Hugh Bonneville: I hope ‘whippersnappers like Benedict’ will help bring a new audience to Shakespeare

TV Times went on the set of The Hollow Crown (premieres Saturday, May 7), BBC2’s epic sequel to the award-winning 2012 series of Shakespeare’s history plays. This time around, the star-studded three-part drama brings to life The Bard’s Wars of the Roses trilogy.

Hugh Bonneville (Duke of Gloucester), Sophie Okonedo (Queen Margaret of Anjou) and Tom Sturridge (King Henry VI) spoke to TV Times about the joy and pain of starring in Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses trilogy…

There’s scheming and bloodshed as the York and Lancaster dynasties battle for the throne in this two-part version of Henry VI (adapted from Henry VI Parts I, II and III) and a production of Richard III. Tell us some more about the undertaking…
Hugh: “It’s a bit like House of Cards, with the political intrigue and everyone stabbing each other in the back and people ‘get deaded’ quite quickly!’

You’re all wearing spectacular outfits…
Hugh: “I’d describe mine as ‘a large, medieval maternity dress, with an unflattering pillbox hat!’ as we head into the castle.”

Tom, talk us through the first instalment, which is centered on your character Henry VI…
“The ineffectual young king is ill-equipped to deal with mounting troubles among his advisors as well as the Hundred Years War in which the French army, helped by Joan of Arc (Laura Frances-Morgan), is trouncing the English forces.

“He became king when he was a baby so he hasn’t had to fight for anything or develop the same muscles that other kings would, but Henry has this beautiful speech about what life would be like if he was just a shepherd and not a king, which shows he is someone whose place in the world wasn’t necessarily meant to be as it is.”

Then comes the War of the Roses…..
Hugh: “The in-fighting within Henry’s court eventually triggers the War of the Roses as the various self-serving lords and dukes vie for influence with him and make their own bids for power.
“Gloucester, who’s a vaguely honourable bloke and quite naive, is Lord Protector, but he’s royally stuffed by all the machinations of the other lords, who are gradually manoeuvring things to bring about his downfall and there are dark forces at work.”

Sophie, you play Margaret of Anjou. How does she fit into the drama?
“She is key to those machinations. She is Henry’s ruthless wife, who is as formidable as her husband is weak, and plots Gloucester’s ruin along with that of anyone who stand in her husband’s path.

“She’s trying to keep power and sees it as an affront to the natural order if he doesn’t stay on the throne, even though he’s not cut out for it.”

Sophie as Queen Margaret (BBC/Carnival Film & Television Ltd/Robert Viglasky)

What’s Margaret like to play?
“It’s an unusual and brilliant part in that it’s such a strong female. In fact, all the female characters in this trilogy don’t take a back seat. She’s very powerful and certainly does as much as the male characters. I’ve had to do everything from fighting to archery and I’ve learned to horse ride very quickly; it’s never boring!’

It must be an honour to be working with co-stars such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Dame Judy Dench?
Tom: “I’d never done Shakespeare before so you feel vulnerable and that everyone else knows what they’re doing, but working with people who are so experienced and exquisite has been extraordinary.

“The read-through was terrifying though! It went on for about nine hours and there must have been 400 people there, it was like a UN conference!”

For you Sophie, The Hollow Crown has helped you fulfil a long-held dream, hasn’t it?
“It certainly has. I didn’t think I’d ever get to do Shakespeare with Judi Dench, it even chokes me up just saying it now. She’s my idol, but she’s so down to earth and quite naughty and fun that you immediately relax.

“But when we did the first rehearsal and she spoke her lines, it was incredible. It was like all the atoms in the walls were listening, everything stopped and that’s a rare quality.”

Hugh, what has been your highlight?
“Simply getting the chance to say the Bard’s magical words once again, after spending several years working with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1990s.

“I haven’t done a Shakespeare for 20 years so it’s wonderful to be dipping my toe in again. The language is unique and accessible, I grew up loving Shakespeare and reading it and seeing it a lot and these are the best stories ever written.

“To see well-known stage actors bring this to the screen is great and with whipper snappers like Benedict on board, I hope we’ll bring a new audience to Shakespeare.”

The Hollow Crown (BBC/Carnival Film & Television Ltd/Robert Viglasky)


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