WARNING: SPOILERCOPIA (and heresy) ahead.
The movie sequel to Downton Abbey about the trials and triumphs of the fictional early 20th century aristocratic Crawley family and their servants has arrived. Heavily marketed for its alleged “historical accuracy,” the most popular TV series in the history of both PBS and British television won multiple awards and remains a glamorous cash cow.
2014 global merchandising revenue alone reached $250 million. That did not include the $40,000 in US taxpayer money Illinois Republican Congressman Aaron Schock spent on the tacky redecoration of his office—when he wasn’t consistently voting against LGBT rights.
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Said to be inspired by the show, his “Red Room” led to his resignation and indictment on 24 felony counts including mail and wire fraud, theft of government funds, making false statements, and filing false federal tax returns. After having met the terms of a deferred prosecution agreement—restitution and not having violated any more laws of gay taste during the previous six months—the charges were recently dropped.
No word yet on what Schock thinks of the film. But despite the admission by the phenomenon’s official historian that “actually a great deal more of those young men who were in service were homosexual,” the only gay character among some 40 recurring roles in the series was servant Thomas Barrow.
Because television and film have become the sole sources of “history” for so many, like the creator of the blog Mr. Barrow, the tragic cranky porcelain doll, I was most interested to see how series creator, scribe, and “Thomas Torturer in Chief” Fellowes treats him on the big screen.
“If there is one reason for this movie to exist it is to correct what creator Julian Fellowes did to Thomas in the series,” the blogger wrote.
His small screen portrayal led New York magazine to say: “If there were a Downton Abbey Despicable Hall of Fame, an entire wing of it would be devoted to Thomas Barrow.”
“One swallow doesn’t make a summer.”
We begin to learn why from the series’ premier episode set in 1912 when, usually literally and figuratively in black and white, Thomas concocted a plot with his secret lover, the Duke of Crowborough to marry a Crawley daughter solely for her expected fortune. [This kiss was deleted by TV censors in Greece,]
The plot fails, as does Barrow’s fallback attempt to blackmail the Duke. No one at Downton knew about that but we were repeatedly told that, despite being traditionally masculine and straight-acting (save for a brief atypical moment in Series 1, Episode 3), many, upstairs and down, know “he’s not a ladies’ man” but, strangely, not how.
“I hate Greek drama; you know, when everything happens off stage.” – the Dowager Countess of Grantham.
Constantly scheming for a rise in rank and willing to stop at little to accomplish it, Thomas repeatedly lied, backstabbed, stole, attempted to frame others for theft, led female characters on just to spite other male characters attracted to them resulting in one of The Good Characters calling him “filthy little rat,” blackmailed others, and tried to illegally profit from post-WWI black market goods after having escaped the front by purposely letting himself get shot in the hand, returning to the estate a “hero.”
Did we mention he also kidnapped the beloved family dog, leaving her in a shed in the forest with a plan to get a reward for later “miraculously” finding her?
“I wonder why you don’t just set fire to the Abbey and dance around it, painted with woad and howling.”
The three central recurring romantic male characters are not just straight—for which, of course, they are, unspoken, better—two are war heroes, one permanently partially disabled because of it; all three are noble; one literally. At Heteronormative Abbey, they repeatedly stand up for, sacrifice and suffer for what is right.
One, in what can hardly be accidental, was given the same first name and the same last initial. Tom Branson is Good. Thomas Barrow is Gay. The author of an article called “Masculinity and Disability on Downton Abbey” believes his “primary purpose in the show seems to be as troublemaker, an able-bodied, gay foil to Mr. Bates’ disabled, heterosexual body; the ‘evil gay’ and ’emasculated’ foil to the ‘hypermasculine’ Mr. Bates” whom Thomas tried to get fired in multiple ways.
The Villain-Victim trope and confusing exploitation with empathy. “Don’t demean yourself by trying to justify your venom.”
Fellowes would never have gotten away with having chosen to portray a stand alone Black or Jewish character as The Villain; particularly if their being Black or Jewish was such a major part of the plot.
In interviews, he and Robert James-Collier – who plays Thomas superbly – have said that Barrow’s evil actions were because that’s the only choice a gay man had in such culturally and legally homophobic times; that he was “horrible to the other characters because of the pain of keeping his homosexuality hidden.”
Bloody balderdash! That not only infantilizes us (Thomas is repeatedly shown weeping) but ignores the fact that most gay men and women, throughout the ages, have led honest, respectable lives despite such oppression—some making huge contributions to human history.
“Because it never found a mate men called the unicorn abnormal.” – Dag Hammarskjöld.
Thomas is also portrayed as trapped on Straight Island, suspended in aspic, surrounded by cooing heterosexual romance and siring and birthin’ babies while, having yet to develop his gaydar, his extremely rare attempts at love fail.
By the end of Season 3 he’s pining for the delicious blond eye candy incarnated by footman Jimmy. Falsely led to believe by his previous partner in evil that Jimmy feels the same way and, like all ‘mos, unable to control himself, he sneaks into Jimmy’s room at night as he sleeps.
Looming over him like Dracula, another male servant passes by the foolishly left-open door just as he bends down and kisses Jimmy’s perfect full lips, startling him awake and outraging victim and witness.
Butler Carson believes that he’s “been twisted by nature into something foul,” a predator stalking the mansion’s 300 rooms, and it can no longer be ignored by him or Carson’s boss, Lord Grantham.
“If I’d shouted blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton I’d have gone hoarse in a month.”
But, presently, their and even Bates’ Straight Savior instincts prevail—“Evil? Thomas does not choose to be the way he is.”—keeping him out of jail and on the island. [The term is not meant to demean anyone, whatever their identity, who sincerely tries to help someone in trouble but rather to illuminate Fellowes’ apparent worldview.]
And Jimmy, after Thomas saves him from a robbery resulting in a brutal beating while Jimmy runs away, forgives him for trying to bite his neck and offers friendship though, “I can never give you what you want.” Thomas agrees to take what he can get—after all, he’s the only gay man in the world—smiling as best he can behind his badly battered face. Fade out.
“Sympathy Butters No Parsnips.”
Whether that relative progress had resulted from pressure on Fellowes from fans to humanize him, they were shocked when, his homosexuality no longer hidden, Thomas was soon being horrible to the other characters again in Season 4. Despite this, some take pity on his loneliness, telling him there’s someone out there for him. Where, Jolene, WHERE?! Does Lassie know?
“No man is an island, Carson; not even Thomas Barrow.”
The Straight Saviors come to the rescue of the ‘Mo Monster twice more. In Season 5, Miss Baxter, gently overflowing with compassion despite being one of his blackmail victims, takes Thomas for medical treatment for the life-threatening infection resulting from his expensive failed attempt at a cure. Electrotherapy in London and pills and injections that “were supposed to continue the process. To change me. To make me more like other people. . . . Other men.”
The village doctor tells him: “My advice to you, Thomas, would be to accept the burden that chance has seen fit to lay upon you, and to fashion as good a life as you’re able.”
In Season 6, deeply hurt because he’s been falsely accused of trying to seduce another footman and despairing over being forced to look for another job (with no success) because Lord Grantham can no longer afford such a large staff, he slits his wrists, and passes out in the bath. Miss Baxter discovers him just in time, he’s patched up, and new sympathy, warm as scones, served all around.
Still he has to leave for another job he hates. But circumstances evolve to bring him back to Downton replacing ill Carson, and the series ends with an apparently happier if still alone lavender unicorn.
So, the brief glimpses of him in the film’s trailer dancing with one man and kissing another gave one hope Fellowes had made up for what he did to Thomas in the series. To a large degree he did—though on a sterling silver tray of fresh poppycock.
Telegraph, telephone, tell a queen.
From the series’ first episode that displayed his aggressive passion for the Duke, there was no historic and, therefore, no dramatic justification for all of the subsequent machinations over Thomas’s supposed rural isolation that so many “experts” keep bleating about.
Even by the time of the film set in 1927, a university “lecturer in Queer History” questioned in The Telegraph this week “the portrayal of Thomas as being so self-aware of being gay” despite noting that “there were discussions of homosexuality in magazines and newspapers right from the beginning of the 20th century. Whether most people cottoned on to what these [articles] really meant is another matter.”
Literate Thomas started at Downton in 1910, and there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t have cottoned on; that he wouldn’t have seen something of himself in references to Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trials for gross indecency, “the love that dare not speak its name,” and the teenage and older “Dilly Boys” Wilde picked up in Piccadilly. One was an unemployed valet, the position Thomas had wanted the Duke to give him (with, uh, special benefits).
Despite being dumped, Downton was not an island. He remained just a train ride from London where we were told their affair began and continued for “weeks of madness” while Thomas was there with Lady Grantham. And that the Royal Mail brought him at least a dozen love letters from the Duke after they returned to Yorkshire.
Sadly, James-Collier has been programmed to say about the film: “He didn’t know there was this whole gay subculture; his eyes are completely open to this world that he didn’t know existed” when it’s impossible to imagine that the “decadent” Duke would not have known about and bragged to a handsome conquest like Thomas 15 years before about some of the gay-friendly places already popular in London.
For instance, the Cave of the Golden Calf which opened in 1912 and the Café Royal, one of Wilde’s favorite places. He likely would have taken him to some of them, too, whenever Thomas could sneek away from the Crawley’s city house.
A 1922 travel guide described it as a place where “may be seen queer creatures… an hermaphroditic creature with side-whiskers and painted eyelashes… things in women’s clothes that slide cunning eyes upon other women. Male dancers who walk like fugitives from the City of the Plain. Hard-featured ambassadors from Lesbos and Sodom.”
How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the Downton farm after seeing that?
The Duke and he might have joined the thousands in costume, hiding in plain sight, at the dazzling annual Chelsea Arts Ball in Royal Albert Hall. During pillow talk, he might have intrigued Thomas with stories about the bouncing beds of the polymorphous perverse Bloomsbury Group including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, E. M. Forster, Vita Sackville West, and Lytton Strachey. And about the pioneering gay liberationist writing of John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter.
“O child of Uranus, wanderer down all times,
Yet outcast and misunderstood of men –
I see thee where for centuries thou hast walked,
Yet outcast, slandered, pointed at by the mob.
The day draws nigh when from these mists of ages
Thy form in glory clad shall reappear.” – Edward Carpenter 1902
1912 was the year Forster visited the home of Carpenter and his working class lover George Merrill, inspiring him to write Maurice about another upper class/lower class couple. [The fictional Crawleys’ troubles begin when a family member drowns on the Titanic. In real life, a friend of Carpenter’s actually did.]
Someone as driven as Thomas would have returned to London and such places every chance he could. He would have made friendships with other gay men among its 7 million people, and could have found real love and that better job; perhaps even a wealthy lover and moved to a small village like Carpenter and Merrill.
“At last my love has come along”
Is that moment in the literally diamond-studded film when Thomas is finally kissed again after 15 fictional years by the sophisticated, sexy Royal Dresser to King George V moving; even thrilling? Absolutely.
But not only was the more realistic scenario above incomprehensibly missing from the entire series, Fellowes has him telling his Gay Savior in the film with “wonder in his face” that he’s never talked to any gay person before. Wait, was I watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers instead? Didn’t anyone tell Thomas not to fall asleep until they found his pod?
Film critics haven’t bothered too much with the changes to characters from the end of the series Fellowes made to build upon the movie’s plot. But preposterously, inexplicably, needlessly, Fellowes entirely erased his own Thomas creation story; insulting our intelligence.
After already having erased the broad and complex existence of real gay men and women during this period while keeping his only gay character a tragic porcelain doll of evil too long just to make straight characters look superior, how can anyone who cares about our history ever care about Downton Abbey again?
Even Aaron Schock might be appalled.
“We’ve dreamed a dream, my dear, but now it’s over.”