The Crawleys request your attendance at dinner because the Downton Abbey movie is hitting theaters this weekend.
In honor of the new film, Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of Downton Abbey, sat down with NewNowNext to discuss gay butler Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), his romantic subplot in the movie, and what Fellowes has planned if there is a Downton sequel.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
When you started writing the Downton movie, did you know Thomas Barrow would have such a significant storyline?
Oh, yes. I felt that the two people who were slightly unresolved at the end of the series were the two Thomases, Tom Branson and Thomas Barrow. And Barrow had not really been allowed any fulfillment during the series. I think it’s important we don’t forget how far we’ve come in such a short period. It was extremely difficult to be gay back then. When we had a gay storyline [in the series], and the police were coming for Barrow, at one point I had letters from people saying “Are you seriously telling me that being gay was a crime in 1914?” Well, in 1914 it was a crime, and it was a crime for another half century after that! So easily we can forget what these men went through. The whole gay community in the 1920s, most people had to live a lie. I think it’s good to be reminded of that, and good to be reminded there was a gay community. I wanted to explore that in the film.
Where did the idea for the gay bar raid scene come from?
I was just reading about it. And in those days you couldn’t have a gay bar, even in the way you could in the ’50s. If you wanted to have a meeting place, it had to be a temporary one. It had to be a storeroom, some kind of space where you could get it going, but if the police found out about you could up sticks and move without any delay. They were a people under threat, they were a people under danger. What we were hoping to convey was that there was a gay community, but at the same time it was very difficult to be part of a persecuted minority. And I hope that comes through in the film.
Barrow was pretty sneaky during the series. Did you consciously write him as a more positive, likable person in the movie?
I think he became more positive during the course of the series, really. And he came to terms with who he was. In fact, his secret at the beginning was not a secret by the sixth series, and they had all learned to live with it. And to accept it. Led in a way by Robert, who didn’t really care, and Mrs. Hughes, who didn’t really care. They both really allowed the others to accept the truth of Barrow, so I felt he was mellowed by the time he took over as butler.
When you started writing the Downton series, did you always want to include a gay character?
Yes, I did. There is absolutely no reason to believe there was a lower percentage of people who were gay in the 1920s or the 1850s. The percentage hasn’t changed, what’s changed is the perception. In those days most people who were gay had to create some kind of front they could live behind. But it didn’t mean they weren’t gay and weren’t wrestling with those feelings. That seemed to me to be important to remind people.
I was pleasantly surprised by Thomas’ romantic storyline in the movie.
There is a danger when you deal with gay characters in a period piece—it is always about the suffering, and the unfairness—but I think it’s important to remember the love, and what it’s all about is love. “A love that dare not speak its name,” as the phrase went, but nevertheless the love. I just wanted to have a moment where we were reminded that these are two human beings, emotionally attracted to each other, and being a little in love.
If there was a Downton sequel, could you see Thomas and his love interest reuniting?
To be honest, I haven’t really started thinking about all that kind of thing. [Laughs]. I certainly see Thomas Barrow being in it because I think he’s one of the fundamental characters of the show, so on some level or another we would be continuing his story.
If Barrow were alive today, instead of 1927, what do you think he would be doing?
I think his whole situation would be completely different. I think he would have a relationship. He would probably be discreet about it, but it wouldn’t really worry anyone. We’re all past that now. I think the tension would drain out of the situation, really. Of course life is difficult. It remains difficult in 2019 as it was in 1819. But that particular element of it, that you had to suppress your emotionally identity, I think that is no longer necessary. Even at times if it requires a little courage, nevertheless it is possible to have a homosexual identity and live comfortably and well in normal society, and that’s just as it should be.