Downton Abbey doesn’t do God: here’s the reason why
Back in 2011, in a Telegraph piece entitled ‘Why I have lost faith in Downton Abbey’, Robert Colville wrote:
As far as I can make out, no one at Downton actually ventures inside a church … For a series that prides itself on its realism – and even has the world ‘Abbey’ in the title – it’s a bizarre omission.
Religion, and especially the Sunday service, would have been a basic element of life in such a community, part of the warp and weft of existence. Perhaps it’s this godlessness, rather than any malice on the part of writer Julian Fellowes, that explains why Downton’s residents appear to have such a peculiarly cursed existence?
Four years on, the man tasked with ensuring the historical accuracy of the series has revealed why Downton does not do God. Alastair Bruce, who serves as the show’s historical advisor, said that executives in charge of the series had ordered producers to “leave religion out of it”, for fear of alienating an increasingly atheistic public.
The paper’s media correspondent Patrick Foster writes:
Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that the Crawley family is never shown in the process of sitting down to dinner, with the action instead shown from part-way through the meal. This, Mr Bruce said, was to avoid having to show the characters saying grace.
Foster quotes Bruce as saying:
In essence you hardly ever see a table that isn’t already sat at. We never see the beginning of a luncheon or a dinner, because no one was ever allowed to see a grace being said, and I would never allow them to sit down without having said grace.
I think that the view was that we’d leave religion out of it, and it would’ve taken extra time too. I suggested a Latin grace, but they decided that was too far, and no one would’ve known what was going on.
Bruce said that he was even banned from featuring napkins folded in the shape of a bishop’s mitre, for fear of breaching the religious edict.
Everyone panics when you try to do anything religious on the telly. I still wish we could’ve got some decent napkin folds, but I was always left with my triangle.
The lack of religious references in Downton has been a topic of debate in America, where the series is wildly popular and airs on the PBS channel. The flagship American evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, laments the fact that the vicar in the series gets less attention than an Ouija board, and asks:
How is it that God is a peripheral presence at best.
But not anti-Catholicism.
Writing for the Catholic Herald in 2012, Alexander Lucie-Smith refers to the anti-Catholic sentiments of the series’ principal character, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, who is aghast at the thought of one of his daughters marrying an Irish Catholic. Lucie-Smith says:
My theory is that anti-Catholicism springs from guilt, specifically the guilt for the crimes of the Reformation – but many people have scoffed at this idea. Please note, though, that the Earl of Grantham lives in an Abbey, that is, his estate was stolen from the Church at the time of the Reformation. One can never like those whom one has unjustly defrauded of their rights.
In one episode, the earl opines that Catholics have “something Johnny Foreigner” about them. In another he says:
There hasn’t been a Catholic Crawley since the Reformation.
The Catholic creator of the series, Lord Fellowes said of the Crawley family in this 2012 report:
It wasn’t that they were nasty – Robert certainly isn’t – but they thought that somehow Catholics were un-English and so ‘not quite right’. I am not aware that anyone else has ever touched on it, so I thought it might be interesting.
The unease at featuring any religious reference even extended to the name of the show itself. Peter Fincham, ITV’s director of television, revealed earlier in the year that the channel had considered renaming the series, because it featured the word “Abbey” in the title.
I can remember discussions that almost seem comical now. We talked about the word Abbey. Would people think it would have nuns or monks in it and be a religious series? But we satisfied ourselves they wouldn’t and did a bit of marketing around it.