Hugh Bonneville stands up at the end of the press conference and, in front of several hundred journalists, publicists and PBS executives, rips open his shirt to reveal his chest.
This is not the impulsive act of a brazen exhibitionist, nor is it a superhero’s call to arms. It is certainly not the sort of behaviour one would associate with Bonneville’s celebrated alter ego, Robert Crawley, sixth Earl of Grantham, the aristocratically undemonstrative master of the venerable family estate — and bona fide pop culture phenomenon — Downton Abbey.
Expectations are high for this third season of the class-crossing British hit, which returns Sunday night at 9 to PBS’s Masterpiece. And chief among the burning issues to be addressed is the fate of John Bates, Grantham’s trusted valet and former Boer War “batman” (the valet’s military equivalent), portrayed by Brendan Coyle.
Last season, Bates was famously tried and convicted for the murder of his estranged wife, narrowly avoiding the death penalty but still apparently doomed to a life in prison, which in the 1920s must have been a particularly daunting prospect.
But whether or not Bates is indeed to be set free this season remains a closely guarded secret. At least officially. The answer is easy enough to ferret out with a few keystrokes online. But most fans really don’t want to know in advance. Neither did the actors.
“Just getting a script is a bit of an event in itself,” allows Coyle. “We’re the last ones to receive the script. So when we (do), it really is a case of phones off, kettle on, sit . . . it’s an event. So I read it as a fan of the show as well.”
“They’re cracking reads,” agrees Coyle.
Neither of them saw this one coming. “When I read the bit where Mr. Bates gets sentenced to murder, I literally gasped,” says Froggatt. “When he was found guilty,” says Coyle, “there was a real thud in my chest. Not just because I was going to lose the part. It was a very dramatic event in the script.”
There is certainly no shortage of drama in the fictional lives of the Granthams and their devoted staff. And that is why it has seized the zeitgeist, invited it in for tea and fed it little cucumber sandwiches.
“The emotional investment that a lot of people have made in these characters is extraordinary,” Bonneville marvels. “One can see online and so on. And to have had the show embraced so wholeheartedly by America is very special to us. It’s wonderful. None of us had any expectation of that at all.
“The first time it occurred to me or I realized that it was, as it were, breaking the boundaries of the expected audience, was when a lad in my son’s playground came up to me — he’s about 10 or 11 — and said, ‘I don’t like that Thomas.’”
(Thomas, for the Downton newbie, is the scheming gay underbutler with his eye on Bates’s job, portrayed by Rob James-Collier.)
“The most gratifying things about this job for me is I got a letter from a guy who had a disability,” he says. “I’m not quite sure what it was, but all of his life he had these terrible nicknames thrown at him. Now he’s being called ‘Mr. Bates.’ That’s what his workmates call him. So he’s writing to thank me for giving him, at last, a cool nickname.”
Bates’s signature affliction, a war-wound limp, became something of an obsession for Coyle when he was first getting to know the role. “I really put myself through it,” he admits. “I was trying to figure out just exactly what this injury was and how it would affect his movements.
“I was very keen when I first started. I had this strap, which limited my movement, my ligament, so I couldn’t completely stretch my leg. I had a pebble under my heel at one point trying to perfect this thing.
“Now it’s become second nature, like learning to drive.”
Bonneville, too, has settled nicely into his role as patriarch and protector of the waning Grantham dynasty.
“Let’s not forget that this marriage (between) Cora and Robert . . . was a business transaction. You know, he needed the cash. The estate needed the cash and her family was quite keen on having a British title. It then so happened that they fell in love and have had 20-plus years together.”
It runs about two years to a season, according to Julian Fellowes, Downton’s writer/creator. “And I think we will just continue to move forward at that pace, because the great thing is, you know, you don’t have to have anybody doing wobbly stick acting with grey wigs. They can remain reasonably the same age.”
But there are more significant creative reasons for staying within that 10-year span.
“The ’20s is a very interesting period to me,” Fellowes says. “Once you get into the ’30s, then, you know, it’s the Nazi-dominated, ‘Europe prepares for the war’ period that I think we’ve all seen pretty often, actually, exploited in different films and so on.
“But the ’20s are a much more nebulous time. We’ve just got a kind of transition between the old world and the ’30s and the Second World War. And there’s this bit in the middle. And I think it’s rather fun to be journeying through that stuff.”
And the end of that journey?
“That would be our big finish.”