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.
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.