Encore: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell at Downton Abbey

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Related to: Downton Abbey, Season 6

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Ever since Downton Abbey began, we’ve watched Thomas Barrow try—and fail—to find his place downstairs—in part because of his sexuality.

Now, in the wake of his heartbreaking suicide attempt, we asked Downton’s historian, Alastair Bruce, to explain the historical context of Thomas’ struggle.

 

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Transcript

Jace Lacob: MASTERPIECE Studio wants you to know that Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is currently making its US debut in New York City. You’ll see Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, 50 extraordinary costumes, and so much more.

Tickets are available for purchase at www.downtonexhibition.com. The exhibition runs through September 3, 2018.

The exhibition is presented by Viking, the leader in river and small ship ocean cruising, also known for its national corporate sponsorship of MASTERPIECE on PBS.

CLIP:
Baxter: Hello. Mr. Barrow? Are you in there? Will you open this door!
Andy: Get back!

Jace: I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to a special bonus episode of MASTERPIECE Studio with Downton’s historian, Alastair Bruce.

Ever since the series began, we’ve watched Thomas try — and fail — to find his place downstairs. But now everyone is forced to acknowledge the depth of his suffering:

CLIP:
Carson: I’ll tell you what I blame myself for. I didn’t credit him with any feelings. I thought he was a man without a heart. And I was wrong.
Robert: No man is an island, Carson. Not even Thomas Barrow.

Jace: In this segment, Alastair explains how Thomas is trapped by expectations and judgments beyond his control.

On this week’s episode of Downton Abbey, Thomas attempts to commit suicide by slashing his wrists in the bathtub. It’s also hinted that Bertie’s late cousin Peter, the Marquess of Hexham, is a homosexual.

CLIP:
Bertie: But he’s not really a country type. More arty than sporty mean if you know what I mean.
Edith: He doesn’t hunt or shoot?
Bertie: Hardly. He paints.
Edith: What does he paint?
Bertie: The young men of Tangiers mainly.

Jace: What were the popular attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain in 1925?

Alastair: Well, the British have always been disinclined to accept human nature, and I think there are still plenty of nations in the world that stridently try and pretend that humanity should not be what it is. But in this period, when mortality was laid out and writ large by the church and by generations of self denial, I think nobody wanted to loosen their guard on anything that people had endured a lifetime of misery to deny.

And that’s what I think Thomas feels trapped by. Because even in a big country house, where very often a large proportion of the male staff were homosexual he can see no future. I mean, oddly, really, in the Downton Abbey that’s written by Julian Fellowes, there’s remarkably little homosexuality. And those below stairs were not unaware of what was going on. Indeed, nor, we detect, is Lord Grantham, who stood in to protect Barrow at an early stage in one of the earlier series.

CLIP:
Alfred: But I know what I saw, m’lord, and it weren’t right.
Robert: I’m not asking you to abandon your beliefs, Alfred, just to introduce a little kindness into the equation.
Alfred: Am I not to stand up against evil?
Robert: Evil? Thomas does not choose to be the way he is. And what harm was done really that his life should be destroyed for it?
Alfred: Well…
Robert: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Are you without sin, Alfred, for I am certainly not.

Alastair: It just was seen that if it was not known about, and nobody knew, that it would be fine. And it’s tragic, really, to feel your understanding grow at why the Marquess had died, and to feel your understanding realized when you see Thomas surrounded by blood and in the last flickers of life.

Jace: To purchase Downton Abbey DVDs and Blu-rays, or Downton Abbey gifts, visit shopPBS.org or other retailers. And for more Downton Abbey behind-the-scenes content, check out the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast at pbs.org/masterpiece, on Stitcher, and on iTunes.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.

Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking and The MASTERPIECE Trust.

Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is open in New York City, now through September 3, 2018. See downtonexhibition.com for tickets and more details.

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