Keeping mum: Hugh Bonneville reveals his mother worked at MI6

Downton Abbey actor tells Desert Island Discs his mother never discussed her work and he only made the connection years later

A child’s view of their parents’ job can often be somewhat vague at the best of times. But the actor Hugh Bonneville has revealed that it was only decades later that he found out where his mother was going to work: MI6 .

Bonneville, best known for his long stint playing the Earl of Grantham in ITV’s Downton Abbey, told BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs that even long into her retirement his mother refused to say what her work had involved.

“When I was about 10 she said: ‘I’m going to go and take a job for three days a week,’ and I burst into tears and said: ‘You’re leaving me, you hate me. I’m going to pack my bags and leave now. You’re an awful mother,’” the actor recalled, in quotes released to newspapers before the Sunday broadcast.

He continued: “Spin forward 30 more years and she’d retired. And we used to drop her off at her office sometimes at Lambeth North and I opened the newspaper one day and it said: ‘Century House, MI6 building, to be sold.’

“I looked at the photograph and I said: ‘Mum, that’s your office,’ and she said: ‘Hmmm, yes, dear,’ and I said: ‘You’re a spy!’ And she said: ‘No, I’m not a spy, dear.’”

If his mother – known as “the Colonel” to some friends – was indeed not a spy, then both Bonneville and his father never discovered what she did.

After her death aged 85, the actor said, he asked his father whether she had discussed the work. “He said: ‘Never – she just went to the office.’”

Bonneville nonetheless said he thought the work was more likely to have been administrative rather than frontline. “So all I know is she didn’t have special umbrellas or knives coming out of her toecaps or anything like that.

“She did just work in the office but I’m extremely proud, not only that she found fulfilment in that work, as well as bringing up us kids, but that she never spoke about it.”

In other quotes released in advance by the BBC, Bonneville recounted the pressure of filming his Downton Abbey scenes with Dame Maggie Smith, who played his formidable mother.

“I can remember the very first scene I did with her and I was absolutely terrified, and I think I can remember the last scene with her and I was absolutely terrified,” he said.

“She is the most astonishing actress. Her wit is legendary, as you say, and she doesn’t suffer fools. And you raise your game, you have to.”


Peter Walker

The GuardianTramp

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