The man in the straw hat and the crisp lawn shirt bore a striking resemblance to Downton Abbey’s Earl of Grantham, but actor Hugh Bonneville, who plays the kindly aristocrat in the wildly popular British drama series, insisted he had not brought the character with him to Jerusalem.
“Luckily, I haven’t got a Labrador by my side, so I’ve escaped unnoticed,” joked Bonneville, who made it clear that he preferred not to speak about his role in that show, but rather about what he was doing in Israel, during a press conference held Thursday afternoon in one of the ancient gardens at the Tower of David Museum.
Bonneville is in Jerusalem for two weeks, filming an hour-long documentary, “Countdown to Calvary,” about the week that changed the world — the days leading up to the execution of Jesus. It’s a production he’s working on with British producer Ray Bruce.
The documentary is a political thriller, said Bruce, about that short, but wildly eventful period of time between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
“Jesus arrived on Sunday and was dead by Friday,” said Bruce. “We’re looking at the time in between, with a spotlight on the political machinations and intrigue that goes on between the Roman occupation, Jewish collaboration and the mobs and crowds of that particular Passover, how these characters and what they said and did created the connection by which the Galilean rabbi was crucified.”
The Old City of Jerusalem, said Bruce, is the star of this particular show, with its mysterious alleyways, the grandeur of the Temple and the palatial homes of the upper city.
“It’s amazing how small the Old City is, and how big the Temple was,” said Bonneville. “The scale and then the implication of destruction and how cataclysmic that was to Judaism and its beating heart, and how that affected Christianity. It’s been really interesting to see the skullduggery of it, the spies, people being shuttled, to get a real sense of drama and of course as an actor, I’m a real sucker for that.”
Bruce’s feature has Bonneville walking to the sites and locations of that historic week in the Old City, while talking to a strong international cast of experts across a wide range of disciplines — archaeological, textual, theological, historical, sociological, even legal, to help him make sense of what went on.
The experts include novelist Amos Oz, archaeologists Ronny Reich and Amit Re’em, historian Paula Fredriksen, New Testament professors Gregory Tatum and Helen Bond and Jewish studies professor Zuleika Rodgers.
Speaking to the academics has “been like having an intense semester at university because we’ve had the pick of the crop, the best in their fields,” said Bonneville. “It’s revealed to me how fantastically poor a student I was, just talking to these experts.”
There’s a good amount of the Earl of Grantham in Bonneville’s manner, which is smart, charming and just deprecating enough when discussing all matters of history and archaeology. Then again, Bonneville does have a degree in theology from Cambridge, which is where he first studied the New Testament.
“I always found it a really fascinating jigsaw puzzle that I could never fully resolve and I was a really lazy student, too busy doing plays,” he said.
This trip, however, has helped fill out his understanding of what was happening at that time.
“Ultimately, it’s all speculation,” he said. “There’s been a fantastic industry around these speculations for 2,000 years, and probably will be for the next 2,000 years, but I don’t think we’re in any danger of turning the clock back in terms of current attitudes to culpability.”
Jesus, said Bonneville, is “very hard to pin down in all of this. The gospels have clear positions in society, but Jesus is more elusive.”
This trip to Israel is Bonneville’s second; he was here in 1983 on a backpacking trip.
He and Bruce met several years ago, and when Bruce found out that “someone with a familiar face on the telly” also had an interest in theology, he thought Bonneville would be the perfect fit for his show.
“He came across as still interested in that stuff,” said Bruce. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if he came on a really big journey in an area where I love working.”
Besides spending much of the two weeks in Jerusalem, getting a sense of Jesus’s journey by visiting the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Tower of David Museum and other sites crucial to that final week of Jesus’s life, and speaking to experts, the two also went to Wadi Qelt, the Judean Desert riverbed that formed part of Jesus’s walk to Jerusalem, to trace the pilgrimage route, said Bruce.
“There are these phrases about going up to Jerusalem,” said Bonneville. “You realize it really is what you do, and obvious to those who live here. It brings it to life.”
While the pair wasn’t in Israel during Easter, they wanted to film during the spring season, as the show will be sold during the fall trade shows for screening next March 2018.
The show is a co-production between the Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ, the French-German channel ARTE and American Public Television channel PBS, and will first screen on Irish television during the 2018 Easter Week.