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4 September 2012

Downton Abbey: An interview with Brendan Coyle (John Bates)

John Bates
(Brendan Coyle)
© ITV
You know your character has made an impact when you start seeing your face on T-shirts.

“A friend in LA was working on a film recently and he sent me a photograph of one of the crew wearing a Free Bates T-shirt. I don’t have one but maybe that’s my Christmas presents sorted out...”

According to Coyle an entire Free Bates campaign is being waged round the world, after the stoic valet was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife.

“On Twitter there’s a Legal Bates team and there was a Free Bates rally in San Francisco recently. Free Bates car stickers are quite a thing over there. In fact fans have started making a whole load of Free Bates merchandise. Licensing? Now you’re talking...”

Despite the public clamour (and the T-shirts) series three begins with Bates no closer to freedom than when we left him.

“He’s in prison,” says Coyle. “And he’s finding it a bit tedious to be honest - he’s very much in isolation from everyone else. And he’s getting bullied a bit. He’s pushed and provoked by people in prison who have taken against him.”

There is always a sense with Bates that beneath a calm veneer there is anger just waiting to be vented. How far can a man be taunted before he snaps?

“When anyone’s provoked you might see a response that you don’t expect. We know that he’s had a bit of a dark past. He’s a fighting man, he’s probably killed in his past so that sort of temper, that dark side comes to the fore in extreme circumstances.”

While Anna tries to find proof of Bates’ innocence, the valet himself has to contemplate a life behind bars.

“He’s profoundly depressed most of the time. He does find some hope when he realises that Anna has not given up on him. But his mental state is one of extreme depression – as you’d expect from someone who’s been in a Victorian prison.”

Coyle knows of what he speaks – some of Bates’ prison scenes were filmed at Lincoln Castle, in a three-tiered preserved Victorian prison set within the castle walls.

“It’s a museum really and they allowed us to go and activate that,” says Coyle. “That gives it a sense of scale and scope and textual feel, a grandness. You really got the sense of somewhere very imposing as opposed to just being in a dark cell.”

His conclusions? “Victorian prisons were really grim. There are no windows, no heating, it’s just stone walls. It would have been really cold, a harsh climate, poor diet and a punishing regime as well. I read up about stuff like that – it was a very, very miserable existence. There was a high suicide rate too, unsurprisingly. A lot of hanging.”

These, then are not happy times for Bates. His legions of fans will be asking if he will ever find contentment. Brendan Coyle says he asked himself the same question, while stuck out filming away from the rest of the cast.

“I can’t possibly tell you if domestic bliss will ever come. What I do know is that the house and Anna never lose faith. My own guess? Who knows – I like to play with options. If the so-called ‘Cult of Bates’ has done little to help the valet himself, the popularity of the character has had some happier outcomes for Brendan Coyle.

“There was a flurry of activity last year, lots of scripts and I settled on Starlings.”

The comedy, in which Coyle stars as a down to earth electrician, has been picked up for a second series already. He says doing comedy as a counterpoint to filming Downton Abbey gives him an opportunity to flex a different muscle.

“You’re always looking to change gear quite drastically once you’ve done something quite intense and that’s what Starlings offered. It was a really happy thing to do and I’m looking forward to doing that again. But it’s an extraordinary cast on Downton and everyone’s done a great job so I think people deserve to do well out of it.”

He cites the attention to detail he’s seen in the gaol sets and some of the city scenes.

“What our art department have done recreating some of the workhouse scenes is extraordinary. There’s no cutting corners – I mean you can’t really on Downton Abbey. People have high expectations and you have to try and meet them at every single point.”

One notable omission at the beginning of this series however, will be Mr Bates’ trusty stick.

“It would have been taken off him in prison so I had to recalibrate: over time the limp’s become a reflex, something I can dip in and out of, but the stick was like a prompt to get me in to it. Without it we had to decide again what this injury was.”

And it is...

“We decided it is the kind of thing that flares up every now and again, like a war wound, something like arthritis. It comes and goes. That may sound convenient for me to play in case I forget the limp, but I also think that’s the way it would have been.”

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