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Downton Abbey, unfortunate stereotypes and the lazy characterisation of Thomas Barrow

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Downton Abbey is back, brightening up our autumn nights with its delightful mixture of tears and humour, comfort and heartache, regret and optimism. It is televisual hot chocolate of the most satisfying variety and the UK would be a very sad place without it. However, not for the first time since it started airing in 2010, I have become a bit annoyed with it. Why? Thomas Barrow.

Those who have been watching from the beginning will know that Thomas has been a villain of the boo-hiss-variety. He has filled the positions of first footman, head valet and now underbutler. In between he has been a Corporal and Lance Sergeant in the army. From the beginning Thomas was established as evil. He plotted against one of the most loveable and sympathetic characters, Mr Bates, stole from the house that employed him and manipulated young kitchen-maid Daisy into thinking he fancied her. He was and still is, as some would put it, a wrong-un.

The whole thing is made a little more awkward by the fact that Thomas is gay. This aspect of his character has always irritated me a bit. Of course, you get nasty gay men just as you get lovely and kind gay men. But it’s a shame that writer and creator Julian Fellowes has conformed to a regrettable stereotype that dictates that a villain must either be either homosexual, effeminate or both. This type of thing has a notable history in popular entertainment. You can see it in many works, ranging from Hitchcock to Disney, Patricia Highsmith to Bond. And now, Downton Abbey too.

I must emphasise that, despite initially conforming to an unhelpful anti-gay tradition, Downton Abbey is not in itself homophobic. Indeed, as the series progressed, Thomas became a very sympathetic figure. Instead of remaining the evil one, he became the damaged one, the soldier wounded by loss and scarred by the things he had seen. In Series three, he hoped to find love in the form of new footman James, but this was not to be. After an ill-judged attempt to kiss him, Thomas’s semi-secret homosexuality was made public, at least amongst the staff and people of the house. In a cheerfully pleasant, though arguably unrealistic way, nearly everyone rallied round him in order to make sure he wasn’t arrested and sent to prison. Even Lord Grantham, usually very conservative, defended Thomas and even hinted that he himself had dabbled in same-sex activity whilst at Eton. Because of all this, Fellowes divorced Downton Abbey from any notions of anti-gay prejudice. The series was pro-freedom. All was well. Until now.

Series 4 has begun, and what is Thomas up to? Scheming, stirring, making trouble. After three years of interesting and intelligent character development, Mr Fellowes has decided to turn back the clock on Thomas’s character and make him, once more, into the archetypal villain. He is a pantomime prop, wheeled in to stir up trouble and promote conflict. I had hoped, after all the fuss about him last series, his mellowing would continue, and we would see a marked change in how his character is portrayed. Not so. Instead, we once again have the nasty, evil Thomas Barrow skulking around the corridors of Downton trying to upset people’s lives. And it’s all getting rather tiresome.  

Downton Abbey is currently showing on ITV HD & ITV on Sunday nights at 9PM. 

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