Brendan Coyle plays the stoic but thoroughly decent Mister Bates in the international phenomenon Downton Abbey. This week he’s in New York to promote Origin Theatre’s annual First Irish theatre festival.
Fans of the hit TV show have been scouring the Internet for months for the first hints about what's to come in season three and now for the first time Coyle’s speaking exclusively to Cahir O’Doherty about the hit show and his beloved character.
Mister Bates. He's the heart and soul of Downton Abbey, the international hit TV show. He's a man who tackles every challenge he meets with his head held high. Sad to say he's exactly the kind of man you don't see much of in this gutless age.
For a new generation of TV viewers in their teens and twenties (who make up a high percentage of Downton Abbey's fans) Mister Bates has been a revelation.
For the generation raised watching that bloodless Colosseum that is American Idol, the idea that some people will put others before themselves, or put their own needs on hold for the greater good, means that Mister Bates is the now most surprising character on television.
What they don't know is that in creating the character, actor Brendan Coyle drew on characteristics of his own grandfather, who hailed from the little town of Ramelton in Co. Donegal.
That means that the man who has become the embodiment of the stiff upper-lipped Englishman has in fact been part been inspired by an Irishman.
In person Coyle, 48, is much more charismatic than the stoic and visibly wounded character he plays on television, but you can sense pretty quickly that he's every bit as passionate and genuine beneath the surface.
He's in town this week at the invitation of George Heslin, the Irish director behind the 1st Irish Theatre Festival (the annual festival of new Irish plays) and Origin Theatre, the group that Heslin co-founded to stage European plays here, usually for the first time.
Coyle trained as an actor in Dublin, setting out on touring shows all over the recession hit country, before he made his fortune. Since this is Coyle's first trip to New York in a number of years he's only beginning to grasp how big Downton Abbey actually is here.
His first clue was when he started to get mobbed last weekend. He's only been in New York for 24 hours when I meet him in the foyer of a hotel in Manhattan, but already complete strangers have stalked him, invited him to join them for dinner or just chased after him when they saw him on the street.
The real life Coyle is a lot more youthful looking than Mister Bates, I discover. He's also a very sharp dresser, so there's daylight between him and his famous role, but New Yorkers intuitively know how to pick celebrities out of the crowd because they live in a city that's lousy with them.
"It's my first time in the states since Downton Abbey has been broadcast here and it's really a bit overwhelming," Coyle tells the Irish Voice. "I've been struck by how many people in their twenties and thirties really love this show and this character.
“I don't know what it is and we don't try to define the success of the show. It's of another time and it's quite extraordinary.
“That's what I love about television. You don't know where the tipping point is where a show goes from being a strong player to a phenomenon."
One of the things that Downton Abbey clearly does, in a way that's unlike any other show currently on television, is that it brings issues of social class right to the forefront. It pointedly follows story lines that demonstrate the huge gulf in life experience between rich and poor.
It's timely viewing and the series makes no apologies for it either. It just lays out the reality of the lives lived during the period and lets the audience decide. That contrast often makes for startling viewing.
"Mister Bates is defined by his class and role in many ways,” says Coyle. “He and Lord Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville) served in the Boer War together, and war is a great leveler that circumvents all the rules of class division.
“But when Bates returns to Britain and to Downton Abbey everything falls back into place, including the class system he grew up with and his role back at the house. He embraces all that completely."
One of the most unsettling things about Mister Bates is his occasionally repeated refrain, which is actually a stern warning, when he tells people "you don't know who I am." That remark suggests there's something not altogether wholesome lurking just behind that impressively impassive face.
Will we find out more about all that in season three?
"I'm under very strict instructions about what I can and can't say. There's no mystery that we start the third season with me in prison,” Coyle says.
“We all know there's a dark side to Bates, and we also know he served in one of the most brutal wars in history. So he's seen terrible acts of violence. His own marriage has failed. There's definitely a darkness there.”
Coyle draws a veil over the major surprises ahead, but he admits there will be plenty of them. Filming the show, he developed a close friendship with Maria Doyle Kennedy, the Irish actress who played his scheming wife Vera in season two.
“I was delighted when Maria (best known as Natalie Murphy in The Commitments or Queen Catherine in The Tudors) was cast in that role. We had played husband and wife in a film called I Could Read The Sky but I didn't know her very well,” Coyle says.
“As Vera she hit the ground running and since then we've become pretty good buddies. A really good friendship has come out of that."
You wouldn't think peace could be possible between them when you see them dueling onscreen. Vera Bates has to be one of the most conniving and heartless viragoes to hit television screens in the last 10 years. But it was also obvious how much fun Doyle Kennedy had playing her bitchy part.
“I have to say in real life she's utterly charming,” Coyle clarifies with a laugh.
Coyle grew up in the immigrant town of Corby, Northhamptonshire, an industrial town made up of workers from Glasgow and Belfast, to an Irish father and a Scottish mother. When he was 28 he left for Dublin to study acting under the guidance of his cousin Mary Elizabeth Burk Kennedy.
As luck would have it Coyle's cousin was doing then in Dublin what the Origin Theatre is doing now in New York. They were bringing new plays to the public that they would otherwise never have seen.
“I was only 18 when I went there and it was a bit of a culture shock but it was a great experience for me,” Coyle recalls.
After Dublin Coyle got a scholarship to study theater in London where he began to get cast as an Irish actor due to his wide experience of Irish roles and theater.
“My career proper started at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and my background is in Brian Friel, Conor McPherson (he won a Laurence Olivier Award for his performance in McPherson's The Weir) and Sean O'Casey,” he explains.
The good news for New York theatergoers is that Coyle meet with the board of Origin Theatre last weekend and was excited by what they're doing to bring new plays to the New York public.
“I would like to do a show here,” he reveals. “When George Heslin asked me if I'd like it to be an Origin production I unhesitatingly said yes. So now I'm an honorary patron of Origin Theatre. I really want to be involved in this.”
Expect Coyle to be back in the city in the autumn, when he'll bring real star power to a new Irish play. It's the kind of development that even Mister Bates could smile at, since clearly both men are full of surprises.
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