Downton Abbey creator, Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes, has defended the controversial storyline in the latest episode of Season Four, which outraged fans and attracted heavy criticism. A message before the episode warned it contained “violent scenes that some viewers may find upsetting”, but still left viewers unprepared for the horrific scene.
Fellowes told BBC News he was “sorry” if fans felt the show couldn’t “go there”.
The following contains spoilers for Downton Abbey Season Four Episode Three.
On Sunday’s episode beloved ladies maid Anna Bates was violently raped in the empty servants quarters by a visiting valet, as the staff and guests were entertained by Dame Nellie Melba upstairs, oblivious to her crisis. While the scene was depicted behind closed doors, on-screen Anna was punched in the face and dragged into an office, then the sounds of further violence and her anguished and terrified screams could be heard. Fans have lashed out, describing the episode as morally reprehensible and some are accusing producers of using sensationalist tactics to boost ratings.
Fellowes rejected the claims the scene was gratuitous, pointing out the attack took place behind closed doors, saying: “If we’d wanted a sensational rape we could have stayed down in the kitchen with the camera during the whole thing and wrung it out. The point of our handling is not that we’re interested in sensationalising but we’re interested in exploring the mental damage and the emotional damage.”
Fellowes said the plot development did not signal a new direction for Downton Abbey.
“Downton deals in subjecting a couple of characters per series to a very difficult situation and you get the emotions that come out of these traumas. When you handle very difficult and sensitive story lines, the minus is that they do expect more work from the audience but the plus is they can take you to a helpful place in terms of self analysis,” he said.
“The fact that [viewers] engage with it is sort of what you pray for as a programme maker, because with most series that’s not happening. It’s always a compliment that everyone gets so involved in the show.”
Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna Bates, says she is proud of the show for tackling the issue of rape, explaining that the series’ historical advisor, Alastair Bruce, had told her that 100 years ago, when the story was set, women felt unable to tell the police about sexual assaults.
“There was still such a stigma attached to any kind of attack like this that you were very much in danger of losing all of that,” she said. “And if a woman lost her reputation that would bring shame upon the house, she could lose her job, she could lose her husband. And society still saw it as no smoke without fire, ‘well he’s only a man – he couldn’t help himself.'”
Fellowes discussed exploring the impact of the rape on Anna and on her husband, Mr, Bates.
“All of this is about taking characters to the brink,” explained Fellowes. “We know Anna is a strong personality but it doesn’t mean she will be able to be strong through this. The whole rest of the series, for her story and for Bates’ story, is seeing how she negotiates her way through this. I don’t think we ever have a sense that she leaves it behind,” he said.