I DON'T have any time for the people who complained about the Downton Abbey rape, but I understand why they got so upset. Julian Fellowes has been called up to ‘justify' the sudden change in Downton's tone - as if a writer owes it to his audience to second-guess their preferences and edit his script accordingly! - but he should be delighted that his creation had set such a profoundly-felt mood that the shattering of it sent distressed emotional ripples across the country.
Most of us who never miss a Downton are aware the show fulfils a clear function at the end of a busy week in a fast-paced world. It’s telly comfort food; the rich chocolately pudding we guiltlessly indulge in after our Sunday roast, reassuring us that the working week may be close, but hasn't kicked in yet. Just for an hour, we forget about the regular stresses of being mums and dads/employers or employees, and retreat to a rural idyll where we tackle head-on the cosy horrors of confusing a water goblet for a wine glass, or blitzkrieging protocol by walking anti-clockwise around a set dinner table.
It's often pompous to the point of silliness, inconsequential to the point of the famous ‘wrong sandwiches' in that legendary Home and Away cliffhanger, but it is effectively succouring. For many of us it has become part of the family. Not to watch would be akin to shooting the dog.
It was Julian Fellowes' great feat to coax us into the palm of his soft warm hand. And thus, his prerogative to whip his hand away and scatter us rudely on to the hard floor. If he hoped to make a point about the dangers of consensus complacency, or how suddenly and cruelly life can snap a bite out of us, he must be feeling rather chuffed with himself now.
The main tenet of the 100-odd complaints and multitude of angry tweets about the out of the blue assault and (unseen) rape of good-hearted, loyal Anna on Sunday seems to be that those kind of ‘sick', ‘sensationalist' events are not what Downton is ‘for'. The storyline, goes the argument, is a betrayal of the show's audience (including the Countess of Carnarvon, the owner of Highclere Castle, where the drama is set, who said she prefers ‘the nice things in life' and will stick to Pretty Woman and Notting Hill).
But regardless of how reliably it has fulfilled certain requirements, Downton is not a service, it is a drama. And there is no better place to remind people of the shock and damnable injustice of a socially and sexually uneven world than in the middle of a drama in which we feel cosseted and safe. It's delightful spending Sunday nights keeping an eye on the over-plumpness of a fretting pot-bellied Lord's fireside-pink cheeks. But to shake us out of that pleasurable security and make us think about the grotesque reality of a power imbalance that was rife a century ago, and seems to be creeping back into the national consciousness today, is a worthwhile thing for a writer to do.
In fact, the scenes were very well handled. As the conversation turned from friendly to threatening, Fellowes effectively hit the panic button and his audience responded. We saw Anna being dragged behind a door and heard her cries, without ever being implicated as voyeurs; the presentation was both sensitive and traumatising. I expect we'll now find out how such an event can impact on a happy marriage. I'll certainly keep watching. I might even learn something. Gosh, now there's a thought.