiculous, boy” whether I would have had the guts to run off and join the circus, you know.  Because their opinion matters a lot to me.

Rico Gagliano: It is interesting, though, that art does have this — I guess historically — this idea that it’s frivolous. But this movie makes the point that it isn’t in a lot of ways.

Hugh Bonneville: That’s true. I mean I would say that actors are frivolous and a complete waste of space!  And of course throughout our history we’ve been the outcasts.

But no, the point of this movie is the question, you know, “what value does art have over life?” And vice versa.

Rico Gagliano: Let’s turn briefly to “Downton”. This is a certifiable smash, one of the few PBS shows that broke through big. Why do people today find the lives of post-Edwardian gentry so fascinating?

Hugh Bonneville: Initially, when it first came out, when we were in the depths of the economic depression, I thought it was the timing — it’s the escapism of it.  It’s a world that seemed to know its place, know its structure. I think there was a sense of comfort in that. But then as it started rolling out around the world… not every country is going through the same economic or social challenges that say Britain and the States have been.

There’s something… and I can only put it down to the fact that it is page-turning writing really.  And characters that people like to spend time with.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And great outfits.

Hugh Bonneville: And fantastic frocks, yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, well one last question that will bring these things together. Bill Murray: “Downton” fan?

Hugh Bonneville: No — it turns out that John Goodman was saying to me just today, actually, that he’d missed the last two episodes but he’s taped it.

Rico Gagliano: But not Bill?

Hugh Bonneville: Bill affected interest but I don’t think he even has a TV, let alone… he doesn’t have an agent, so God knows!

Brendan Francis Newnam: That sounds about right.

Well, we’ve got some etiquette questions from our listeners. You ready for these?

Hugh Bonneville: Okay. You know, just please divorce yourself from the notion that I am Lord Grantham and have all the right answers on how to do things. These are going to be 21st century reactions.

Touching Works of Art (Literally)

Rico Gagliano: Sure. This is from Bridgette in Pasadena, California. Bridgette writes – oh this is great for your movie – “If you’re in a museum or gallery and see someone touching an artwork, what should you do? Give them a baleful eye, politely say something to them or taste out a guard and rat them out?”

Hugh Bonneville: I think my first instinct… I think politeness is always a good first step before you bring out the knife.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The heavies.

Rico Gagliano: You are British after all.

Hugh Bonneville: I think, yes, I think you can go and gently tap the person on the shoulder and say “Excuse me, do you know how long it took me to paint that?”

But no, obviously if someone is defacing a work of art in front of you, you hit the panic button.

Rico Gagliano: Sure, I would think, but well… let me put it in maybe lighter terms, because this is something I’ve experienced: you know, there’s a sign that says “no photographs,” and someone’s taking pictures of it. Or they’re standing too close to it, you know.

Hugh Bonneville: I mean, of course there’s the very British way of turning around, walking out of the museum as quickly as possible — running away from the problem!

But I think the other one, I think to engage people and say — without being cynical or sort of snooty about it — saying “Out of interest, why, when it’s asked you respectfully not to, do you?”

It was interesting. I took my son to an exhibition of avant-garde Russian art at Saatchi Gallery in London recently. Some of it amazing, and some of it really quite baffling.  And in the corner there was a stepladder with a bucket near it, and I was studying this and I was thinking “Right, okay, so what’s the artist telling me about that?”

Brendan Francis Newnam: “It’s a readymade!”

Hugh Bonneville: And — yeah — and of course then, in comes a guy in overalls, picks up the ladder, and walks up and starts cleaning the windows! I mean, in those circumstances I would fully engage with the notion of touching the art.  But to do it to a Constable or Van Gogh, no.

Rico Gagliano: An artist might say your behavior should be “site-specific.”

Hugh Bonneville: That’s very good, a very good phrase.

Statute of Spoiler Limitations

Rico Gagliano: All right. Our next question comes from John in Chicago. John writes, “What is the etiquette of TV show spoilers? For example, if something insane and conversation-worthy just happened on ‘Downton Abbey’ last night, how soon is too soon to talk about it within earshot of those whose viewing status I don’t know? There must be a time when all bets are off, right?”

Hugh Bonneville: Very interesting. That’s a very good one. It’s a bit like saying when is it time to stop saying Happy New Year, you know? It’s rounded somewhere around the third or fourth week of January, you think come on, we’ve done that, we don’t need to. I think there must be yes, there must be a time when all bets are off.

Having said that, you know one of the reasons I stopped doing Twitter so much — or certainly tweeting about “Downton Abbey” — is because the show goes out at different times all over the world. You know, South America has just had season two, China has just had season one…

Brendan Francis Newnam: So you’re chock full of spoilers. I mean you have to hold these spoilers forever.

Hugh Bonneville: I know. You know, I have to say, there were some very big spoilers in season three. Keeping quiet on that for a year was quite hard.

So I think… I would say a polite three weeks, and then you know, if you haven’t caught it by now…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Three weeks, all right.

Hugh Bonneville: Two weeks, three weeks.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Even in this world of Netflix and on demand?

Hugh Bonneville: Well yeah… Maybe I’m gonna have to revise it to maybe never. In fact, never talk about any TV show ever.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s right.

The Favourite Spellings of One’s Heritage


Rico Gagliano: Katie in Westwood, California writes, “I am a Brit, now living in America. Should I spell words as I was taught, or as this country really, really wants me to? By the way, ‘Downton’ is my favourite show. That’s favourite spelled with an ou.”

Hugh Bonneville: I think Katie, I think you absolutely have to stick to your guns. You know — stick to the way you were brought up on this. Spelling is one thing that I get very twitchy about, when I do see the word “honor” as opposed to “honour,” and “color instead of “colour.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: So you’re saying that Katie, as a Brit, she needs to hold the Union Jack high.

Hugh Bonneville: Yes — wave that flag Katie, wave that flag. But again, with discretion. I think when applying for a job as say, you know, working on a newspaper or something, you might want to adopt the local customs.

Rico Gagliano: All right, but on a similar note — this is a pet peeve of mine — I hear BBC announcers call Barack Obama, “Barack Obama.”

Hugh Bonneville: So the stress is on the second syllable, on the Barack?

Rico Gagliano: Ba-rack, that’s correct. They mess it up all the time!

Hugh Bonneville: I don’t know, the BBC does have a pronunciation unit.

Rico Gagliano: They’re doing a terrible job.

Hugh Bonneville: You know, when I get home I’m gonna ring them up and alert them. ‘ Barack.’

Rico Gagliano: Leader of the free world, Barack Obama.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And Americans everywhere are like, “And who is the Prime Minister of England so we can mispronounce their name?”

Hugh Bonneville: Right.

Rico Gagliano: “We’ll get you back!”

Hugh Bonneville: Who is it this week? David “Cameroon.”

Rico Gagliano: All right; Hugh “Bon-nay-ville”… thank you for telling our audience how to behave.