Downton Abbey, rape and responsibility

As Lady Cora reminded us this week, “A house party can fall so flat if there’s no special moment”. So – presumably went Julian Fellowes’ train of thought – can series four of a glossy TV drama. What’s needed is a show-stopper, something to stick a rocket up Twitter and overspill the margins of next weekend’s op ed pages. Shock deaths are blasé now. A rape should be just the ticket. It’s gritty. It’s shocking. It’s real.

Never mind that the tonal shift between Carson trumping about pre-war teaspoon arrangement and Anna being dragged down a corridor and raped was akin to finding a child molester between the pages of a Janet and John book. (See the pervert. John runs away from the pervert. Run, John, run!) Pshaw to all that. Mr Gillingham’s rape was good drama and good publicity, the logic must have gone. If you want proof of that, well, we’re all talking about it aren’t we?

Complaining about the use of dramatic incident in a TV drama isn’t unlike moaning about the use of bread in a sandwich. That’s what this stuff’s made of. ‘Not Downton’ goes the cry, perhaps proving how short-memoried we fans of the series are. Our chief association with the drama is that of comfort; we watch it for the gorgeous gowns, twee comedy, and Maggie Smith’s one-liners. The fluffier moments – luncheons, kitchen mishaps and cricket matches – dilute the death, war, prostitution, suicide, blackmail and beatings to homeopathic levels. As a result, though it may have seemed so, Downton Abbey was never only a programme about whose chrysanthemums won first place at the Grantham flower show.

Why then, did the rape scene provoke such ire?

The feeling is that Downton broke an implicit contract with the viewer on Sunday night. Just as you don’t expect to see Soo forced to tearfully strip in a sleazy nightclub during an episode of The Sooty Show, you don’t expect Downton Abbey – reputedly the cosiest blanket in TV-land – to go all Ken Loach. There’s a place for bold and unflinching television, and it isn’t next to Mrs Patmore’s palpitations over the dill sauce for the salmon.

More troubling than the perceived incongruity for many was the cheap treatment of the plot-point within the episode. The attempt at a lofty bravura set piece by marrying Anna’s screams with Dame Nelly Melba’s operatic high notes felt tackily melodramatic even for Downton. Having Mr Bates ask dreamily “I wonder what she’s doing” at the point of violation was a pantomime-level insult to dramatic irony. Ho ho ho, Anna, he’s behind you!

More injurious still was that the rape was presented as the punch line to an episode-long set-up. From the moment the continuity announcer prefaced this week’s Downton Abbey with the promise of violent scenes, the guessing game fun began. Would we see Molesley mowed down by the Bakewell’s delivery van? Jimmy perish from jam jar injury-related complications? Daisy finally stave in Ivy’s pretty head with that rolling pin? Wrong, wrong and wrong again. It was a rape! Bet you didn’t see that coming. Not thinking of switching over to Homeland now are you?

Accepting that Downton isn’t all village fetes and pudding disasters then, why would a rape cause more pain to viewers than, say, a murder? Had Sunday night’s episode ended with a knife in Anna’s back, would we be so disturbed?

No, bereaved as we’d feel. Years of exposure to murder as an engine of fiction – no small number of them taking place in posh country estates – makes us happier to accept death as an A-to-B plot device. The attrition of soap misery alone has made us narratologically experienced enough to make an easy distinction between fictional death and the real thing. But rape? Despite its disheartening over-use as a motivator in crime drama and beyond, we’re just not as experienced with it on screen. It isn’t as mainstream. Use rape as a plot device and it feels rawer, cheaper, and more exploitative than an old-fashioned murder.

That’s the other reason for our ability to countenance Downton Abbey’s other trips to the dark side and not this one. From Spanish Influenza to shellshock, the series’ previous dealings with death and so on are cushioned by the distance of the period. Matthew died in a car crash yes, but in a Mr Toad-mobile against a bucolic backdrop, not on the M25 attended to by flashing blue lights; Mr Bates faced hanging, something we haven’t done in this country since the sixties; Sybil died from eclampsia fits which modern medicine could likely have prevented; soldiers are still paralysed in duty today, but the first sign of a WWI uniform both prepares us for, and distances us from, the fate of its wearer. Those traumatic events were sealed off in an historical niche from contemporary life, but not this one. There’s no such thing as old-fashioned rape.

We signed up for a genteel boo hiss fantasy in Downton Abbey, not an honest reflection of its period, or our own. Sunday night burst that bubble. It was a cruelly premeditated act to inflict on viewers who were not expecting, or prepared for, anything of the sort – the glass splinter planted in the jar of baby food.

What’s important of course, is where Anna and the rapist’s storyline goes now. By taking on this subject, weedy Downton has elected to graduate itself to the heavyweight class of dramas. Will it shoulder the concomitant responsibility of its decision, and show us some human truth to weigh against the wretchedness? Keep your powder dry until we know. If the series reneges on another implicit contract, that’s the time for an outcry.