Now into its fourth series, something has gone rather awry with Downton Abbey.
The series which brought us such off-the-wall storylines as Matthew being paralysed in the War only to find he could suddenly walk again, a Crawley cousin who went down with the Titanic coming back to life with comedy make-up and a Canadian accent, and a butler who was in a music hall act, has gone in a rather strange direction as of last Sunday.
The attack on Anna Bates was horrifying, heartbreaking, and out of step with a show those of us who have been dedicated watchers have turned to for a bit of escapism on a Sunday night. Yes, we have had shocking deaths (Lavinia, Lady Sybil, Matthew) and the whole storyline around Mr Bates’ arrest for the alleged murder of his first wife, but now we are in the emancipated 1920s, I was waiting for the female servants, especially those who are as strong and sympathetic as Anna, to grow in this world which gives them a bit more of a say.
By the end of the 1920s, women over 21 would be allowed to vote, and things were slowly becoming better for women who were in service. Anna would and should be on her way to achieving some independence. This is exactly why seeing her battered and terrified after a violent sexual attack was so shocking.
Rape should never be used as entertainment or to gain ratings, and it is never OK to imply that because of the times or the culture it was ever acceptable for a man to make a pass at a woman, and then batter and rape her if she says no. I don’t think Downton did show this storyline as entertainment, but the fact is that the show is accepted as light entertainment, something to wind down to at the end of the weekend, and the combined effect of this expectation and the shocking, unexpected storyline was distressing.
I watch gritty shows. I have no problem with them. But I don’t expect my period dramas to have women abused in this way, especially when the character concerned has already been through the mill. Modern TV seems to be saying that no one is allowed to be happy. It makes me feel just a little bit sickened.
I’m not taking anything away from Joanne Froggart’s performance as Anna – she was excellent and convincing throughout this episode as she has been before, She is a superb actress. I just feel sad that the future for her character seems to be a heavy dose of misery and potential disgrace.
With regret, I’m saying goodbye to a show I really liked and from characters I had grown fond of over the past few years. I wish them well – but the mis-step in this episode is a step too far for me.