Downton Abbey has forced Brendan Coyle into heart-throb status, but he’s a reluctant celebrity

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Since Colin Firth’s wet-shirted romp through the lake in Pride & Prejudice, never has a period drama had so many ladies swooning as Downton Abbey. And the reason?

Brendan Coyle.

As dark, brooding, stoic and chivalrous valet John Bates, Coyle has set legions of hearts aflutter.

But today, the 48-year-old actor, who’s even more attractive in the flesh, modestly brushes aside any reference to his sex symbol status.

“I just don’t engage with that. I think it’s better for everybody that I don’t!” he says, laughing.

“We’re in a hit, it’s not going to last forever, so we’ll just enjoy it and hopefully everyone does well out of that. It’s a great bunch of actors.”

After two series of Julian Fellowes’ cult ITV drama, Coyle is leaving the broody Bates for a while to star in new Sky1 comedy Starlings. While the premise of an oddball extended family rubbing along together in a detached Derbyshire home immediately struck a chord, he decided a change in direction would also stave off being typecast.

“I like to think I didn’t conscientiously go, ‘I’m going to do this simply because it’s very different’, but around about the time this came along I was offered a couple of other ‘moody men’ - moody man in a cloak, moody man with a knife - and I thought, ‘Just be around funny people for a while’.”

It was pretty much love at first sight when he picked up the Starlings script.

“I found it very, very funny. I read episodes one to three and felt an incredible warmth towards these characters. I just had one of those “yes” moments, when you get a script that makes you say “yes!”

“It made me laugh out loud and there was no kind of anxiety or tension or confrontation for a family. So I thought I’ve got to go and meet them for this.”

The Starlings are your average Joe working class brood. Granddad (Alan Williams) has recently moved in after an ‘incident’ in the old folks’ home. Terry (Coyle) and Jan (Lesley Sharp) would hate to see him suffer, so they put him up in their house which is already full to bursting. There’s tomboy teenager Charlie (Finn Atkins), reptile-loving slacker Gravy (John Dagleish), beautiful Bell (Rebecca Night) and her new baby Zac, who arrives for the first episode. Then there’s Bell’s ex Reuben (Ukweli Roach), Granddad’s long-lost son Uncle Loz (Matt King) and Jan’s nephew Fergie (Steve Edge), who offers to camp in the garden.

“Every episode is pretty much self-contained, so there’s a different adventure for each character,” says Coyle. “And it’s not a sitcom, so it’s not about gag, gag, gag.”

The cast spent three months filming on location in Matlock, Derbyshire, picked by the show’s writers (and stars) Matt King and Steve Edge for its rural appeal, which gave them all a chance to bond.

“I think we were lucky,” says Coyle. “I think where a lot of these family things fall down is you have to convey very quickly that you’ve been together all your lives and love each other. The joy of this cast is that there was an ease and a trust and I think we’ve managed to convey a loving family quite well because we all like each other and had a very nice time doing it.”

He’d longed to work with Scott & Bailey’s Lesley Sharp.

“I always believed our paths would cross, but I thought it would be in some sort of Greek drama, a blood and guts thing where we were killing each other. Instead it’s this! She’s a dream to work with.”

And it helped that he’d worked with his on-screen son John Dagleish before on Lark Rise To Candleford.

“He played my sort of surrogate son Alfie and now he plays my beautifully strange son Gravy.” (Complete with reptiles and a real-life tarantula that scared them all on set).

Coyle describes Terry as “big-hearted”, which isn’t a million miles away from Downton’s Mr Bates.

“I think he’s a bit bemused, he sees the world as this gallery of characters, who don’t see the world as he sees it. Myself and Lesley are the heart of the Starling family and they’re both trying to throw their arms around it and the world itself.”

So what is it about family that makes it such fertile ground for TV comedies?

“It’s where we all come from and where we all go back to. It’s the thing we can’t escape, for better or for worse. It’s what defines us,” says Coyle emphatically.

“It’s what we grow up in and from, and what we go back to for comfort. It’s what we need, it gives us our sense of community, it’s how we start to define ourselves, to go out to the world.

“And hopefully we take a little bit of the good things about families into the world to share with the people who aren’t our families. Because we’re all one family - if you quote me on that I’ll kill you! Families are funny, my family’s funny, everyone’s family’s funny.”

Could he relate to the Starlings from his own experience?

“Yeah, every family has some element of chaos doesn’t it? I come from a large, extended, Irish/Scottish family, literally split down the middle, Irish father and Scottish mother, so there’s a lot of noise! It’s not a calm, placid environment.”

Born in Corby, Northamptonshire, Coyle studied drama in Dublin in the early Eighties and began his career on the stage.

He’s “dying” to do another play, having been away from theatre for four years, but first there’s the third series of Downton, on which he’s sworn to secrecy.

“We had read-throughs recently and it’s a big corporate affair now, with three PR people sitting in and we get all these lists, these dos and don’ts before the series starts - it’s such a big thing now.

“I don’t know what tipped it over from being a solid player - I always knew it would get bums on seats - to being a cultural phenomenon. Nobody does really. And it won’t last forever, it’s this thing that’s having a moment in time.”

For the meantime, the ladies of the UK can rest assured, he’s not about to move to LA anytime soon.

“It’s never been this kind of mecca for me, America, the way it is for some actors, I don’t really get that. I’ve done plays on Broadway a couple of times and loved being in New York and working there but I’ve never filmed anything in the States so I’d be curious as to that, but again it’s all about the writing and all about the parts, it’s not about Hollywood,” he says.

“It doesn’t mean anything to me.”