As VisionTV continues its back-to-back airings of Downton Abbey’s first three seasons, we’re looking back on the paths that the period drama’s most captivating characters have charted over the years, as well as the recent movements of the actors who bring them to life. Over the past few weeks, we’ve revisited the figures that defined Downton’s younger generation – from ladies Mary and Sybil, to the visionary Matthew Crawley – and are now shifting our gaze to back the estate’s older guard. Since the series’ first episode, actor Hugh Bonneville has lent a sense of good-natured authority to the role of Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, and although we may not always agree with his views, his is a character that is difficult to truly dislike.
Emotionally attached to the estate on which he grew up, Robert shows a level of devotion to its maintenance and preservation that others might reserve for a relative (something he has personally acknowledged). He finds comfort in adhering to old ways and is a staunch traditionalist, but although he tends to oppose the disruption of the status quo, Robert can be reasoned with if the changes proposed are for the better. Described by nearly all his staff as a fair, and even caring, employer (he has shown himself to be both understanding and willing to help them through personal difficulties), Lord Grantham may sometimes frustrate his family, but he has the best interests of all Downton’s residents at heart.
While we’ve seen him make some less-than-shrewd moves over the course of the series (including a disastrous investment that could have cost the family their home), he generally negotiates Downton’s affairs, through circumstances good and bad, with intelligence and a deft hand. Through changing times, he’s managed to adapt – at times not quite willingly – to keep the family’s position intact, and though is stubbornness has played a role in some of the series’ most unfortunate incidents, his family (and most fans) have managed to forgive him. And, for any of those who haven’t, 2014 will see Bonneville occupying a host of roles far removed from Downton Abbey’s head.
Although Lord Grantham was thoroughly put out by his inability to take a more active role in the war effort during Downton’s second season, this month’s The Monuments Men will see Bonneville on the front lines (albeit, of a different war). As part of an all-star cast featuring Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and John Goodman, and helmed by actor and director George Clooney, Bonneville appears as part of a WWII platoon assigned with the task of recovering thousands of artworks stolen by the Nazis. In the race to rescue the masterpieces before they’re destroyed, his character is one that Bonneville describes as having been given a “second chance” by the assignment.
While we may be more accustomed to seeing him in similarly dramatic roles, Bonneville also seems to have a knack for comedy. Last summer, he appeared onstage at the Playhouse Theatre in London for a one-week stint with Spamalot, playing none other than God himself. Now, he’s been spotted filming episodes of W1A, a spin-off to the popular BBC Two comedy series, Twenty Twelve. Reprising his role as Ian Fletcher, the latest four-episode outing sees Bonneville’s character, once the Head of the Olympic Deliverance Commission, now taking up the (fictional) title of Head of Values at the BBC.
This year we’ll also get to see him in the latest reimagining of the beloved Paddington Bear story, as the head of the kindly Brown family. Playing opposite the famous bear (voiced by Colin Firth), Bonneville plays Mr. Brown, a friendly Londoner who takes Paddington in when he’s overwhelmed by the life and bustle of the city he’s dreamed of visiting. With the classic children’s tale in post-production now, and a series of other projects slated for release, 2014 is shaping up to be a big year for yet another of Downton’s leads, and with a variety of roles on the go, it should be an exciting one as well.
– Kate Shepherd