Downton Abbey: Nothing gratuitous about this harrowingly accurate rape scene

On his fourth series,  Julian Fellowes is bound to want to keep his plotlines interesting

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Isis in Iraq: Even if Iraqi troops take back Saddam’s city of Tikrit they will face bombs and booby traps

Patrick Cockburn
The Royal Mint Engraver Jody Clark with his new coinage portrait, alongside the four previous incarnations  

Queen's new coin portrait: Second-rate sculpture makes her look characterless

Michael Glover
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003