‘Those films shouldn’t be cancelled’: Hugh Bonneville on Notting Hill, his new heist drama, and Boris Johnson
Where do you start with cancelling things? Where do you stop?” says Hugh Bonneville. “Do you never ever produce Titus Andronicus because it involves the murder of infants and the baking of people’s heads in pies? Or The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew? Or Hamlet because lots of people die in the end?”
I’m meeting the Downton Abbey star in a low-key coffee shop just off Trafalgar Square. We’re here to talk about The Gold, his new BBC One drama about one of Britain’s biggest ever real-life heists, but right now he’s wrestling with one of the debates of our time – cancel culture – and there’s a good reason for it: Notting Hill. The actor got his first major break in movies in Richard Curtis’s enduringly popular 1999 comedy. He played the stockbroker who asks Julia Roberts, “What do you do?” at a dinner party, before going off on one about actors earning £8,000 a year. Of course, some romcoms are now being reassessed – and not always favourably. Notting Hill has come under fire for failing to convey fully the diversity of the area of London it depicts.
Bonneville, however, thinks we should leave well alone. “Those films certainly shouldn’t be cancelled,” he says. “There was a whole sequence about the multiculturalism of Notting Hill. But test audiences said, ‘Where’s the star? Where’s Julia Roberts?’ So the producers cut out that three-minute multicultural sequence.”
He adds: “I think we all need to take a huge dose of perspective and allow art to be art. All forms of artistic expression should be allowed to breathe. I think respect should always be there – with expression comes responsibility. But I don’t think it’s right to say, ‘I don’t agree with you, therefore you should be cancelled’.”
The 59-year-old has no qualms about engaging with the issues of the day. “I’m an eternal optimist,” he says. All the same, he admits, right now it is increasingly difficult to find reasons to be cheerful.
“I refuse to be depressed,” the actor tells me. “But I do find it harder to be positive than I’ve done for probably 30 years.”
For a start, Bonneville is anxious about the geo-political situation. “I’m probably more aware of doom and gloom than I have been since the nuclear threat when we were growing up. I used to lie awake at night worrying about that in the Seventies and Eighties.
“Look at the – there is no other word for it – evil that has been perpetrated in Ukraine and Iran, and the inability of our politicians to act as a force against them.”
But Bonneville is just as alarmed about what is going on in this country. “Our lack of leadership is quite stunning. The vacuity of the last two or three secretaries of state for culture is embarrassing. The same goes for our recent foreign secretaries, among whom I count Boris Johnson, a man of no principle whatsoever.”
It is on the subject of the NHS, however, that Bonneville becomes really incensed. It is a subject close to his heart. His father was a doctor, his mother a nurse. Also, during the pandemic, the actor volunteered at a vaccination centre near his home in West Sussex.
“I’m hugely worried about the future of the NHS,” the actor says. “It was the institution for which my parents worked. In the 1970s, dealing with patients directly was the centre of their world, and not filling in forms.
“Now the NHS is a vast institution that is not fit for purpose. It is no coincidence that the only government we’ve had for the last 13 years has been Tory. And now the nurses are going on strike, for goodness’ sake. No nurse that I know wants to strike, but they are literally subsidising the job that they do. It’s heartbreaking. It really is a gloomy time.”
Bonneville is equally exercised by the fact that the government appears to have the BBC in its sights. “It’s scandalous that the BBC is under threat. What would we end up with? Just Fox News’s all over the place and opinion-shouting on GB News.”
Don’t let Bonneville’s bleak prognosis about the world deceive you, though. In person, the actor, who is wearing cufflinks in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, is a warm, humorous presence. His lightness of touch is reflected in Playing Under the Piano, his entertaining, recently published memoir.
It contains many delightful showbiz anecdotes, such as the moment he almost ruined a dress rehearsal for his National Theatre debut as a shoemaker in School for Wives by accidentally taking out a large chunk of the volcano scenery with a swing of his 18th-century cobbler’s last. The book also features many poignant passages, as Bonneville recollects his father’s dementia and his brother’s death.
The afternoon of our interview, Bonneville is going on to a promotional event for the book. He is dressed in the deep blue worsted suit that he sports on the cover. He says he wears it to all book events in the hope that it will provide some subliminal advertising.
Very soon, too, he’ll be back on our screens in The Gold, Neil Forsyth’s compelling, six-part account of the aftermath of the notorious 1983 Brink’s-Mat robbery, which starts on BBC One on Sunday. (Forsyth is the writer of the word-of-mouth BBC Two hit Guilt, which will return for a third series this year.)
When a crew of hardened criminals smashed their way into the Brink’s-Mat warehouse at the Heathrow International Trading Estate on 26 November 1983, it was initially viewed as a typical Old Kent Road armed robbery. But it soon turned into something much more significant.
The thieves had plotted to steal £3.2m in cash but after breaking into the warehouse with the help of an inside man, they discovered £26m worth of gold bullion and diamonds. In an instant, the heist was transformed into the largest robbery in world history at the time.