This week sees the launch of the much-anticipated movie based on the hugely successful Downton Abbey series. It will, no doubt, be a major box-office hit, not least because nostalgia is such a powerful marketing tool.
People seem to love Downton Abbey, not just for the glamorous dresses, the fabulous houses and the sometimes compelling and tragic plot lines, but also, I suspect, because it reminds them of a time when traditional values, stable families and good manners were considered essential.
The flip-side of that, of course, is that Downton Abbey also chronicles an era where far too many people lived in actual servitude to an undeserving few, and the drift to a more egalitarian society has thankfully brought opportunities to millions of men and women who embraced other possibilities rather than being in service at the big house. Nonetheless, the affection for the time and its values is certainly part of the show’s astonishing popularity.
It was strange then to learn that the producers of Downton Abbey had a policy of erasing God and Christianity from the programme, to the point where it even influenced how a napkin was folded at the dinner table during filming.
Christianity would have formed a central part of the lives of both the aristocracy and the ordinary people in Britain at the time, yet the historical adviser to the programme Alastair Bruce revealed that executives were in a “panic” about anything religious being seen on the show.
According to the Telegraph, Mr Bruce was instructed not to incorporate any religious element into the series. It was a blanket ban: he was “strictly forbidden” to include religion in the drama.
In fact, the ITV execs were so insistent about the banishment of God and Christianity that they instructed that viewers should only ever see the Crawley family sitting at table after dinner had commenced, since it was customary for families to say grace before meals.
“In essence you hardly ever see a table that isn’t already sat at… because no one was ever allowed to see a grace being said,” Bruce told the Telegraph. “And I would never allow them to sit down without having said grace.”
Bruce explained that he has tried to include prayers in Downton Abbey, but producers refused, and even went as far as to insist that table napkins be always folded in a triangle, and not like a bishop’s mitre as would have been the custom at the time.
That seems not just petty but rather hysterical. It’s unlikely that most viewers would even be aware that the napkin fold had anything to do with a bishop, and even more unlikely that they would care if that historical detail was revealed.
Perhaps the most revealing comment Bruce made was to say that the show “does not do God” because “the highest executives do not want to alienate their atheistic audience.”
That doesn’t really bear up as an argument. Call the Midwife was a similarly successful and much loved programme made by the BBC, depicting a whole order of nuns – actual nuns! – who not only cycled around London delivering babies, but were also shown praying and singing hymns. No-one seemed to be much alienated or died of shock or even complained, so its most likely the execs at ITV had another underlying reason for its ludicrous ‘God ban’.
Aggressive secularists are attempting to rewrite history to pretend that God was as alien to people in early twentieth century Britain as He is to the power brokers in TV production companies now. That’s not just dishonest, its malicious and manipulative.
Their no-Christians-need-apply stance won’t make any difference to the millions who’ll flock to the theatres to make Downton Abbey the movie a huge hit. But, for some, the anti-Christian motivation from the show’s creators takes the sparkle off the frocks and the silver.
Máirín de Barra is a Dublin based writer