Full disclosure: I do not watch Downtown Abbey. But I feel that this should still be discussed. If you feel like the show itself might nuance my argument, I would love to hear from you.
Downtown Abbey has announced (through a press release) that it has added its first Black British cast member, Gary Carr. In an interview with the NY Times, one of the show’s executive producers, Gareth Neame, said,
A few people have said, ‘Why isn’t there more diversity? … And the argument would be, we would depict it if were true and accurate. It’s a bit like saying, ‘I don’t approve of the class system, at all, that existed on the show.’ It did exist, and we should depict it in the way that existed. It doesn’t mean I approve of it. But Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920.
My emphasis. As an American, I know very little about Black British history (although I would posit that a lot of Brits don’t know much about it either) but last year my brief encounter with Black British theatre historian, Leon Robinson, was enough to warrant some serious concern over what I believe was a seriously effacing statement by Mr. Neame. Neame did not say that Yorkshire Estates were not multicultural, he said that Britain was not multicultural in 1920. Thanks to Robinson, I had already learned about the contributions of artists like Ira Aldridge (who was actually American) and Les Ballet Negre, but I thought of Aldridge as more of an outlier example and Les Ballet Negre didn’t really begin until the 1930s. This didn’t seem like it would be enough to consider the country “multicultural.”
So I started to dig a bit and quickly found some diasporic patterns of both Black and Asian communities and their influential presence in the UK during the time period which Downtown Abbey is set. In her article for “History Today,” Barbara Bush writes,
But during the First World War the influx of coloured colonial seamen, munitions workers and others substantially increased the numbers of the British ‘coloured’ population. In the aftermath of the war, British white liberals – the section of the community with a broad sympathy towards the problems of blacks which stretched back in the liberal, humanitarian tradition to the abolitionists – were confronted for the first time with a sizeable domestic ‘race problem’. From this time an embryonic form of the modern concept of race relations began to emerge.
She goes on to detail legislation that the UK government drafted and eventually passed as a response to such riots in 1920 and 1925. I don’t know exactly what Neame’s definition of multiculturalism is, but I think once your government starts making legislative responses to race relations in your country, we’re pretty much there. You might be tempted to clarify on behalf of Neame that of course he meant that Yorkshire country estates were not multicultural in 1920. But he didn’t. And in one, sweeping, justifying excuse of a statement, he effaced centuries of pluralistic communities in the UK, despite the fact that the UK government hired its first Black British employee in 1786, that interracial marriage was happening about that time as well, and that Black and White communities were actually coming together in poverty in the 1800s.
It might seem that I’m banging on about a small thing that Mr. Neame somewhat carelessly (at least I hope) said. By discussing his comment in more length, I am hoping to raise awareness for a number of points:
- Mr. Neame and those in his industry continue to be incredibly influential in our artistic communities and entertainment industries and have enormous power when it comes to crafting and depicting narratives. Their choice on what to focus, highlight, efface, or ignore has a profound impact on society at large – which includes young people who may or may not choose to pursue acting and teachers who are teaching in conservatoires.
- Whoever was interviewing Neame should have either called him on his overarching statement or later fact-checked and posed a critical response in the article as a reflection. That’s just good journalism. I fear that most readers, especially Americans who know very little about British history, would not question his quote.
- I’m concerned with show creator’s Julian Fellow’s statement that he wants to introduce actors of color in a way that is “historically believable,” particularly in light of the scrutiny that the writing on the show is full of linguistic anachronisms. Plenty of people are still watching the show, despite this criticism.
I look forward to the day where producers are not issuing press releases for their first new, ‘vibrant’ Black Character. Audiences can handle it. And if they don’t know that there were non-White people in the UK before 1920, don’t cater to, confirm, or encourage their ignorance.