Christmas Day isn’t complete these days without Downton Abbey on the box, and viewers will no doubt be warmed to hear that, unlike last year, the upcoming special will be set during the Christmas period.
“I think audiences will really enjoy this one. It has a lovely festive element to it,” says Hugh Bonneville, who plays the show’s patriarch Lord Grantham. He’s keen not to divulge too much, but will reveal that “a chunk of” scenes have been shot at Alnwick Castle.
“Highclere [Castle, where Downton is usually shot] is stunning to film in but frankly, Alnwick Castle is huge. That was the highlight of the year,” says the London-born 51-year-old. “Harry Potter filmed exteriors there, but I believe it’s the first time cameras have been allowed inside. The Duke and Duchess of Northumberland are huge fans, which is why they let us in.”
And they’re not the only ones. Downton’s become something of a phenomenon since it first aired in 2010. “We knew something odd was going on when, after the launch of the show, when there’s usually a bit of a dip, the viewing figures went up.”
But it was a playground encounter that really brought the breadth of its popularity home to Bonneville.
“A kid in my son’s school came up to me,” he recalls. “He was about nine and said: ‘I don’t like what that Thomas [Downton’s conniving footman] is doing’. I’d never, in a million years, thought it would appeal to those that young, but kids and grandparents are watching it together.”
The actor has been working for more than 20 years now, popping up as lovable buffoons in Notting Hill and Mansfield Park, but it’s Downton that’s really made him a household name.
“I feel like a very lucky actor to be in a show that people love and continues to grow around the world,” he says. “It’s something I love doing, and the people involved are a fantastic team. I said to our producer not so long ago, that it’s extraordinary to think that five years on, we’re not punching each other!”
Series six has already been commissioned, but Bonneville is aware that it can’t run indefinitely. “It’s a unique show, in that it feels so big in scale, but it comes down to one person’s imagination; [writer and producer] Julian Fellowes.
“It’s really him, and he’ll know when it’s time to tie up all the loose ends and put it to bed,” adds Bonneville, who says he will be sunning himself “on a beach a long way away” at Christmas.
One person who isn’t so fussed about the series, however, is Bonneville’s 12-year-old son, Felix. ““He comes to set and we stay over in a pub down the road and have a boys’ night out. But I have to say, he’s pretty bored of it now. But anything I do is the annoying thing that takes dad away from playing football.”
Downton Abbey, December 25, ITV, 9pm