Two and a half weeks on, and TV fans are still talking about Downton Abbey and the scene in which Anna, one of the genuinely nicest characters ever, was raped. The Telegraph, the Mirror, the Metro and the Independent, to name a few, each ran several stories on it, there were dozens of complaints, and this week’s edition of the Radio Times has put the story on its cover, with comments by both Alison Graham, the TV editor, and Sarah Millican, the celebrity columnist. Other than the crew and actors involved in creating the episode, everyone in the world seems to be shocked and horrified at the audacity/stupidity/insensitivity/sadism (delete as applicable) of including such an event in the programme, especially – and this is perhaps what has drawn the most scorn – when it’s used as a ‘plot device’.
Granted, much of the criticism comes from the fact that people see Downton as a pleasant family programme, where not having the right tie for dinner is the disaster of the decade. In contrast, no one bats an eyelid when the issue of rape comes up in crime dramas – the investigators in CSI, for example, are always running ‘rape kits’ (an unpleasant phrase), and sexual assault appears with reasonable regularity on this and other hard-boiled procedurals as part of the torment that serial killers inflict upon their victims.
Certainly, Downton is not one of those hard-boiled procedurals… but it’s hardly carefree and fluffy either. Yes, very often the major crisis of the episode is caused by the arrival of an electric whisk or a young woman suddenly deciding to wear trousers – TROUSERS! – to tea. But other, more depressing things have also occurred throughout Downton’s history: sickness, death, war, suicide. People were upset when Lady Sybil died (very graphically) in childbirth, but there was no mass movement to announce that ‘I will never ever watch it again’. It’s true that, up to this point, Downton has never actually had a murder (despite the murder trial), but I get the feeling that if it did, there wouldn’t be such a big fuss as this.
Which is odd, because, you know, murder is quite bad. I don’t think anyone would disagree that, in the real world, murder is as heinous and horrible a crime as rape. In TV, though, while rape as a plot device is frowned upon, death and murder are a whole different story – bring ‘em on.
There are programmes that depict violent times and settings, where death and murder are commonplace: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rome, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones (to be fair, there was a bit of unrest at the mass slaughter of the infamous Red Wedding episode, but a couple of people being bumped off each week up to that point was A-OK). There are dramas and soaps where murder is rare but does pop up from time to time, and deaths from other causes are just part and parcel of the genre: Holby City, Eastenders, Star Trek, Doctor Who. Hell, there are out-and-out comedies where death is occasionally used as either a springboard device or a joke: the body episode of Fawlty Towers, the One Where They Kill Off Phoebe’s Grandmother In FRIENDS So That Phoebe Can Finally Meet Her Father, not to mention the episode of Green Wing where two of the characters murder a man (it’s funny, though, because he’s a dwarf and they beat him to death with a stuffed heron, see?).
And of course there are the crime procedurals I mentioned earlier, where murder is not just a plot device – it’s the entire premise of the show. Sure, the murderers are the bad guys and the main characters are the heroes out to catch them, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that every single week on CSI, NCIS, Law and Order, Luther, etc., at least one person (and usually several people) will be brutally killed just so that we can have our hour of dramatic TV. In Broadchurch, an eleven-year-old boy is thrown off a cliff so that we can spend the series working out whodunnit. And the argument about gritty drama vs. cosy family viewing doesn’t exactly bear up: Agatha Christie’s Marple is about the most genteel programme on TV, and even that wouldn’t exist without a nice grisly murder at the start of each episode. Let’s face it: if we’re going to talk about horrific events being used as plot devices in TV, then maybe we should be including some of this stuff?
Of course, if we’re trying to put things in perspective, it’s important to point out that none of these murders is actually real. In crime dramas, comedies and soaps alike, the ‘people’ involved are fictional characters ‘killed’ by other fictional characters. Of course, if you listen to Lucy Worsley in the recent documentary A Very British Murder, there’s not a lot of difference: the murder mystery is a continuation of the nineteenth-century fascination with killers, and both come from a sense of “ghoulish enjoyment” with the viewer “repulsed and gripped in equal measure”. But I happen to disagree with her on this point – I think the impulse to read about real murders comes from a very different place than the enjoyment of trying to solve what is essentially a puzzle (albeit one where someone’s died), and the viewer’s attitude to a TV murder doesn’t generally reflect their attitude to murder in real life.
But Anna in Downton is also a fictional character, as is Lisa Dingle, whose rape in 2011 on Emmerdale was also widely discussed in the media. The issue in these cases is presumably that, although these characters specifically are not real, rape is, and is awful and harrowing, and so fictional representations of it need to take that into account – this much is true. But why not the same with murder, also awful and harrowing in real life, but treated with a much lighter touch in pretty much every programme under the sun? Can you imagine a jolly historian dressing up in period clothes and licking her lips to present A Very British Rape?
Murder may be, in Lucy Worsley’s words, “the darkest and most despicable of crimes”, but somehow, for some reason, it’s practically normal on TV while other dark and despicable crimes are not. You have to wonder why.