Downton Abbey historical advisor banished God from show
Alastair Bruce said 'panic' over showing religion on TV meant the Crawleys could not be shown saying grace before meals
Published 16/11/2015 | 14:10
The trials and tribulations of the Crawley family have enthralled Downton Abbey viewers for six series. But some have questioned why Christianity, which would have formed a central part of the lives of the aristocracy in the early 20th century, is largely absent from the show.
Now the man tasked with ensuring the historical accuracy of the series has revealed why Downton does not do God. Alastair Bruce, who serves as the show’s historical advisor, said that executives in charge of the series had ordered producers to “leave religion out of it”, for fear of alienating an increasingly atheistic public.
Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that the Crawley family is never shown in the process of sitting down to dinner, with the action instead shown from part-way through the meal. This, Mr Bruce said, was to avoid having to show the characters saying grace.
He added: “In essence you hardly ever see a table that isn’t already sat at. We never see the beginning of a luncheon or a dinner, because no one was ever allowed to see a grace being said, and I would never allow them to sit down without having said grace.
“I think that the view was that we’d leave religion out of it, and it would’ve taken extra time too. I suggested a Latin grace, but they decided that was too far, and no one would’ve known what was going on.”
Mr Bruce said that he was even banned from featuring napkins folded in the shape of a bishop’s mitre, for fear of breaching the religious edict. “Everyone panics when you try to do anything religious on the telly,” he said. “I still wish we could’ve got some decent napkin folds, but I was always left with my triangle.”
#The lack of religious references in Downton has been a topic of debate in America, where the series is wildly popular and airs on the PBS channel. The flagship American evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, has noted: "God is a peripheral presence at best.”
The unease at featuring any religious reference even extended to the name of the show itself. Peter Fincham, ITV’s director of television, revealed earlier in the year that the channel had considered renaming the series, because it featured the word 'Abbey' in the title.
He said: “I can remember discussions that almost seem comical now. We talked about the word Abbey. Would people think it would have nuns or monks in it and be a religious series? But we satisfied ourselves they wouldn’t and did a bit of marketing around it.”
Mr Bruce, who was speaking to mark the launch of the DVD of the latest series, in which he presents a video guide to Downton etiquette, warned viewers that the forthcoming Christmas special will have a twist in the tail.
The feature-length yuletide edition will be the show’s last ever episode, and Mr Bruce said: “It is going to end in a way that you might not expect. It will be both exciting and emotional and it will leave you thinking lots of things.”
The historical advisor said that his greatest challenge while filming the final series was to stop the cast from lapsing back into their modern manners. Singling out Matthew Goode, who plays Mary’s rakish new husband, Henry Talbot, he said: “They just wanted to sit back a bit, literally that. I was just there, always saying ‘no’.
"There’s always this thing with actors who come into the show, they want to be more as we are today, and it can be a struggle, because actors want to look good, but they also want to be loyal to their own integrity while performing. Sometimes I have to stand in the way of that private integrity.”
Downton Abbey Series 6 is out on Blu-Ray TM & DVD, from Universal Pictures