Kate Whiting gets down to the bones of it with Hugh Bonneville
Hugh Bonneville carefully cuts off a piece of apple and pops it in his mouth. Between munches, the ‘quintessentially British’ actor explains what appealed about his latest role as an archaeology professor, in new BBC drama Bonekickers.
“My main concern was that it shouldn’t be too CSI-y, too cool and sleek, but as soon as the writers said the university department was ramshackle, full of mice and dusty old books I thought, ‘This is the thing for me. I’m happy with this.’
“Bonekickers doesn’t fit into a genre very easily and I think it’s very hard to pigeon-hole, which is great. It has its own tone and can range in an episode from quite graphic violence at times to quite high comedy, and has a sense of adventure and pace.
“Although they do use cool kit, it’s actually grounded in going to the pub and having teabags and things,” adds Hugh.
“It’s not all leather jackets – the odd leather jacket, but not too many,” he says with a smile.
The 44-year-old actor, perhaps best known for playing Hugh Grant’s bumbling stockbroker friend in Notting Hill, is perfectly cast as Professor Gregory ‘Dolly’ Parton – part of a team of archaeologists including Dr Ben Ergha (Adrian Lester) and intern Viv Davis (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who are led by Gillian Magwilde (Julie Graham).
“Gregory’s quite mischievous really, he likes throwing spanners in the works of social situations to see what the reaction’s going to be,” says Hugh, cutting another slice of apple.
“He’s a friend of the pub and doesn’t really get around to shaving. And he hasn’t got around to buying clothes since about 1984.”
The first episode of Bonekickers, which comes from the brains behind Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes, and looks like a cross between Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code, sees the team on a dig near their university site in Bath.
They uncover a piece of wood which they believe could be part of the True Cross (from the cross on which Christ was crucified) carried back to Britain in the 1300s by the Knights Templar.
In a careful weaving of past and present day, the episode begins with a flashback of a battle, before the team find skeletons in the ground, along with sword heads and other crucial artefacts.
Writers and creators Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah turned to Bristol University’s Head of Archaeology Dr Mark Horton to make sure everything on screen was as accurate as possible.
“Mark is incredibly well-read, but wears his learning very lightly,” says Hugh.
“He’s an enthusiast which is very endearing and he’s the one person I’d want to get stuck in a lift with because you’d never get bored.
“When Matthew was running into a brick wall with one plot, he rang Mark, who dragged him off to Wells Cathedral and literally fed him with ideas.”
When it came to the matter of physically digging for clues, Hugh says he managed to stay well clear of the hard graft.
“Gregory spends a lot of time with his notebook and so you’ll see me hovering on the edge of the trench but never really getting my hands dirty,” he explains.
“Adrian gets down there – he loves diving into things. But I might as well have had a deckchair on set, frankly.”
Neither does he get involved in the action scenes: “I’m getting too old now,” he moans. “I do get to bash someone over the head with a wine bottle, which was great, but I leave the action to the young and fit people. Normally I come up at the end – not exactly on a white charger, more like an old dray horse – and save the day.
“I tended to get all the research vocab, none of which I could remember, but I did have the best line of the entire series which is, ‘Don’t mess with me, I’m an archaeologist’, so I’m very proud to have that,” he adds with a laugh.
On screen the cast have a certain chemistry and Hugh reveals that they have a lot of fun when the cameras stop rolling, particularly one day when they were shooting on mud flats.
“Adrian Lester started it!” protests Hugh, like a cheeky schoolboy. “I had seen the glint in his eyes and started preparing what might be called snowballs in another climate, but were mudballs, before the end of filming.
“As soon as they said ‘Cut!’, all hell broke loose. The costume department hung their heads and cried because we were ruining the continuity. But it had to be done, it was so sludgy, it was great!”
Hugh was born in London and studied theology at Cambridge before training as an actor. He began in theatre, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company before moving into television and films. He married artist Lulu Evans in 1998 and they have one son.
Besides a long-held interest in history, in real life Hugh insists he doesn’t have much in common with his character Gregory, who sports curly hair, glasses and a fedora in a nod to Indiana Jones. But he does admit to doing the odd spot of metal detecting.
“I’m quite sad actually at heart,” he admits. “I’m fascinated by what lies beneath our feet which is what this series is about.
“I grew up in the south of England where there’s been a huge amount of archaeology going on, and I live very near a Roman road. I tragically asked my wife a few years ago for a metal detector which she bought me and I found a 1730-something penny in my dad’s back garden which is worth absolutely nothing.
“But metal detecting is quite entertaining – and it’s very good for finding the car keys when you’ve lost them.”
Hugh will be back on the big screen later this year in Hippie Hippie Shake with Sienna Miller, and also stars in the TV drama Lost In Austen.
But he’s keeping his other projects firmly under wraps: “There are a couple of things coming up, but if I told you, I’d have to kill you!” he jokes.