DOWNTON ABBEY SPECIAL: Brendan Coyle, who plays Mr Bates, tells a nation of swooning women he’s available
By Rebecca Hardy
Last updated at 10:03 PM on 16th September 2011
OK ladies, listen up: Downton Abbey’s unlikely crush object John Bates is not married.
I repeat, not married. Well, actually that isn’t quite true. Without giving away too much of the plot as the drama returns tomorrow night, Mr Bates, the gentleman’s valet who set the girly pulse of a nation racing, is married. But Brendan Coyle, the Bafta-nominated actor who plays him, isn’t.
That’s right, he’s 47 and single which is not, he says in his oh-so-dreamy Irish burr, ‘a status I want to take to my grave’. Crikey, so we can believe in miracles! At least, those of us who spend our Sunday evenings swooning over Julian Fellowes’ brilliantly crafted romantic hero can. And now, here he is, sitting with me having lunch.
‘The right person, time and place just hasn’t happened – yet,’ he says. ‘It’s something I want. Through my 30s into my 40s, I’ve gone from one long-term relationship to another, so I’ve spent the last few years taking stock. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, but only now am I truly ready for a relationship.’
It’s impossible to sit with this man for any length of time and not fall under his spell. The thing is, in the flesh Brendan is, well… he’s Mr Bates – stoical but broodingly passionate and very sexy. Julian Fellowes wrote the character for Brendan after he saw him in the 2004 BBC series North And South because, he has said, he knew ‘he had the capacity to suggest a character’s bitterness and painful past without doing too much to indicate it’.
And, when ITV1’s Downton Abbey returns tomorrow night, we’ll be rooting for Bates. We know he suffered after returning wounded from the Boer War, where he served as batman to the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). We know he had a drink problem, was imprisoned for theft and gave up on love. But we also know him to be a decent man and how our hearts soared when the kindly housemaid Anna Smith fell in love with him. Now, how we yearn for a happy ending.
‘There’s something of the noble savage about Bates,’ says Brendan. ‘He hadn’t thought falling in love and marriage was an option. Watching that possibility flower and grow is very appealing. But if Bates is a sex symbol, it’s because of the romance Julian has written into the script. I don’t know how it happened. Every woman I know finds it hilarious. Anyway, when you see Dan Stevens [as dashing young solicitor Matthew Crawley] in a uniform, it’s all over for me.’
Brendan says his character is a changed man this time around. ‘Bates is the lynchpin of the new series and we get to see his darker side. He emerges as more of a damaged hero.’ Amusingly, he says, the master-servant divide around which the show pivots is preserved in real life. ‘We servants film most of our scenes separately from the actors playing the Crawley family, but there is still a real sense of camaraderie on set.’
But what of Brendan’s story? Like Bates, he has working-class roots. Born in Corby, Northamptonshire, to an Irish father and Scottish mother, he’s the great-nephew of legendary Manchester United football manager Sir Matt Busby and his father was a butcher who died when Brendan was still a lad. He began acting after contacting an aunt in Dublin who ran a theatre. He later won a scholarship to London’s Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts and, in 1999, scooped an Olivier Award for his role in The Weir. And, of course, there’s his Bafta nomination for Downton.
But there’s so much more to tell. This is the first in-depth interview he’s given and when he speaks, it is with deep understanding. For Brendan, like Bates, knows suffering. Brought up in a loving, extended family, with an older brother Shaun, in a town dominated by a steelworks, his childhood was colourful and happy until his father died when he was 17 years old. ‘Maybe I’m being nostalgic about the sense of community and purpose in this working-class town,’ he says. ‘But that’s what it seemed to have. I left school in 1979. The steelworks closed within six months, very suddenly, and there was nothing to replace it. So, in a very short period of time, unemployment was rife and things began to fall apart.
‘My father died around that time. He was 42 and a traditional Ulster man. Very gregarious. Very charismatic. Very driven. He was a meat buyer for Tesco until he invested in his own butchers’ shops. Everything went into his business, but my father went bankrupt around the time of the big financial crisis in the Seventies. He never really recovered from that. His death came as a result of a downward spiral. It was shocking and very tragic.’
Brendan doesn’t want to go into the details. His beloved mother, Delia, is still alive and he knows this difficult time would make for painful reading. It had an enormous impact on him. ‘I had no idea what I wanted to do but I was a dreamer. I just knew I had to get out,’ he says. ‘I had to escape the destruction of my father’s bankruptcy and all that difficulty. I’d seen a play of Richard III in Coventry when I was 15, which sowed the seeds that you could act for a living. I got very excited about being in the theatre and something clicked, but I kept it pretty secret because it was a very strange thing to want to be in that town at that time.’
Brendan only shared his ambition with his mother, a strong, spirited woman who encouraged him, telling him about a relative in Dublin who ran a theatre. ‘About a year after my dad’s death, I got the courage to write to her,’ he says. ‘That was one of the most important calls I’ve ever made in my life. She invited me to come to Dublin to give it a go. So, you see, in a sense, my father’s death was a catalyst.’ And this is the way Brendan is: not embittered, but determined to draw the positive from his experience. Much, in truth, like Bates.
‘It was an age when you weren’t encouraged to discuss your feelings,’ he says. ‘You had to be stoical about these things and crack on. I think I was in shock for a long time, and the way I dealt with it was leaving that environment and carrying out this acting thing. I had this instinct that that’s where I belonged.’
Brendan took to acting like a duck to water. After Dublin, he won a scholarship to London’s Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, given by Dame Judi Dench. He remains eternally grateful. His mother, he recalls, said she was ‘walking on air’ when he told her of his achievement and acting became his ‘driving force’ – ‘a religion of sorts’.
‘There were relationships, but starting a family, getting married, that never happened.
Sometimes I think I missed out on things like travelling. I’d have been terrified of missing an audition. I didn’t start a family because that’s not something I take lightly. Acting meant so much to me. It was a combination of being driven to get the gig, and also to express myself. I didn’t come to terms with what happened to my family, and what all that meant, until my 30s.’
Meanwhile, Brendan progressed steadily through the ranks, from foot soldier in fringe theatre to the West End, then Broadway, and ultimately film and television.
‘I got the Olivier for The Weir and an American Theater World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut [when the play transferred], so there was a little nod and wink along the way,’ he says.
But he never settled. ‘When I was in my 30s, I was at the end of a long-term relationship and going through a very hard time. I’d had about 15 different addresses and a series of relationships. I thought, “It’s time to have a look at yourself.” I don’t know what categorises depression, but if you’re down or blue there are ways of understanding your emotions, and doing what you can to be OK and live a better life. As Plato wrote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” ’
Today, of course, Brendan Coyle is a household name and his mother is not so much walking on air as tap-dancing. He has a home in London and a renovation project in Norfolk. He enjoys music and time spent with a close-knit set of friends. But, mostly, he loves to work and is currently filming the brilliant Sky1 comedy Starlings, written by and co-starring Peep Show’s Matt King and Phoenix Nights’ Steve Edge. His spare time is spent supporting Centrepoint, the charity for young homeless people.
Yes, that’s right ladies. Like Bates, he has a huge heart. He’s currently supporting the charity’s Workwise campaign, spearheaded by Prince William, which aims to get young people into work. ‘Prince William’s a huge Downton Abbey fan and a very hands-on, decent man who’s really into this cause,’ says Brendan. ‘I took a gamble in becoming an actor and my dream job has been realised. For these people, their dream is just to have a job. I was given opportunities and, at times, a helping hand. I don’t know where I would have been without that. So it’s something that’s really dear to my heart.’
What about love? Is it something he, like Bates, would like to see flower and grow?
‘It’s not something that’s at the forefront of my mind, but I think I’d regret it if I didn’t have children,’ he says. ‘So, yes, that’s something I really, really want. It’s a desire.’
And I, for one, truly hope this walking miracle of a man finds his happy ending.
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