Downton vs Homeland – The Sunday Times


‘The dill sauce for the salad!” screamed Mrs Patmore, as the stress of Downton Abbey’s house party finally got to her last Sunday night on ITV. About 9.2m of us gripped the armrests of our sofas, bracing ourselves to see if, as she collapsed on a scullery chair, the cook would have a heart attack before the mains had been served or was just suffering a passing bout of gas.

Meanwhile, 2.2m viewers had wrestled control of the remote to flick the telly over to Channel 4, where the latest series of Homeland had begun. Carrie Mathison, a CIA agent played by Claire Danes, twitching like Gwyneth Paltrow on crack, was trying to convince a Senate investigation that she hadn’t been shagging a suspected terrorist during last series 9/11 -style bomb attack

She then attempted to convince her dad that she had been right to ditch the lithium prescribed for her bipolar disorder in favour of self-medicating with tequila shots.

We have gone digital, but the household war of the remotes over what to watch on Sunday night rages on. There may never have been a greater contrast than that between the sedately beautiful period drama Downton Abbey and the bloody American thriller Homeland.

The question of which series to choose divides us acutely by our taste and sensibilities. Are you more desperate for domesticity or destruction? Aristocracy or action? Would you rather spend the night before your week begins snuggled up in front of cosy Downton, the televisual equivalent of a warm bath and Horlicks; or watching Homeland, a virtual panic attack? For adrenaline junkies, the choice is obvious. Even the best Downton house party struggles to compete with the rampant decisions of a mentally ill, rogue CIA agent implicated in a terrorist attack.

But last Sunday’s viewers were jolted into reassessing that assumption. When the Granthams’ sedate soirée was violently interrupted, not by Kiri Te Kanawa’s rendition of O Mio Babbino Caro (or by Mrs Patmore’s gas attack), but by the violent rape of the housemaid Anna Bates below stairs, midway through Kiri’s set. Suddenly it wasn’t quite so clear what we could expect — or what we wanted — from our Sunday nights.

The Downton rape provoked a surprising amount of fury from fans. Although the camera panned away just as Lord Gillingham’s valet Green grabbed Mrs Bates (played sensitively by Joanne Froggatt), only finding her again — bruised and distressed — after the attack, 200 viewers complained. Others rushed to tweet their indignation.

“RAPE ON DOWNTON ABBEY?! What has the world come to?” wailed Anna Snelling on Twitter. Another tweeter, Alexia Light, complained that Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes, owed viewers an apology for a “sick and sensationalist” scene. Many mocked what they called a desperate attempt to spice up a bland storyline and boost ratings.

“Joanne Froggatt always been such a good actor in #downton. But I am v uncomfortable with plot turn by Julian F — rape as entertainment?” Vivienne Adams complained. Another viewer, identified only as Gehenna, complained: “For family drama Downton Abbey to use violence against women as a plot point is morally reprehensible.”

And yet, sex attacks have been classic plot devices since before Shakespeare’s time, so why worry now? Our screens have borne witness to far worse brutality — gang rapes and multiple murders — without comment. Indeed, last Sunday’s Downton assault was nothing compared with the body count (which included children) piling up over on Homeland.

Supersensitive Downton viewers had even been warned that there would be “scenes that some viewers might find upsetting” — although given how tame the series had been until then, they would have been forgiven for thinking the warning referred to the moment that Jimmy the footman dropped the jam.

The real problem with Downton’s rape wasn’t so much that it was brutal. Rather, it was that amid the plush pantomime period setting, it seemed so out of place. As AJ from Bournemouth tweeted: “I can’t support Julian Fellowes in depicting rape in a show that treats missing tuxedo shirts as a major crisis.”

Read the full feature here:

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