First named character seen as Downton Abbey began: Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) heading north for the job of valet to Lord Grantham (DA, 1:1)
Penultimate named characters seen as Downton Abbey, the 4th season ends: Mr and Mrs Anna (Joanne Froggart) Bates by the sea (“By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea/You and I, you and I, oh how happy we’ll be ….”)
Dear friends and readers,
In this fallow time between last year’s fourth season and the coming fifth season, I’ve been re-watching Seasons 1-3, and reading the first two sets of screenplays, with their long candid notes by Julian Fellowes, as well as the scenario (companion) books by him, his daughter, with contributions by other involved people, and have realized that John Bates is the alter ego, the subversive male self (id anyone?) for Julian Fellowes across the series. Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is the upright self (super-ego, ego). While Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) was being dramatized as in conflict with because his methods and presence were replacing Grantham, since the star refused a fourth season and was abruptly killed off, the new duo did not emerge, and instead in the fourth season the paralleling of Bates with Grantham matched with their over-arching matched stories in the first season.
I’ve discovered that from the second season on when Mrs Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is found dead, Fellowes provided plenty of evidence to suggest that it was not accidental nor a suicide, but a murder by Bates, driven by hatred and a need to rid himself of this woman who had taken everything from him (money, liberty, respect as he had gone to prison for her crime) and was still determined to revenge herself on the Grantham family who had taken him in and Anna Smith (the woman Bates now loved passionately).
From last shots of Season 2, Episode 6: Vera Bates lies dead on the floor
There are four shots and they show evidence of a fierce struggle, things flung on the floor, she still has her boots on.
It’s only in hindsight one goes back to look for the evidence: in retrospect we see the same pattern: what appears to be an accidental or self-induced death, a “happy” and convenient occurrence for both Anna and John Bates, was helped along considerably by Bates. Why is this important? Before we pronounced Downton Abbey woman-centered (in say comparison to Breaking Bad, which it is), even proto-feminist, a gentle and (except for WW1 of course) a non-violent world, we should recognize it also conforms to a pattern I’ve seen in many male texts of the 20th century, males who murder their wives and get away with it, males who pride and ego are thwarted and threatened by a wife’s betrayal and promiscuity (remember the first thing Bates learned when he returned to London with Vera was that she had “betrayed” him) — from George Smiley to say the male characters in Poldark. I mention the Poldark series for a real troubling aspect of them despite their boasted woman-centered and feminist themes, is the males murder their promiscuous wives or the men who cuckold them and get away with it — in the second novel the man who is exiled for the murder is also very much lower class. And as in Poldark and LeCarre’s fiction, in Downton Abbey we have real sympathy for raped women (Anna most notably), including in some mini-series, maritally raped women (coerced marriage is a form of rape, repeated rape) and abused women (that includes Ethel whose baby is taken from her).
It also casts a questioning light on the upright Tory conventional conservatism of Fellowes. In the first two companion books (The World of, Chronicles of), more than once he tells of a newspaper story that stayed with him and he modeled the Bates’s story upon – the trial of Harold Greenwood.
Greenwood, a solicitor from Kidwelly in Wales, was accused of murdering his wife, Mabel, with arsenic, so he could marry a much younger woman. Mabel … had diedin June 1919 … of heart failure, and it was only after a persistent local whispering campaign … that the police … exhumed her body … The found traces of arsenic … and returned a verdict of guilty … it was alleged that he had poisoned her during Sunday lunch, by means of a bottle of Burgundy … Sir Edward Marshall Hunt, [his] lawyer … undermined the forensic evidence, discredited the testimony of a parlour maid … showed that Greenwood and Mabel’s grown-up daughter had also drunk from the same bottle .. the jury, rather reluctantly, returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’ (237-38)
The evidence: reading over the notes to the second season’s scripts I find Fellowes discussing the third and fourth season — not yet filmed, the fourth not yet contracted for. He discusses central themes and brings up his idea that he jumps time as he pleases and would not dwell on a funeral — here it can be William’s death in the 2nd, but it is clearly Season 4 and Mary mourning Matthew’s death he has in mind. Ture, the first five episodes of the first season seem to stand alone as a quiet delight. Viewed without Episode 6 they show that there was no idea that for sure the mini-series would go on for more than one season. The idea was to suggest here this good (ahem) world disintegrating in several ways, but the show’s popularity changed all that and in Episode 6 you see several turn rounds allowing for next season. At the same time it was easy to make Episodes 6 and 7: WW1 was obviously going to be season 2; and the time after for Season 3. So even though they did not plan on a second season for sure, he had ideas for continuation, and from the very first he made stories and characters with some ideas of how things might work out over the years.
He plants clues even profusely, starting in Episode 6 of the second season. We saw the scene at the close of Episode 6 — signs of fierce altercation and on Bates when he came back to Downton early the next afternoon a wound near his eye. Black-and-blue Perhaps she attacked his eye with a knife or fork or whatever came to hand.
Grantham asking and Bates saying there was no suicide note so they’ll never know
Then the 7th episode. First there is no suicide note. Lord Grantham tells Bates that Lady Cora has been asking if there is any information about Mrs Bates’s death. Women do identify with other women. Bates says he doesn’t think so; “they’d like to know why she did it, but I don’t suppose we ever shall.” (This reminds me of how NASA tried to stall ojn the challenger; they at first asserted they and we would never know what causes the accident.) Lord Grantham; “You’d think she’d leave a note.” Bates: “Perhaps it was a spur-of-the-moment decision.” Grantham says it can’t have been since she’s have had to get hold of the stuff. Bates looks uncomfortable and so his sympathetic employer drops the subject.
Then not filmed but in the screenplay Anna comes upon Bates trying to clean a waistcoat with chalk. He looks very worried, and does not pay attention to her. She signals her presence by suggesting fruit or milk. He is preoccupied and appears not to hear; she asks if he is all right and he says, now that she asks, and is about to speak, but they are interrupted by Mrs Hughes as needed by their employers.
Anna made to understand by Bates that he had motive and opportunity
The way to deflect attention from how information incriminates yourself is to bring it forward. In the next scene about the suicide (I had almost said murder, so let’s say death) of Mrs Bates, Mr Bates tells Anna his lawyer told him there is a letter from Vera to a friend saying she knows Mr Bates is coming to London after she has told the judge that she and Bates colluded in the adultery evidence so the first decree is thrown out of court and she is now for the first time “afraid for my life.” Bates says, Well he intended to have it out with her; living she had taken all his money and thwarted the divorce. As widower he had everything to again. Anna: “So what are you saying?” that “you had a motive … ” He: “Of course I had a motive. And I had the opportunity.” Now Mrs Hughes interrupts again; Bates is wanted and she says to him he looks as if he has the cares of the world on his shoulder. Not the whole world but quite enough of it he replies.
Episodes 8 and the Christmas episode — which latter weaves as much about the Bates, and a parallel story of Hepworth and Miss Shaw trying to get a handle on Lady Rosamond’s money. In Episode 8 it is carefully dropped in that Bates himself bought the arsenic himself; again he tells Anna this as a sort of afterthought, an unfortunate circumstance which adds to the circumstantial evidence. He brings this up in the one moment we really see a couple naked in bed together thus far — very happy is Anna and she responds by asking him “not to talk about it just now” (p. 477).
They go back under the covers — she does not want to hear this now
Fellowes’s notes to the Christmas episode of the second season in the screenplays are meant to be revealing too: Fellowes writes that he wanted to leave the death “slighty ambiguous,” implying by this that Bates is not guilty yet looks so (p. 508): “I have always quite deliberately left a very slight doubt as to whether or not Batess account is the whole truth,” but this introduces evidence which helps convict the man in the next notes.
Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) realizing what she’s saying
These concern the improbable way Mrs Hughes, Miss O’Brien and even Lord Grantham tell on the stand the hostile and angry and threatening remarks Bates made. Fellowes knows that people lie on the stand, especially where no one can check up, and in his notes tells us an attorney friend objected to the scenes and characters’ behavior as too idealistic (they would have lied) (pp. 533-536). Fellowes says he did this because he’s seen so much lying that he loves an exhibition of the truth. Rather this is the only way he can highlight more suggestive realities about Bates’s anger that matters for the guilty verdict.
Bates looking at Anna
Anna taking it in
When towards the end of the Christmas episode when Anna visits Bates in prison, she thinks he may be hanged, we are told by Fellowes that Bates is “much less unhappy than she” (this is in the stage directions). Bates tells Anna to forgive the others for not lying, says in response to her saying she regrets nothing, he regrets nothing too: “no man can regret loving as I have loved you.” This time Fellowes’s note tells us that “Saint Bates” is not the way to take this: “There is darkness underneath. This is the strength of Brendan Coyle’s wonderful performance.” Brendan Coyle’s resume as an actor includes many ambiguous seethingly angry working class males (Lark Rise to Candleford, North and South, Mary Barton), and we see this seething from the opening episodes on: when Lord Crowborough comes up to the attic to search for incriminating letters between himself and Thomas, Bates is there by his room, and sardonically opens his door, mortifying Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Three times he comes close to throttling someone: Thomas after he watched Thomas needle William, his wife Vera after she tells him she will snitch about Lady Mary to the papers unless he gives up the precious position, and most effectively of all in season 3 the fellow prisoner plotting with a warden against him is terrified into wanting to get rid of Bates.
One can only ferret out this information by watching and re-watching, using the screenplays, reading the notes and comparing what is found in in the scenario book for the sources for the character of Bates and Fellowes’s intense involvement and absorption in this character. Anna, Fellowes repeatedly says, is the one fully “good” woman of the series — we may see this as acknowledging how much a Tory, pro-establishment non-subversive, and kindly character she is, but we should notice that in season 4 when she explains why they must keep from Mr Bates the knowledge that it was Mr Green who raped her, she says “I know him and know what he is capable of.”
At the same time if in the second and third seasons we were given enough ambiguous evidence to suggest a covered up murder, it’s only in the fourth when we see a parallel of an supposed accident to Mr Green (he fell under a bus at Piccadilly Circus), which Bates was on the spot to facilitate, that this first death is solved. Again there are the clues, e.g., the day ticket to London hidden in his coat pocket which he is anxious to destroy; his facility with forgery, his guessing where the sleaze card-sharp would have kept an incriminating letter (in his jacket pocket next to his own shirt).
Season 4: Bates filching the letter from the blackmailer-gambler while Bates pretends to be merely helping him on with his coat
Fellowes is cagey and I am persuaded a self-conscious writer who is aware of the political implications of what he writes. You can see this in his voice-over commentary for both Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. Unfortunately there are no long notes to his screenplay of Gosford Park — which he probably had to persuade Altman to publish in the first place. But in that film-story there is also a valet, Robert Parks (Clive Owen) who murders (or seeks to murder the male equivalent of Lord Grantham in function, a ruthless conscienceless mean liar, Sir Wm McCordle (Michael Gambon) who has been seducing and impregnating his female staff members for years.
Among these victims, is the present housekeeper, Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren) whose child Parks was; Parks’s placement in an orphanage McCordle lied about. So too did McCordle impregnate (like some gothic villain), Mrs Wilson’s sister, the present cook, Mrs Crofts (Eileen Atkins) whose baby died because Mrs Crofts tried to keep it and didn’t have access to medicine, warmth, food, care enough while she worked. In Downton Abbey the impoverished Ethel and her illegitimate baby are dependent on Mrs Hughes’s care packages. Parks easily gets away with it as most of the characters loathe McCordle (and the inspector, brilliantly played by Stephen Frye does not want to fish in these dark waters), but no one is sardonically quietly seething as Parks. Fellowes wrote that script too and we there rejoice Parks got away with it — with a good deal of help from his mother, Helen Mirren, the housekeeper, Mrs Wilson — the perfect servant anticipating everyone’s every move. Of course in this story Park is the biological son of McCordel by Mrs Wilson whom McCordle lied to about where he placed the boy.
Gosford Park: Mrs Wilson apparently visiting Mr Parks to see that he’s got everything
Parks telling her she misses very little
As films begin to gain more prestige as art forms and we get these written materials we can understand what is in front of us more — see it in the first place as movies move so swiftly we miss a lot.
I’ve been asked this useful question by a friend:
about Bates expressing Fellow’s id — there is something especially unsettling about the servile valet, bowing and scraping to the masters, while inside boiling with a literally murderous rage–which is directed at people of his own class. I find him an interesting counterpart to–and now I am forgetting names–the chauffeur who married Lady Sybil, who seems such a lap dog in contrast. What are we to take from this–that the servants like Bates who are seemingly upstanding and pious really do want to murder their masters in their beds, while the alleged Marxists are simply waiting for a seat at the table? This doesn’t bode well for Anna.
I can’t say no. Maybe Fellowes is dramatizing upper class aristocratic nightmares from the English civil war on — I begin there for in the 17th century we begin to get diaries and private papers showing how servants turned on the masters in civil wars and revolutions. But from the notes and scenario books I feel Fellowes more identifies — and far more humanely than he does with Lord Grantham who is made too much a Sir Charles Grandison figure, a dupe, who cannot take care of the estate and his wife’s money in investments.
I’ve been reading Rush and Dancyger’s Alternative Scriptwriting this morning, where they show how film strongly tends to personalize and find the actuating motive of whatever happens in a particular character, even in documentaries; and how the “other” can become the point of view of a film quietly. That’s what I think happens here sexually and politically. In films there is a strong tendency to see what occurs as a result of personal histories not larger social and economic and political forces. One of the interests of Downton Abbey for me (Gosford Park even more because of Altman’s genuinely liberal presence) is how Fellowes, however you may not like his politics, wants to get theese larger forces into the scenes as actuating them and does manage it. Through Bates and also Tom Branson (Allen Leech) he brings out an opposing outlook on Downton Abbey — one example, when Thomas first shows Bates in Lord Grantham’s room with all his elegant clothes and expensive snuff boxes, Bates remarks on what a load of treasure is before them, how they get to handle, but own none of it. Thomas agrees (though he prefers to filch wine). Then Bates goes up to his room and we see how bare it is, and yet now he is so gratified to have this quiet private space to himself if only for sleeping time. At the same time the other main parallel story of this episode is about how Grantham inherited and held on tothis property by marrying Cora for her money and immediately sluicing her money off to support it.
Branson and Lady Ethel (Laura Carmichael) expressing to one another at close of Season 4 they have lost their way, he is still not one of the elite, and she a hidden unwed mother who has not given up her baby
Branson by contrast is supposed the idealist socialist — he loses his way because emotionally befuddled. That Bates is not. Bates knows who is the victim, and who we should compassionate. He and Anna (also after she finds out that Ethel is pregnant) alone compassionate Ethel and he alone continues to treat Ethel with respect and his own gravitas, e.g., he remarks to Mrs Hughes, she’sbadly shaken, to Mr Carson she’s lost everything (p. 401, episode 8). In Episode 8 Bates shows up Hepworth for the weak shit he is. That’s what he’s there for. His story is central to many of the hours, especially prominent in the first and fourth season.
I suggest we empathize with Bates, or at least grant him much sympathy. He is not only strong and compassionate towards others, he is himself disabled. In the first three episodes of the series, everyone in the house but Lord Grantham, Anna, and William want to see him fired. He is heroic in his quiet attempts to do all that others do. We see him humiliated and deliberately sabotaged by Miss O’Brien, Thomas, given no human understanding by Lady Cora. The cold Lady Mary cannot understand why someone would hire a man “who can’t do his job.” Anna reminds her that Mr Bates was Lord Grantham’s batman in the Boer War and fought hard. Lady Mary concedes this is so, but will not give the man any slack. His attempt to straighten his leg with a torture instrument in the third episode is painful to watch and we feel painful to experience. He is one of the outsiders, and through him Fellowes does widen his purview to get us to identify with the 99% — all the more in that he is not presented as a Saint, an Uncle Tom. James Baldwin could not attack Downton Abbey as a protest novel (where sentimentalism replaces real anger in a victim).
Beyond this we concede his wife was a horror, and Anna in danger of repeated rapes from Mr Green (until he was fired at Lady Mary’s knowing request) because she felt she could not tell the police. I agree that the story is one which revives lawless duelling as a way of solving problems, and the thinking behind Bates’s killing of Mr Green is in line with honor-killing. The mini-series has an underlay of troubling violence.
Fellowes (again in the notes to the screenplays) offers as a moral lesson he sees as central to the whole of his mini-series, here as connected to Anna and Bates. When Lady Mary gives Anna time off to marry (and we later learn) arranges a room for them to honeymoon in for the first night, Fellowes comments: this show is about “whether or not people are being allowed to exist within their own universe, and here, nothing is disrupting that (p 465). The conservative thinks active socialist gov’ts do not allow “people” to exist within their own universe (people here being the rich, with the rest of us controlled by bureaucracies): I’d put it that active socialist gov’ts who genuinely have humane ideals and decent people and values actuating the way goods and services are seen and delivered facilitate this kind of living within one’s own universe without the disruption of poverty, exclusion, stigmatizing, war.
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