Emmy-award winning period drama Downton Abbey will cast a black character for the first time in its new series.
Based on a fictional Yorkshire country estate, the drama follows the lives and relationships of the aristocracy and their servants. It’s understood the new character will form part of a storyline that explores race relations in 1920s rural England. Producers begin filming series four later this month.
At the end of 2012, it was reported Downton writer Julian Fellowes planned to introduce a black character “to open up the show ethnically”. An exclusive in The Sun last month quoted casting notices sent out to agents for actors to audition for the part of Jazz singer Jack Ross. The notes highlighted the character as between 25 and 30 and stated the following: “He’s black and very handsome; A real man (not a boy) with charm and charisma”.
The actor required would be “a very attractive man with a certain wow factor…who would ideally be able to sing brilliantly”.
Incidentally, in November last year, the Guardian published an online article titled, ‘The black ghosts haunting Downton Abbey’. Writer Lara Pawson articulated how Black people have existed in Britain for hundreds and possibly thousands of years, yet are relentlessly airbrushed from historical representations such as Downton.
Pawson’s considerations are not without merit. However, there is another approach when digesting the argument…
Should television drama be manufactured to make everyone ‘feel comfortable’? Conformity to an imagined public pressure surely betrays art at the core level of freedom of expression.
It also betrays the concept of the author as king or ‘creator-in-chief’ and yields to the current (XFactor/Reality TV) phenomena of outside forces/the audience vote as a form of mob rule.
Downton Abbey, though placed in a specific moment in British history, is an award-winning fictional piece of entertainment. It is not an award-winning historical account of 1920’s rural England.
The writers will now seemingly tick off the ethnic diversity box with what could be construed by audiences, irrespective of colour, as a ‘token’ black man. At its worst, this type of creative decision is highly patronising and viewed as superficial.
Starting in 2010, the drama has simply gone from strength to strength, becoming acceptably labelled as a national treasure. It is now officially the most watched drama series on ITV as well as American broadcaster PBS.
In January, its cast – including Hugh Bonneville and Dame Maggie Smith – won the Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama series.
Somewhat surprisingly, Downton has also garnered a spectacularly huge American television audience. The Los Angeles Times reported an average of 8.2 million viewers tuned into the third series finale.
CNN covered the phenomena and concluded, “Americans love a period drama, and they dote on British aristocracy”.
Putting aside the politics of Downton’s casting, there is now undeniably a fantastic opportunity for a black British actor to be part of an internationally celebrated homemade serial drama.