Downton Abbey doesn’t do God: here’s the reason why

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.

He said:

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.

23 responses to “Downton Abbey doesn’t do God: here’s the reason why”

  1. Broga says:

    ” 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.”

    I was cheered to read that. And yet the BBC clings grimly, and I suspect increasingly bitterly, to keep secular opinion out of its programmes. The game is up for the BBC religious despots.

    And the other good thing about Downton Abbey is that the Earl loves his Labrador.

  2. Newspaniard says:

    Well, at least commercial TV have got the religious stuff correct. Shame, that on the whole, their programmes are really fluff and their news programmes exactly mirror the BBC and Sky.

  3. Cali Ron says:

    From Christianity Today: “How is it that God is a peripheral presence at best.” That’s way more presence than in the real world where there has never been any irrefutable evidence of god’s existence. I would like to ask why critical thinking at Christianity Today is only a peripheral presence at best.

    Downtown left religion out of it’s show, now, if we could get politicians to leave religion out of education, politics and government maybe man could evolve beyond his silly superstitions.

  4. Broga says:

    “From Christianity Today: “How is it that God is a peripheral presence at best.”

    Perhaps because he relies on puny, misguided and quarrelling humans to defend him, and who cannot agree on what he wants, while he stays silent and invisible.

  5. jay says:

    If you’re trying to be historical, it’s good to do it warts and all (religion qualifies as a wart)

  6. sailor1031 says:

    I believe that Earl Robert’s views about catholics were widely held in what, at the time, was still considered to be “protestant England”. IIRC it was only around 1850 or so that the catholic hierarchy (bishops etc) was allowed back into Britain. Certainly catholics were viewed askance in deeply protestant eastern Ontario even in my young days – catholics were from Quebec and definitely something undesirable; not ‘canadian’ you know and of doubtful loyalty.

  7. L.Long says:

    ” 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.”
    No it would not bother the atheists much. But if they really strive for authenticity then they would piss off the xtians as they would have to show the bigotry and hate when a non-xtian character is seen.

  8. AgentCormac says:

    @Cali Ron
    Haha! Dead right. I would just love the so-called faithful to show us some tangible, verifiable evidence for the presence of their deity in the real world. Personally, I’d say Maggie Smith had more of a claim to being a god than the bloke in the bible!

  9. barriejohn says:


    In 1636, Chancellor William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, codified the university’s statutes. These, to a large extent, remained its governing regulations until the mid-19th century. Laud was also responsible for the granting of a charter securing privileges for the University Press, and he made significant contributions to the Bodleian Library, the main library of the university. From the inception of the Church of England until 1866, membership of the church was a requirement to receive the B.A. degree from Oxford, and “dissenters” were only permitted to receive the M.A. in 1871.

  10. chrsbol says:

    Maggie Smith a god! Well yes.
    She is sublime in the newly released film Lady in the van.

  11. barriejohn says:

    @chrsbol: The “creme de la creme”, no doubt!

  12. 1859 says:

    If they want some religious realism in DA they should burn a few witches on the village green and have the Inquisition raiding houses and dragging women through the streets by the hair to be crucified and burnt.

    Though DA is pure entertaiment I always feel uncomfortable when I remember that in the mill and mining towns of Yorkshire and the whole of north England, millions of people were living in the most miserable conditions of abject poverty. I recently re-read Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier and what he documents concerning the lives of women and men scrabbling for tiny chunks of coal on the slag heaps of Lancashire, is a catalogue of inhuman misery which we have forgotten. And this occurred in the same decades (20s and 30s) that the opulence of DA displays. So often I have to watch DA with my mouth covered with duct tape.

  13. barriejohn says:

    @1859: I watched a bit of the first episode and that was enough for me.”Below stairs” servants talking to their “superiors” as equals, and giving them the benefit of their opinion on this that and the other, indeed! The Go Between gives a far better impression of the attitudes of the day (“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”). My grandmother – a highly intelligent and independently-minded woman who today would have gone to university – was a cook in service at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Her quarters were in a damp garret where she nearly died of pneumonia. Her first husband was discharged from the Royal Navy with heart problems, and died pushing a garden roller while she was pregnant with their second child. That’s what life was really like for the servant class in that era! Downton Abbey is just chocolate-box Edwardianism for those brought up on a diet of American entertainment, and with one (or even both) eyes upon that market. No thank you!

  14. John the Drunkard says:

    Of course, there’s no chance that ‘anti-Catholicism’ might have ANY connection to Bloody Mary, the Gunpowder plot, the Armada, the use of priests as spies by Spain and France etc. etc. etc.

  15. Cooper S says:

    Star Trek excluded God too. Well done Gene!

  16. Cali Ron says:

    Tried to watch it, but found it was like a cup of tepid tea, unsatisfying. Seeing the class system through a rose colored lens didn’t make it OK or any more entertaining for me. One of the things about English society I can’t understand is how some put the queen and royals on a pedestal when they represent centuries of repression and exploitation by a ruling class who made the ridiculous claim of being chosen by god.

    The again, I don’t understand how my own American society could elect George W. Bush president twice. Humans can be fickle.

    Cooper S: Gene rocked. He actually dealt with many social issues like racism and war indirectly on the show with hope and optimism, but no god.
    Gene quote: “We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.
    A man either lives life as it happens to him, meets it head-on and licks it, or he turns his back on it and starts to wither away.”

  17. barriejohn says:

    Cali Ron: I really enjoyed the early Star Treks, as well as radio series such as Journey into Space, which sent me to bed with nightmares! Quatermass was very thought-provoking – and horrifying to a young lad – as well, though it had quite primitive production values. I’ve been saying on another blog, where young guys are complaining about the current Dr Who programmes, that what they are really saying is that it is not the level of sophistication of a production, or its special effects, that make it impressive, but the quality of the narrative and dialogue. I have a real bee in my bonnet about “remakes”, I’m afraid. How could you possibly improve upon the original War of the Worlds; Body Snatchers; Day the Earth Stood Still; or Village of the Damned, but they just had to try. The originals cannot possibly be bettered, IMHO. Even the old Vincent Price “The Fly” had an eerie quality that the remake didn’t quite seem to capture. I remember , at school as a teenager, being absolutely riveted by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, even though we were only “reading round” in class – usually enough to kill any interest in a book or play!

  18. Cali Ron says:

    barriehjohn: One of my first scifi books was arthur C. Clark’s Childhoods End and it started a life long love of scifi. Unfortunately most of today’s scifi movies and TV are over produced with special effects and makeup, but lacking a good narrative, story development and dialogue. After enduring Lost In Space and other early schlock Star Trek was amazing, for it’s scientific detail and effects, which in retrospect are not that great, but the show still resonates because of the narrative and dialogue.

    I agree that most remakes just don’t holdup to the original. The Fly was maybe the closest simply because Jeff Goldblum was so fly like creepy. Help Me!

  19. AgentCormac says:

    @ Cali Ron & barriejohn

    Having also grown up on a diet of sci-fi books and movies myself, I have to say that the original Alien movie stands up for me as being one of the best in the genre. Ridley Scott’s Hithcock-esque technique (ie don’t show too much – let audience imagination do all the work) was superb and even 30 years on it still doesn’t look dated from a vision/art direction perspective. I believe Scott is making another prequel titled ‘Alien:Covenant’. I only hope it’s better than the woeful ‘Prometheus’.

  20. Stuart H. says:

    I recall some papers of Winston Churchill, released a few years ago, revealed some pretty astounding bills from a local chemist for cocaine and morphine supplied (then quite legally) for guests at his weekend house parties back in the 1920’s.

    If they’re anything to go by, organised religion isn’t the only thing missing from Downton, and I’d be more surprised if anyone was in a fit stage to even say Grace.

  21. Laura Roberts says:

    @jay: agreed — warts and all is fine with me. We’re atheist, after all: happier with facts than wishful thinking. But — it’s a TV show (practically a soap opera), not an academic treatise on English social hierarchies of the early 20th century.