Watching Downton Abbey always leaves me feeling conflicted. I have seen every episode since it started. I am gripped by every plotline, and moved by every sudden and tragic death (and there have been many). The sets, the clothes, the jewels are all sumptuous, and some of the acting is outstanding (other performances are as wooden as the house’s ornate staircase).
But I also feel uncomfortable at one of the subtle undercurrents in this period drama: that many of the servants are either evil, ignorant or up to something, while most of the aristocrats are noble, wise or kind. Even the programme’s title sequence ends with the house in split screen, with above-stairs against a white (good) sky, and the below-stairs reflection of the house set against a black (bad) background. This division was strongest in the first two series, although in series 3 Julian Fellowes, the creator, levelled things out somewhat.
Now we are into series four, and there is fresh reason to be troubled: controversy has hit Downton in the form of Anna, a lady’s maid, being raped by a visiting servant. I cannot remember such violence being carried out by one of the gentlemen or ladies, either against one of “their own” or a member of staff, even though this must have happened in reality.
The episode, broadcast last Sunday, has attracted more than 200 complaints – something the producers and ITV expected, presumably, as viewers were warned in advance of upsetting scenes.
And upsetting it certainly was. While the family, their guests and the servants are upstairs listening to Dame Nellie Melba sing Puccini, Mr Green, a valet for a house-guest, Viscount Gillingham, finds Anna alone in the kitchens. He punches her in the face, then drags her off to another room, where he rapes her. We are not shown the rape, only the start of the assault. But it is nevertheless harrowing.
Outrage has followed. Among the press comments were that the scene “shattered Downton’s magic”. One writer condemned Fellowes for leaving the victim “exposed, exploited, fetishised” in scenes that were “beautifully shot, like a horror film set in a Past Times catalogue”. Another said it was an attempt by Fellowes to boost a flagging series, that he had decided to “play the rape card”.
I disagree with all of these conclusions. Sexual assault and rape has happened in all eras, across all social classes. Women in service, in particular, were in a weak position and vulnerable to abuse. Too often Fellowes applies a sugar coating to Downton. I am no expert, but is it really the case that aristocrats like the Crawleys would go out of their way to be so kind and decent to their servants? So it’s necessary for Downton to reflect the reality of life, be it the First World War, Spanish flu or the ravages of the workhouse. Portraying the hardship of those in service is also true to the style that won Fellowes an Oscar for scripting Gosford Park.
In an earlier series, Fellowes had one of the leading female characters, Sybil, die in childbirth. Unlike Anna’s ordeal, viewers watched the moment of Sybil’s death. This was upsetting too, but it tackled the issue of medical ignorance about pre-eclampsia in 1920s England. It is also perverse to say Sunday’s scenes were “beautifully shot”. Harrowing and upsetting, yes, but not beautiful. Apart from it being impossible to show an assault in Downton on anything other than the Downton set, what the viewer saw was brief – enough to convey the horror but restrained from dwelling on the attack. Splicing the scenes of the attack with Dame Nellie singing O mio babbino caro upstairs did not lessen, or beautify, the effect, but brought home the trauma without making it gratuitous.
As Fellowes said, if he had wanted to sensationalise rape, “we could have stayed down in the kitchen with the camera during the whole thing and wrung it out”. He wants to emphasise the aftermath, the mental and emotional damage it caused, the strain on the marriage of Anna and her valet husband.
The actress who plays Anna, Joanne Froggatt, who is the outstanding performance in Downton, says tackling the issue of rape was “brave” and feels the creator hit the right note. Froggatt has always excelled in playing complex, strong characters. Anna is not meek and subversive. This episode did not fulfil a “rape cliché” as has been described.
On his fourth series, Julian Fellowes is bound to want to keep his plotlines interesting – but is this a crime? He is not “playing the rape card”, to repeat that horrible phrase, but maintaining a balance of gritty reality and inconsequential froth that makes for compelling television. It remains one of the most popular programmes on TV, with 9.2m tuning in.
Should dramas like Downton only tick the box of Sunday evening “Horlicks TV”, the comfortable, safe programming that challenges no-one? No. Where better to tackle an issue that today remains one of the biggest injustices in this country – the outrageously low prosecution and conviction rates for rape and sexual assault? Fellowes has always given us TV and film with a social conscience – he now needs to bring some equality between upstairs and downstairs.