Dowton Abbey was accused of using a sickening rape as a gratuitous plot device to liven up the ITV drama’s script.
A controversial scene last Sunday night in which a housemaid was subjected to a brutal assault by a valet sparked nearly 100 complaints from disgusted viewers.
Domestic violence campaigners said the show’s creator Julian Fellowes had depicted rape in an obscene and irresponsible manner. Any victims of a real-life sexual assault who happened to be watching could have been traumatised, they said.
Even the Countess of Carnarvon, the owner of Highclere Castle where Downton is filmed, joined the criticism, saying she preferred “to look at nice things on a Sunday night”.
A message before the episode – the third in the current series – warned it contained ‘violent scenes that some viewers may find upsetting’.
But many of 8.8 million viewers who watched were unprepared for what followed.
Katie Russell from the charity Rape Crisis said ITV should have made it clear the episode contained sexual violence so rape victims could switch off.
She said: “They had a warning about violence before the programme but it wasn’t an explicit warning about sexual violence. The scene was clearly an implied rape, and that can trigger terrible memories in rape survivors. Content like that can be very traumatic.”
Author and anti-rape campaigner Bidisha ShonarKoli Mamata claimed the show’s author Julian Fellowes had added the attack simply to enliven a “dull” storyline.
“You can’t just insert a scene like this into a cosy drama. You have to treat rape sensitively, rather than use it as a plot device,” she said. “Instead of focusing on the impact of the violence on Mrs Bates, it repeated basic rape myths, such as the idea rapists are always creepy guys. In fact, they are normal people and are often related to the victim.
“If you are going to portray rape on TV, you have to do it responsibly. It was gratuitous, obscene and irresponsible. It made me want to switch off.”
In the controversial scene, which Downton’s makers insisted had been “acted and directed with great sensitivity”, servant Anna Bates, played by Joanne Froggatt, was beaten and raped.
The horrific assault took place downstairs as opera singer Dame Nellie Melba – played by soprano Kiri Te Kanawa – entertained Downton’s aristocratic residents upstairs. Green, a house guest’s valet, played by former EastEnders actor Nigel Harman, pushed the maid – who is married to Lord Grantham’s valet – against the wall and attempted to kiss her. When his advances were spurned, he flew into a rage and raped her.
Although the episode was shown after the 9pm watershed, many viewers felt the scene was inappropriate for a family drama.
Sabine Edwards tweeted that she felt “sick”, adding: “Rape and violence against women are not entertainment tactics.”
Vivienne Adams added: “I am v uncomfortable with plot turn by Julian F – rape as entertainment.” Another said: “I realise that Downton Abbey is essentially just a big soap opera, but I absolutely hate when rape is used as a plot device.” Lady Carnarvon said her research had uncovered no incidents of sexual abuse among the domestic staff.
“I didn’t watch [Sunday’s episode] but I gather it was less pleasant,” she said. “I imagine that Julian [Fellowes] is exploring with different storylines and darker themes.
He will also have watched the reaction to see where he will take the stories in the future, I’d imagine.”
Ofcom said it had received 30 complaints yesterday and was assessing whether to hold a full investigation. Another 60 complained directly to ITV.
A Downton Abbey spokesperson said: “The events in episode three were, we believe, acted and directed with great sensitivity. Viewers will see in the forthcoming episodes how Anna and Bates struggle to come to terms with what has happened.”
*In the UAE, Downton Abbey airs on OSN First HD at 11pm every Thursday