It is and it isn’t a soap. It is and it isn’t social history. It’s got a cast of recurring characters, and there’s never a chance to get bored.
It’s Downton Abbey, and after five series, Hugh Bonneville still finds it absolutely delightful to be involved with it.
“If you do get bored, then there’s always another storyline coming along in 42 seconds,” laughs Hugh, who plays Lord Grantham in the show.
Part of the attraction, Hugh suspects, is that for 99 per cent of its viewers it’s a glimpse into a past they never had; there’s also that soap and social history aspect. But really, it’s all these things and more. And proof of its quality, Hugh jokes, is that the cast are all still friends five series in: “We are not smashing up our dressing rooms and making insane demands!”
The point is simply to enjoy it: “It’s enjoyed the sort of popularity you will only get once in your lifetime. I am extremely lucky to be able to work on it.
“But the other great thing is that Julian Fellowes (creator of the series) never gets into a rut with the characters,” says Hugh, who lives just outside Midhurst.
“There are always surprises he throws at you. Julian knows these characters better than anyone, but he also knows what we (as actors) can bring to the table. When I see my character having one of his more dinosaur moments, I think ‘Oh god, is this really what Julian thinks of me!’ but it’s great. Everyone takes the characters very seriously.”
In fact, Hugh has just had a fan letter from China, praising the show for its accurate reflection of Chinese society – a letter which left Hugh slightly baffled. But the letter reflects the show’s truly-global appeal.
It has certainly made Hugh a household name: “It’s nice that people come and say they have enjoyed it. That’s always a bonus. It would be terrible if they were coming up and saying they hated it.”
It does mean that trying to have a quiet time in a public place is less easy than it used to be, Hugh admits: “But people are usually very gracious. It’s lovely that this show, which occupies us for six months a year, is so much enjoyed.”
In fact, as Hugh says, it’s actually more of a year-round business, with February to August spent filming, the series then going out in the autumn and then after that, work on the US release.
But the great thing is that for the moment, Hugh can’t see it stopping.
“I would be very surprised if it stopped, certainly the way the Christmas episode gives us opportunity for a lot more to happen!”
It’s certainly one of the highest-profile shows Hugh has ever worked on, but probably the turning point was Madame Bovary on TV in 2000.
“I wouldn’t have been able to get arrested in a period drama before that. After Madame Bovary, I did quite a few, and then of course, Downton has been a big game-changer for everyone.”