Book review: Playing the Piano, by Hugh Bonneville


“Learn to work and wait,” Longfellow advised, perhaps talking to another longtime colleague, Hugh Bonneville. The 6-foot-2 actor was in his forties when, by a great deal of fate, Lord Robert Grantham became the center of a fictional Tory ship called “Downton Abbey” that sailed across the Atlantic and around the world, claiming in the name of entertainment whatever It was the lands ceded to the British Empire.

What a beautiful home, we colonists thought. What a beautiful master, with his complicated English daughters and his uncomplicated American wife. The kind of tough guy in a dinner jacket who, instead of firing his cook for going blind, supports eye surgery and who only upsets the dining room table settings when he’s got a stomach ulcer to get rid of. Don’t we want him to be the head of our family? Wouldn’t things go a little better?

A novel dealing with your withdrawal from “Downton Abbey”

With that, Hugh Bonneville came out of the shadows and became the man we needed without knowing we needed him. One could forgive him a victory or three, but the bulk of his memoir Winning and Being Humble, “Playing Under the Piano” (the title refers to his favorite childhood hideout) is about the struggle that got him there.

Bonneville, now 58, certainly grew up in comfort. Born Hugh Williams, he was a “fancy little boy” from London who, without much fanfare, attended Cambridge University and then the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. But from an early age he was also a big hollow boy who wore “stiff shorts” whose weight rose “up and down like a pair of bellows, usually resting on the bloated side of things.” And he was entering a world where the first response was usually “No”.

During his first summer as a professional actor, Bonneville played bass in “Romeo and Juliet”, cymbals in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and an officer in Shaw’s “Arms and the Man.” “The grand total of the lines spoken: five,” he recalls. More streaks followed, but at times they left him on stage. He writes that the first time this happened, “time slowed down, the universe shifted and the space-time continuum took on an entirely new form; embryos were formed, born, raised, aged, and died; empires rose and fell, entire civilizations emerged and disintegrated, and dinosaurs took over the world again before to make her guilty.” Finally the assistant theater director came in, speaking “in a painfully loud voice from the fast corner.”

Kathryn Steadman is best known for her role in “Downton Abbey” as an author

Bonneville first appeared in Kenneth Branagh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (1994), in which his character’s leg was posthumously severed from cholera and sewn onto Robert De Niro’s creature. But the actor persevered, “learning by osmosis”, winning bigger roles on the London stage, supporting another Hugh in “Notting Hill” (1999) and gaining real interest as the star of Kate Winslet in “Iris” (2001). Even here, his name was without the title, and awards fell to Jim Broadbent, who played the old version of the Bonneville character.

He did, however, work on it, stabbing an American fan base with the wrong sitcom for Gina Elfman but keeping his heart for independent films, “meticulously assembled by the Alliance of the Willing”. And if true stardom eluded him, he could take pride in being the dependable guy who stood by Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Ralph Fiennes, and even for a brief moment there in Notting Hill, Julia Roberts.

He writes, “Most actors are wise enough to know that you are often the second, third, or even eighty choice for this role.” However, when “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes sets out to find the perfect earl, Bonneville appears to be the first choice. No one expected much from another period drama, and the show’s creators struggled to gain advanced press. But in the second week, ratings really went up – and kept going up.

Bonneville wrote, “By the time it came to filming season two, security had become an issue, and strong men in high-quality jackets had to drag photographers from trees when we were filming on private property, or perform strong interpretive dances to block their lenses when on public lands.”

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For Bonneville, the show’s success was an airlift to the Zeitgeist – at one point he passed a note from his 10-year-old son directly to President Barack Obama – but so far he seems reluctant to crawl out from under that piano. Downton may have won three Screen Actors Guild Awards for its teamwork, but, as Bonneville insists, “We all knew Highclere Castle was really the main character. And we all knew Maggie Smith came in second.” (His cautious verdict on this particular star: “There were good Maggie days and not good ones.”)

It seems fitting then, in his poignant final pages of his book, that the monastery’s patriarch would turn away from his imaginary home and take care of his father (who was, interestingly, a pianist and urologist; his mother, posthumously learned, was working at MI6). From his bedside seat in a dementia nursing home, Bonneville finds, against odds, a parallel metaphor for the old man’s last moments: “It is as if he were in a glider, high there, silently, elegantly, effortlessly, peering out of the cotton clouds for a moment before to disappear out of sight.”

Louis Bayard is the author of “Jackie & Me” and “The Pale Blue Eye.”

From Downton to the darkest Peru

other press. 384 pages $27.99

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