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Michelle Dockery: “Lady Mary’s sexuality seems outrageous in Downton Abbey”

The Downton Abbey cast talk sex, class tension and controversy – and why the series is the hottest TV show on the planet

Earlier this year Downton Abbey was sold to Japan. This was, in executive producer Gareth Neame’s words, “the last remaining major market” to collapse under its unrelenting march. Incredibly, a drama about life in a large English country house a century ago is the hottest TV show in the world.

Downton’s fifth series takes place in 1924 – a seismic 12 months in the country’s history. Benny Hill and Tony Hancock were born, the Sunday Express debuted the newspaper crossword, Wickford in Essex became the location of the first nudist camp in the UK, and John Logie Baird successfully sent rudimentary television pictures over a short distance. But something else, something more political, was brewing.

The year 1924 also saw the election of a (short-lived) Labour government and the hairline cracks in the country’s class system, coming in the aftermath of the Great War, became fissures. In Downton, the old certainties are being cast out of the drawing room’s ceiling-high windows as its upstairs residents look on aghast and its downstairs staff glimpse the start of a different social order.

Having a Labour government is tantamount to the gates of the estate being ripped down

Class tension, gender politics and self-improvement are proving themselves weighty themes this series, neatly epitomised in one character – Sarah Bunting, the radicalised schoolteacher who rails against the inherited and patriarchal privilege underpinning the Abbey.

“Having a Labour government is tantamount to the gates of the estate being ripped down and communism stamped all over it,” says Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, owner of the Abbey and a man desperate to ensure the future of both his estate and his dynasty. “Sarah Bunting is not just a political opposite to everything he stands for, she is also just bloody rude.”

How rude?

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“She’s a horrible cow and he can’t wait to see the back of her.”

Downton may sell a mythical image of England to overseas audiences but it is far from a cosy, safe show as it tackles bristly and controversial issues head on. It is less about horse and hound and more about Trojan horsery.

Alongside accelerating class issues, the previous series ran a hugely controversial storyline where housemaid Anna Bates was raped – and there is the ramping up this series of underbutler Thomas Barrow’s struggles with his sexuality.

“For the first time in his life he realises he is going to be alone if he continues to be a practising gay man,” says Robert James-Collier who plays Barrow.

“He is questioning being gay and wanting to change who he is to fit in with the world around him. I am glad that the show deals with his sexuality. Not because he is gay but because he is gay in Edwardian times – a time when it was illegal and against God.”

At the same time, the suffragette movement was gaining momentum and women over the age of 30 had only just won the vote six years earlier. It would be another four years until full suffrage was declared. This was a period of immense upheaval in the old order, and women, argues Phyllis Logan who plays housekeeper Mrs Hughes, are the real catalysts in Downton.

“Most of the men are resistant to change,” she says. “Lady Cora is American and has more liberal attitudes as they don’t have that class system there – supposedly. And Mrs Hughes is trying to push Mr Carson away from being so rigid and to loosen up.”

This is accentuated by the presence of Bunting and her influence on kitchen maid Daisy’s slow awakening to education as a tool of self-improvement.

As one of the lead characters, Lady Mary represents the modern woman of the time, albeit from a position of immense class and financial privilege, refusing to buckle under misogynistic presumptions. “Mary is never short of a suitor,” says Michelle Dockery, who plays her.

Women were asking those questions at the time and so much had changed since the war

“She is beginning to consider the choices she has and wonder why she can’t be intimate with a man before deciding if he’s the one. It feels incredibly modern and outrageous in something like Downton. But actually it wasn’t, as women were asking those questions at the time and so much had changed since the war.”

I ask her what Mary would, almost a century on, have made of dating app Tinder. “It would be a nice thing for Mary to have,” she exclaims but wonders how it would have worked at the time. I suggest that suitors stand outside the window and she sweeps her hand right or left to indicate if they are to be rejected or investigated further. She seems happy with this anachronistic workaround but adds: “I wouldn’t want to live in that time because so much has changed. For me it’s nice to just dress up in those clothes.”

Downton’s success is such that it is sprinting furiously to keep up with demand. A sixth series is confirmed for next year and the producers are heavily hinting that a film could follow. Plus, this year the merchandise department is going to be reproducing some of the show’s signature dresses and selling them to an eager public who don’t just want to watch Downton – they want to live in it.

Downton Abbey is an extension of what the British royal family represents,” says James-Collier on its appeal. “Look at when Wills and Kate got married – over two billion people watched that worldwide. It is that fascination with royalty and the glamour that exudes, and the show is an extension of that.”

I posit the theory to Bonneville that, because it is so English and so globally successful to the point where fans want any piece of the show they can get, it’s The Beatles of TV. “Oh God!” he booms before mentally checking off which character is which Beatle. “Obviously Mr Carson is Ringo – keeping the beat going,” he starts. “Tom Branson is Paul. Barrow is John. Hah hah!” And who is he? “I think I am Pete Best.”

For those in the show there is incredible global fame, not quite Beatlemania levels but it makes picking a holiday destination that bit more precarious given how many countries the show now airs in. Celebrity fans include JJ Abrams, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who will make a cameo in this year’s Christmas special that is arguably more anticipated than was his Venetian wedding.

Asked to sum up its global appeal, Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora) says: “There is always a character that somebody can respond to. It is very unusual to have a show with so many characters and so many stories. That is what makes it distinctive.”

He’d be the last person I’d expect to watch it. A big, tough, grown man

Dockery says it is those she would least expect to be fans who, when they meet her, illustrate just how big the show is. “I’ll meet a burly east London cab driver and he’ll go [adopts guttural Cockney accent], ‘Oi, you’re Lady Mary, ain’t ya? Love the show’,” she exclaims. “He’d be the last person I’d expect to watch it. A big, tough, grown man.”

Previously seen in Coronation Street playing Liam Connor, James-Collier says Downton brings a distinctive type of recognition compared to being in the country’s biggest soap. “The difference is that we are only on eight times a year so you are not going to get as much recognition in the street. You are not in people’s living rooms every night of the week. Also, the fact I am in a full-on Edwardian costume with a quiff helps massively. I can go on the Tube and no one really bats an eyelid.”

Phyllis Logan suggests Downton’s success is down to “a nostalgia thing” and that it’s “intriguing to watch a life that perhaps your ancestors once lived”. But that sells the show incredibly short. It has to work within the parameters of Sunday evening TV fit for a global audience but that is not to say it is toothless and bland.

James-Collier points to a pronounced tension between understanding the audience but also wanting to push things along. “Sometimes you have to serve the slot,” he says. “It’s a Sunday 9pm slot so how gritty can you go? They are not scared to run things like the rape storyline, which was a fascinating story and a very brave decision to make.

“The show is sort of damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. If it’s not gritty we get complaints. If they go gritty and show something powerful, upsetting and moving like rape, they get criticised for that as well. You have to get the balance right for the audience.”

Seemingly parochial in subject matter yet forcefully global in its reach, Downton is a genuine TV phenomenon. England has conquered the world again, this time as an Empire of the screen.

Series five of Downton Abbey is available on Blu-ray and DVD. The Christmas special will be on ITV on December 25

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