Getting Downton and dirty

More of this
More of this

And lo it came to pass that (not for the first time), I indirectly made the dizzy heights of the Daily Mail, having tweeted in typically less than eloquent fashion about the distressing scenes of sexual violence present in the plot of last night’s Downton Abbey. At this point I should probably insert a spoiler alert, particularly as I am aware that I have a regular American readership who have not had the current series screened over there yet, but it seems unnecessary because Downton Abbey has already been spoiled, by the addition of a sensationalist and unwholesome plot line involving a brutal rape.

Admittedly since the last series, Downton Abbey has been in serious danger of becoming a pastiche of itself, which is half of the pleasure of watching. We know that it’s hopelessly unrealistic, the plot is hackneyed, the script is riotously dire, redeemed only by the Dowager Countess’s screamingly acerbic one-liners and yet despite the achingly self-conscious critique from certain quarters of the self-appointed cognoscenti, the British and American public are lapping it up, precisely because of its over-the-top self-indulgence. Sunday night TV has not been so much fun, nor so eagerly anticipated since the the heyday of the sadly demised Spitting Image.

The problem for the scriptwriters is that four series into the show, with almost ten years having elapsed in the lives of the Crawley family, the plot has reset back to zero and there are only so many dramas one particular character can endure without the whole thing becoming ridiculously far-fetched, which is why Downton Abbey has now moved beyond its original description of serious period drama, to 1920s soap-opera. By last week it was clear that Downtown was the equivalent of Neighbours only with finer sets and a more imaginative and opulent wardrobe, the narrative was light-hearted, predictable and yet still wholly engaging.

The appeal is obvious, Downton is the Upstairs Downstairs of our era, a vehicle of pure escapism, depicting a whole other world, where people still bothered to get dressed for dinner, where manners, respect and social etiquette still existed and the class system was not brushed under the carpet, nor was being working class deemed anything to be ashamed of. Whether or not it bore a strict resemblance to the era was irrelevant to most of us. We enjoyed it for what it was. A soap opera mainly revolving around posh people and their wholesome domestic staff. That was the entire point.

Until last night. Perhaps what was so shocking was not the sexual violence itself, which was not graphically shown, demonstrating once again that the portrayal of sex on TV does not need to be explicit, the imagination is always far more powerful than the reality, but the physical and emotional darkness. In a disturbing and clever piece of cinematography, the rape scenes consisting of a savage punch to the face, Anna being dragged down a dark silent corridor and her screams going unheard, were juxtaposed with those of Nellie Melba played by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa singing exquisitely to a rapt audience, the brutality of the sexual assault thrown into sharp relief by the refinery of the drawing room.

We didn’t need to see precisely what had taken place, we knew and how many of us were sat white-knuckled literally gripping the arms of our sofas, willing or (and in the case of my husband) physically shouting at Bates, or just anyone to get up, go to the kitchen and disturb the assault taking place before it could get any worse. It was reminiscent of the terrible scene in Schindler’s list where the Nazi commander Amon Goeth, played so chillingly by Ralph Fiennes, begins to sexually force himself upon his Jewish housemaid and on that occasion drew back. If only the same thing could have happened, if only Anna and we the audience, could have been spared.

The devil was in the detail, the bruised face, the dishevelled hair, ripped uniform, tears, snot and convincing performance by Joanne Frogatt were incredibly disturbing and there’s no doubt that the scene will have proved traumatic to victims of rape. This was more akin to the gritty and iconic rape of Kathy Beale by the equally dastardly and charming Rupert Wilmott-Brown in Eastenders, than a fluffy Sunday night period drama.

Less of this
Less of this

Sadly we missed the generic warning of violence which apparently came before the show, tuning in time for the credits, but after a gruelling week, both physically and emotionally, I was looking forward to my Sunday night visual equivalent of a comfort blanket, not a show that would depict rape violence. Maybe the uncharacteristic warning at the beginning of the show could have alerted us that something was up, after all Downton’s normal fisticuffs doesn’t usuallymerit such treatment, perhaps with hindsight it was obvious where the story was leading and perhaps that serves as a useful device to help us identify with Anna, a usual reaction by victims of rape is to think “how could I not see that coming” but the fault always lies with the rapist.

But one has to ask, what was the entire point of the plot? To get viewers to realise how awful rape is? It’s difficult to see where the storyline can go from here, there are hints that Anna is pregnant, she was seen taking a headache remedy prior to the attack, is she going to attempt to procure a backstreet abortion, will there be rows about paternity, or will Bates and the rest of the staff find out and the inevitable victim-blaming occur? In a situation such as this in 1920, victim-blaming would certainly have been the norm and more likely than not her attacker wouldn’t have been a visiting valet but a member of the aristocracy who would have felt that a quick grope or more was well within his rights.

I just can’t see it ending well at all, what resolution can there be, particularly as we know that Lord Gillingham is going to make subsequent appearances presumably with his valet in the series due to his burgeoning affair with Lady Mary. The rape did nothing more than to further the plot, to sour one of the most heart lifting and genuinely loving relationships in the show. One wonders whether Fellowes has a particular dislike of young married couples, no sooner do we have a young stable pair, then something comes along to chuck a spanner in the works.

Rape is a subject which requires delicate and sensitive handling and should not be used as a plot device in order to cynically maintain ratings. There is very little that we have to learn from Anna’s response to her attack and subsequent decision not to report the crime, aside from despondently noting that perhaps attitudes have not changed much, or on the other hand, noting how much they have – would work colleagues in 2013 really be complicit in the cover-up of a seriously violent assault and rape of a female? I guess one could argue it either way, depending on one’s view of today’s supposed underlying patriarchy, but whatever the answer, grappling with the dynamics of violent sexual assault is not everyone’s idea of entertainment, and not I suspect, what given the demographic of the average viewer of Downton Abbey, would wish to see.

Molesley may have protested that wearing the pristine mandatory white starched gloves of a footman was beneath his dignity, but they provided a welcome contrast from the bare and grubby hands of the rapist.

Downton just turned dirty, dank, dismal and depressing and disloyal to its core audience. Series 4 is a little late to go all Forsyte Saga on us. I do hope it gets better, trouble is rape is not the kind of storyline one can just brush-off or ignore. The sepia tones are beginning to look just that little bit sickly.

11 thoughts on “Getting Downton and dirty

  1. I am a rape survivor and while I didn’t see this, I don’t object to rape scenes unless it is portrayed as something a character can do and still be a hero, or as something women secretly want. Rape is nasty and horrific so I think it should be shown in that light on film. Who knows it might even help men understand how monstrous it is to hurt people sexually in that way and bring home to young men that women are not sexual objects.

      1. That’s fair comment.

        I suspect it boils down to audience expectation.

        I watch very little TV and regarded Downton Abbey as escapism. I would not have watched were I to be aware of scenes depicting any sort of severe violence.

        Admittedly I may have been over-sensitive following what was a very physically and emotionally demanding week and was already wrung-out when we finally sat down for a bit of what we thought would be comfortable and undemanding entertainment.

  2. I didn’t see this, either. I have seen the 1967 B/W production of the Forsyte Saga, in which Soames rapes Irene – well, it was an essential part of the novels, rather than what seems more like a gratuitous ratings-booster in this case. That was shocking, but, being made in another era, was very understated on screen. Goodness only knows what the people who read Galsworthy in the 1920s made of it.

    The impression I’ve been given is that Downton Abbey is a sort of Eastenders in fancy dress with clunky period references. What you’re saying doesn’t really dispel that feeling; but how surprising (well, perhaps not) that the author is a Catholic.

  3. So sorry to have to do this, Caroline, but for the first time I feel compelled to disagree with you. Just for once, let’s use our imagination and dispense with the make-believe; let’s allow ourselves to admit that the depiction of this horrible act is overdue. I found it disturbing, yes, but I also allowed myself to admit that the incident of rape was probably far more common during the heyday of the Upstairs & Downstairs era, so in its inclusion in the story line I see at last just a hint of reality. It might not be the sort of reality we want to witness every day, but reality is what it is. I hope, as must everyone who lives by God’s laws, that the perpetrator of this awful assault will in the fullness of time be required to answer for his actions. Only then, perhaps, will nastiness of rape be put into context.

  4. Well, it’s not as if Downton hasn’t had shocking plot devices before. Actually, I found the whole attempt to get Barrow sent to prison over what was simply a misunderstanding a whole lot more unpleasant – a kiss on the lips hardly counts as sexual assault. There was also the very sudden death in child-birth scene (another we-should-have-seen-it-coming-but-we-didn’t moment). Also the maid chucked out of her job and forced to turn to prostitution to feed her baby storyline wasn’t exactly cheerful.

    Unfortunately, Jeemberson, I’m not sure what you’re saying is accurate. I believe the incidents of rape are on the rise. Although how these things are measured I’m not sure. The difference in the past was that class made a huge difference to how at risk a woman was and raping your wife wasn’t regarded as rape at all. However, although the law has changed, it’s actually very difficult to enforce, so I don’t think we should be complacent about the present.

    1. I understand where you’re coming from on this, Corin, but sincerely hope your suggestion (that rape is now more common) is not correct. Do you think it might be because women (and men) are now being encouraged to come forward and report rape rather than live with the shame? Or, and I did hesitate a little before writing this, has the prospect of making a bit of cash been sufficient to bring some of the victims out in the open and report the crime to the police? The Jimmy Saville business worried me a lot because everyone seemed so very ready to proclaim his guilt (once he was dead), which was something they’d never have been allowed to get away with whilst he lived. Further, as a consequence of that, we now see anyone with the least celebrity appearing to be a ready source for accusation.

  5. I watched this last night on iTunes. I know my 2 nieces (12 and 16) watched it at the weekend. I thought the fact that the rapist had been flirting with Anna and came across as charming not some monster was a good warning to young girls. That said, l watch enough gritty dramas without seeing that sort of storyline on Downton.

  6. I appreciated the author of this article’s perspective. From my perspective, that of a survivor of the real life ugly unimaginable thing, what Julien Fellowes committed was a nothing more than an insidious form of rape in and of itself. It is an actual phenomenon that has a name now and has it’s roots in Gestalt “therapy”, as I’ve recently learned. It’s called (exposure to) Psycho-Drama, and is very dangerous to subject those of us with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to it, a condition that isn’t only a result of the Viet Nam War for popular example, not that these people, mostly men, don’t deserve support and to be recognized, but one of which ALL of us who have been brutally raped have no other choice but to live with for the rest of our lives. It’s in fact the reason why so many victim survivors attempt or succeed at committing suicide. Julien Fellows, his experts, his followers have ABSOLUTELY no defence or defense whatsoever at all and never will have, whether you are British or a US viewer or from anywhere else in the world. We were tricked into watching this sh**. Nobody in this universe has the right to tell me and those who are struggling to heal that this filth as a “plot twist” is something that needs to be brought out into the open and in this unforgivable way. At least with the play Extremities, one knew what the plot was going to be about before one entered the theater to be subjected to the horror. Kalifornia with David Duchovney and Brad ArmPitt never made any pretense about being anything other than what it really was, again, a Psycho Drama. Fassbinder’s Satan’s Brew, less known, drove some people I’ve known closely to the brink of insanity, even if only temporarily, the damage was done.The aforementioned rape scene from Forsythe Saga was woven into the plot within the context of the story. Julian Fellowes merely saw fit to gratuitously, out of the blue, throw this hideous plot twist (more like sudden plot wrench) into the story because it was obviously in his best interest to do so. It’s all about prestige, the desperation to hold on to that dying prestige at any cost, and the glory and money that ephemerally accompanies it, and to hell with who it damages or hurts or TRIGGERS or compromises health to in the process or how many of us. No one of course knows everything but I KNOW I’m spot on about / with this one. For example, I just discovered today that all of my comments of outrage and my online protests have mysteriously disappeared. Just. Like. That. INTERESTING! As if they are trying to Shut little old me and those like me who are really speaking up and speaking out to simply shut me UP! AGAIN!! As IF “they” know I’m on to them. Wouldn’t. that. just. be. so. like. them. But wait a minute. Not all of them come to think of it. One online quilter’s fabric shop immediately and openly pulled The Downton Abbey Collection and put all those very expensive fabrics on an aggressive close out sale to “get rid of it (the collection,and it’s a big one) as fast as possible” right after hearing from me, and she hadn’t even seen the nasty thing on PBS, that same PBS, by the way, that is still wholeheartedly endorsing “Masterpiece of Sh**” once known as Masterpiece Theater until PBS sold out entirely by this one horrific blunder. One other major online shop that I’ve contacted at least knows how I feel even if they really don’t have any power over the fabric ordering, which I wholeheartedly suspect may not be the least bit true. The others I never heard back from at all, so they lose my business until I do, if I ever do hear back from them. My local quilt supply store has been alerted and they love and respect me as a quilter, fiber artist and human being and of course are absolutely refusing to buy the Downton Abbey Collection line in the first place. And the quilting family tends to be more cohesive with fewer backstabbers than say, the musical family or theater community, at least in my experience. We might just prove to be a more powerful lobby than we know! Wouldn’t THAT be great fun!!!
    Hey, c’mon now, maybe I’m not union leader material but it’s something, isn’t it? Hit Julien Fellowes and his Philistine following the only place it obviously hurts and that’s in the pocketbook. Even if it’s only a fraction of his Downton Abbey Empire. But who knows? Miracles can happen! Rome was also not built in a day, but look how fast she crumbled into dust. Folklore has it that David killed Goliath with a very carefully aimed at the third eye, teeny tiny eensy-weensie pebble from his slingshot. It can happen. It’s a metaphor! It’s been known to actually happen this way, you know, good triumphs over evil and all that silly stuff. So why not? It’s a start anyway. Like, what would happen if EVERYBODY who is taxable refused to pay their income tax? They couldn’t build jails fast enough. I would love to see a play starring Julien Fellowes as the Emperor Who Had No Clothes. But then I might just laugh myself to death and that would only play right into their hands. Oh well. This whole mess is just too bizarre for mere words anyways. If there really is anybody out there reading this who isn’t getting what I’m saying, I guess I’m just talking to a brick wall. Honestly, I swear. Some of my defectors are just amazing-if not appalling. You wouldn’t believe some of the verbal attacks of my person I’ve received in response.! As if I were the crazy one!!! Oh Well, back to my quilting. Thanks for taking the time out to read this, if you’ve gotten this far. Hope you gotten a good laugh if nothing else. As for me, I’m all cried out.

  7. oops, just reread what I wrote. several typos, but the only one that I feel is important enough to correct is that I meant to write
    “detractors” and not “defectors”. oh well. but on second thought, that could be interpreted as a rather interesting and peculiar “freudian” slip. Anyone want to defect to Bora Bora with me or some imaginary utopia where the reality of rape is only a sickening characteristic of an extinct, doomed, ultimately self destructive species that walked on two legs but were decidedly NOT penguins and didn’t even swim half as naturally and beautifully as penguins even with Olympic Training? In my next life I want to be a penguin (that is, if there are any ice caps left, we are after all just penguins, don’t reproduce in the water and haven’t evolved overnight to adapt to the Sea exclusively), experiencing NATURAL hardships that the species has adapted to on Mother Nature’s terms and not all these perverse unnatural ones. Like, for us anyway, the rape and murder of being able to trust and enjoy public television after 30 odd years or so, for example. Like the real night of rape I endured and survived all those years ago and it’s unspeakable and nightmarish aftermath. The only ones who should have been consulted should have been us. The only ones who should be consulted now are us. We are the ones that have survived the real blood curdling trauma. Unlike the fictional Anna Bates, we were ordered not to scream or we would be killed. Our screams have been suppressed ever since. We are the ONLY ones-THE ONLY ONES- whose voices should really count, should really matter, we should be the ones who are taken seriously and be heard and listened to. We are the ones who are simply sick and tired of having our voices be essentially repressed and suppressed by what feels like an entire society including the so called justice system, the majority of law enforcement that are no different than the criminals they are supposed to protect us from, much of the clergy, much of the still Victorian-Edwardian Upper Class that still exists today, the press, the majority of useless if not just down right dangerous psychiatrists psychobabblers and self-appointed do-gooders, those that openly persecute mentally ill people(oh gee, “they” are ALL just so dangerous, all “they” do is go into public schools and mow down innocent children or attempt murder of congresswomen and succeed at murdering other innocent children and adults even if the facts prove that that those crazies are the very LEAST likely demographic to go out and commit such atrocities, but that’s okay, go ahead and persecute the bejeebers out of em’ anyway. But do try and consider if not understand just a little that “they” really don’t much like or trust you either. Well I wonder why that is Brian Williams you Benedict Arnold you.
    Seriously. Our voices, the ones who have actually been there and survived to tell, if only they’d let us, OUR voices are the only ones that TRULY matter. All of the rest is just atonal cacophony, mindless self indulgent blather. So. When are you FINALLY going to start LISTENING to US? Now? Never??? If the answer is never then nothing is new to us, we’re more than used to you not giving a good goddamn, and nothing will EVER EVER change for the good. So be it and Amen. Now I’m going to go back to working on my beautiful quilt, quilts that will long outlive me, you, even that stinking, bloated, egomaniac, megalomaniac little A-Hole Julien Fellowes. That is, if the world isn’t sucked into a tiny black hole after some little technical human glitch goes quite wrong underground in, say, Switzerland or some more likely scenario like nuclear annihilation and mass extinction or say the Yellowstone caldera does it’s thing, explodes. Then none of this insanity and absurdity matters. Humans have not only NOT learned a damned thing from history or their mistakes, but they are ultimately incapable of it and are not only doomed to fail in a very major way and the race will, once again, experience mass extinction on an angry, used up raped planet, and water will cease to run from the taps as scientists have more than predicted, so the well will actually not figuratively gone dry, and that will simply be that. so. The End.
    This time I promise you because I can’t take this B***S*** anymore. Til then the only things I’m watching on the tube or telly is Jon Stewart, occasionally Steven Colbert if he’s not too obnoxious and has good guests, the brilliant young comedy team if Key and Peele on Comedy Central on nights when I’m in the mood and/or can’t sleep which is most of the time because I have PTSD real bad and the occasional old movie on TCM hosted by the avuncular and film loving Robert Osborne who I hope and pray doesn’t also have a prominent behind the scenes dark side. We survivors very much need safe places to go. So to sum it all up, PBS and Masterpiece once were among the safe places. They blew it big time. Nothing they can do to try and save the tale of Anna Bates can fix that. It’s impossible. They simply have no way to undo what they’ve done. It’s broke. Can’t be fixed. Should go to the dump. Just like they’ve done and continue to do with our right to be heard out. Thrown it out like so much rotten fish because the real TRUTH STINKS.

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