Playing Under the Piano – From Downton to Darkest Peru – by Hugh Bonneville – an Actor’s lively autobiography

Playing Under the Piano by Hugh Bonneville

An actor’s biography is often a picture of life in their times, and this funny and honest book by a well-known actor, Hugh Bonneville, from television, stage and film captures something of life since 1985 when his professional career began. Subtitled “From Downton to Darkest Peru” which neatly sums up the two roles he is probably best known for in recent years, this likable and witty account of his life has its very funny moments which can quickly switch to a moving comment on a fellow actor who died too soon (Emma Chambers). While he is internationally recognised as Lord Grantham, Robert Crawley, in the successful Downton Abbey series and films, he is also Mr Brown in both Paddington films. Able to transfer from drama to comedy and seemingly not afraid to attempt some interesting image changes, Bonneville has a strong background of stage work which underpins his frequent television appearances in many series and well loved films. This is not just a book of success, however, as he details his failures to get the part in well known productions, and the ups and downs of life when he has put his hopes and fortunes in the balance. A book which made me chuckle and sympathise with an actor’s life, this book is discursive, engaging and as entertaining as the many sightings of this versatile actor.

This book does not move along in a strictly linear format; rather it follows a topic from a certain point through to its conclusion. Thus members of Hugh’s immediate family are commented on in a concentrated way at some points, and also feature in asides. His mother concealed secrets in an unusual way, as well as evidently listening to Hugh’s demands for attention. His father is also featured as a busy doctor and a vivid character to the end. Hugh’s school life was not a series of acting experiences, but he admits to becoming very pretentious in his pursuit of the theory of acting. His career at Cambridge in the shadow of the Thompson /Fry /Laurie domination of Footlights was familiar to me, but his actual academic achievements took second place to his gaining experience in his chosen field. His attitude to Drama school was very calculated, and he was soon seeking work and an Equity card. He had lucky breaks, not least in finding minor roles in Regent’s Park theatre and later the RSC, but equally there were times when he was not kept on. There are fascinating tales of different directors’ styles, including strange workshops which some objected to in different ways. There are disappointing but time and money consuming auditions, contrasted with successes and celebrity moments. The mechanics of memorable scenes in plays and a certain bloody Downton moment are recalled, alongside the tricky nature of arduous auditions for adverts when he discovered the power of saying no. Certain characters jump off the page; as you would expect there are celebrity encounters and mistakes. A fascinating section deals with a frustrating summons to America for a series which leaves Hugh kicking his heels and ignoring peanuts in strange places. A President is helpful, where a British politician is less so. The photographs included in the hardback edition are very interesting, and the index is helpful.

This is an immensely readable book which gives genuine insights into a British actor’s life since the mid-1980s. Hugh emerges as a likable down to earth person, who has had some enjoyable times and career highs, but also some frustrating and often funny experiences. He mentions those he has worked with often with affection, even wonderment, like Maggie Smith, but never to show off, as he is always quick to admit his blunders. While I have always enjoyed his appearances in diverse programmes such as Twenty Twelve and the film Notting Hill, this is a readable account of the theatre work and the projects that did not go so smoothly. I would recommend this genuinely enjoyable book to anyone interested in an actor’s life, as well as those obsessed with a certain television and now film period drama.


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