Hugh Bonneville: ‘I’m raging against the dying of the light by buying a convertible’

The actor, 54, talks about pragmatism, near-death experiences, planting copper beech trees and how his mum was Miss Moneypenny in MI6

I was a solitary child but a happy one. I spent most of my time in the dressing-up box wearing my granny’s old dresses and high heels, and making my family watch my epic productions.

I would have been a terrible barrister. I gave myself three years to make it in acting or else take up law. Thankfully it never came to that, although my father and I once had this ridiculous pipe dream that we would read for the bar together, studying in an attic like a pair of Dickensian codgers. Instead he carried on being a surgeon and I stayed doing this.

You can waste a lot of time looking back over your life and thinking, what if? I loved my time at the Royal Shakespeare Company and when my contract wasn’t renewed I thought it was the end of the world. It wasn’t.

You have to be pragmatic to succeed in this industry. To make it as an actor it’s best to be thick-skinned and accept that not everything will go your way. That said, I used to be really bad at taking criticism.

Paddington appeals to people because we’ve all been that bear. We’ve been to a new school or moved to a new country or been displaced in some way. It offers us the chance to be the best of Britain and to show that we can protect the vulnerable and don’t need to completely destroy each other. His courtesy is also much needed in these times.

I’m raging against the dying of the light in my own way by buying a convertible and planting a copper beech tree. Why the tree? There was one in the garden of the first house I ever lived in and I’ve been thinking about it for years. Then I recently lost two people close to me and realised, what is the point of always thinking about this tree? Plant it now and enjoy it.

W1A is the most difficult show I’ve ever done. It looks loose and laidback but it’s really precise with such fast dialogue. It’s definitely challenging.

My mother never talked about her job. It was only long after she retired that I realised she’d worked in the old MI6 building. She wasn’t a spy, more of a diligent Miss Moneypenny, dutiful and productive.

The closest I’ve ever come to death was on the back of a lorry going from Uganda to South Sudan in 1982. We’d been told that the way to get through the checkpoints was to have trinkets for the guards and also a lad who would entertain them so they’d wave us on. Instead, one of the soldiers jabbed the end of his rifle into this boy, who became ashen and stopped talking. I sat there thinking, “Christ if he’s scared, what the fuck should I do?” Luckily the moment passed and off we went but it was definitely hairy.

Apart from my family I don’t think I’ve achieved anything much. Although I recently completed the 100km South Downs walk, which wasn’t bad for a fat man in his 50s.

People always expect me to have a labrador because of Downton Abbey. They’re often really disappointed that I don’t.

Paddington 2 is released in cinemas nationwide from 10 November


Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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