“I was not a fan of Margaret Thatcher, but my God, she would have led from the front on the coronavirus”

Hugh Bonneville isn’t impressed with Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, but I’m surprised to find out who he thinks would have done better.

(Rex Features)

Hugh Bonneville isn’t impressed with Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic, but I’m surprised to find out who he thinks would have done better.

“Let’s face it, decision making has been catastrophically slow, confusing and messy,” says the star of Downton Abbey . “As long as Johnson has options, he will only make a decision when there is only one option left to make. And then it’s too late. Of course, you can talk about New Zealand having a smaller population. However, decision-making was very, very fast in New Zealand, as in Iceland, both led by women. I rest my case. “Not exactly.” I was not a fan of Margaret Thatcher in any shape or form, “he adds,” but my God, she would have led from the front on this, and she would have been decisive from day one. “

Now the 57-year-old who also plays the perpetually frustrated BBC bureaucrat Ian Fletcher in the sitcom W1A , has decided to roll up his sleeves. Last week, he was photographed wearing a mask, high-visibility jacket and cowboy hat at his new job as a volunteer vaccinator in Midhurst, West Sussex. The tabloid headlines clearly summed up his surprise new role: “It’s Downton Jabbey!”

“As soon as Midhurst said, ‘We’re looking for volunteers at our vaccination center,’ I said, ‘I’m in!’” Bonneville recalls. “Secretly I am very excited. I can use high visibility and point people out! “

The organizers, he adds, felt that people would be reassured by seeing a famous face, “but I replied: ‘well, they won’t know it’s me because I’m wearing a moving mask.’ That is all the pleasure of doing it. I’ll be completely anonymous and can say, ‘Hey, Grandpa, get back in line.’ For years on my profile Who is who , I put that my favorite hobby was ‘seeing works in their natural habitat’. And now I can be one! It’s almost like being a BBC curator, jamming people in revolving doors. “

Of course, you are not just looking for the high visibility jacket. “I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer,” he says. “He made it very clear that the most important factor in helping to end the pandemic is getting people who have doubts to trust the vaccine. It’s not just for you personally, it’s for everyone around you. That collective point needs to be communicated. “

Bonneville is a hugely entertaining company, which is hardly surprising given the sheer joy it brings to movies like Paddington and the ironic charm that emanates in Twenty Twelve . After reading theology at Cambridge, he attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. After a small role as an air warfare officer alongside Bond, James Bond, in Tomorrow Never Dies, the actor became a mainstay of British television and cinema: in Notting Hill like Hugh Grant’s hapless friend Bernie; like the rich Mr. Rushworth in Mansfield Park ; and as Iris Murdoch’s husband in the Oscar winner Iris .

We return to the subject of vaccination. Surprisingly, the theme appears in Bonneville’s latest project. For Olivia , a heartwarming new movie opening at Sky Cinema on Friday, tells a true story. Written and directed by John Hay, who was previously responsible for the Bafta and the Emmy Stig of the Dump is an elegiac account of the sudden measles death of Olivia, age six, the daughter of author Roald Dahl (Bonneville) and his wife, Hollywood star Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes). His death leaves Dahl “limping in despair” to the point where he dares not speak his name. He lies in a fetal position, catatonic in pain, unable to react even when the stove is burning.

Bonneville, who has been married to Lucinda Evans for 23 years and has a son, is shocked by the film’s unforeseen foreknowledge. His punctuality, he says, brings “great power to the idea of ​​not having a vaccine.” Although To Olivia it was completed before the pandemic started, “that vaccination issue is underlying. The fact that Roald and Pat became supporters of the measles vaccination program now has an extraordinary resonance. The film emphasizes the importance of this and how Olivia’s life would have been saved, if a usable or reliable vaccine had been available. “

The film’s central theme of grief also had a very personal meaning for Bonneville. “I certainly felt it very strongly when I was doing it. I lost my brother very suddenly a couple of years ago, and both parents in the last five years, my dad just before Covid hit. I thank my stars that he did not have to go through the Covid experience in a nursing home. “

Pain, he says, is a fickle thing. “As anyone who’s been through it knows, it comes in waves. What is so unpredictable and strange about pain is that one day you may have a memory of someone and you are going to laugh out loud. And then a day later, the same memory will appear in your head and you will burst into tears. It is these waves of emotion that ebb and flow. “

A close friend of Bonneville’s once wrote to her about her own experience of pain. “She said there are these waves that feel like they’re crashing all the time. You think, ‘No, this tsunami of losses hitting me will never go away.’ But she was right. They gradually recede and you are left with these waves that will always be there. Time never takes away, but time heals. The wound will leave a scar of some kind, and of course when you go through the pain again, it will inevitably reopen. “

For Olivia it is deeply moving. Did Bonneville take the movie home? “No, I didn’t feel like I was coming home to a valley of tears. However, I think the dexterity and honesty of writing and the stages of grief this couple goes through are very, very recognizable. Having experienced the pain, I felt very connected to it. “

As a way of dealing with Olivia’s death, both Dahl and Neal get lost in creativity. In an astonishing burst of imaginative energy after the passing of his daughter, Dahl writes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , his first global bestseller, and Neal wins an Oscar for his starring role opposite Paul Newman (Sam Heughan) in Skin . “If something good came out of this pain and pain,” Bonneville reflects, “there was a positive and creative energy that they both shared. That escape from the imagination is completely understandable. “

But, he is quick to add, “This is not a dating movie. Unfortunately, there are some people online that I’ve noticed who say, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to show the kids that new Roald Dahl movie.’ It’s not that…”

The movie does not disinfect Dahl’s character. It portrays an already difficult man, curmudgeonly, deformed by pain. Bonneville insists that it was the right decision to represent the author with warts and all. “He was clearly a very tough man. I have yet to meet anyone who absolutely adores him, other than his own family. I have met two or three people who attended Dahl’s book signings when they were little. I said, ‘Oh, how amazing. You have your book signed by Roald Dahl. How was he?’ ‘Very grumpy, didn’t want to be there at all.’

Furthermore, “he was not an easy man to live with. He was a very selfish man at times, but a man with a great love for his family clearly underneath it all and devastated by grief. And obviously, he had a huge talent. “

The movie also doesn’t paint a picture of a happy, happy union between Dahl and Neal. According to Bonneville, “You only have to read a few of the biographies to see that hers was not a perfect marriage. Pat didn’t love Roald when she married him. He loved Gary Cooper and he says so in his own autobiography. So we are not dealing with rose petals here. People are ugly to each other because of the pain; they can say really nasty things. This is a marriage that, if it is not in crisis, certainly has a fissure running through it. “

In more recent years, Dahl’s reputation has been tainted by anti-Semitic comments he made in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, in December his family apologized for his objectionable comments. Yes OK To Olivia does not address these comments because they were delivered long after the period in which the film is set, Bonneville makes it clear that they are “disgusting and disgusting.”

Next, the actor hopes to shoot a sequel to the hit movie. Downton Abbey , written as always by Julian Fellowes. So far, nothing has been revealed about the movie’s plot, other than Bonneville co-star Jim Carter’s claim that it “is a lot of fun.”

According to Bonneville, “There are ducks that start squawking in a row, but I think they need a vaccine! I described it last time when everyone got together and jumped into the pool together. That was the only way it was going to work. And this time, I think everyone is holding hands and just waiting. If we can emerge flashing into some kind of sunlit highlands and be freed from confinement, then we really want to. Julian has written a magnificent script and I think it would be the perfect return to the cinema. The tone is lovely. But whether we make it or not, who knows? There is a will, but is there a way?

Meanwhile, Bonneville prays for the theaters to reopen. Patron of the excellent Primary Shakespeare Company bringing Shakespeare’s plays to elementary schools, the live performance has been missed. “I have really physically felt the need to be among other people, not only among friends, but also the collective experience of being in a movie theater, a concert hall or a theater.”

Hold on to signs of hope. “When there was a chill out last fall, Chichester, my local theater, opened up a bit and we did some things outside. You could feel the excitement and connectivity between people. We are social animals. Cross our fingers. If we can overcome the next few months, with a vaccinated population, we will be able to start holding hands again ”.

Still, he adds, we’re not done yet. “There will be some horrible Darwinian moments. I feel sorry for anyone who is trying to maintain an artistic organization. But we are like a phoenix. The arts have always survived adversity. There are parallels with Shakespeare in the plague years. His theater was closed and open and closed and open, and now we’re going through that again. But we will recover, the writing will be juicier and richer and the performances more passionate than ever. “

Bonneville closes by noting the echoes of our current plight in To Olivia . “These two characters emerge at the end of the film with a great sense of positivity, albeit in dark and narrow circumstances. I think it is very helpful for the audience to really see that there are ways to overcome these horrendous waves of physical and mental pain and agony. It will ease in time. The challenge is finding the patience and inner strength to navigate that. But I think this movie indicates that there is a way through. “

So there’s a future for us, even if we don’t all end up writing Charlie and the chocolate factory.

“Yes,” Bonneville says blankly. “We may end up eating chocolate.”

‘To Olivia’ is on Sky Cinema from Friday, February 19


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“I was not a fan of Margaret Thatcher, but my God, she would have led from the front on the coronavirus”