Being a ridiculously avid fan of period dramas, I watch both The Paradise on BBC One and Downton Abbey on ITV. The Paradise is adapted from French, naturalist novelist Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames about the first department store, and Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey is a glamorous and sensational portrayal of upper class society in the early 1900s.
Both series have decided this year to introduce a black character into the storyline. This would seem fairly irrelevant in modern television, but trying to weave a black man into a fictional society where slavery had only been banned a few decades before, without portraying him as a victim or a vagabond, is a challenging task. They were still considered inferior beings, and a primarily xenophobic Britain would not yet welcome them with open arms.
The approach of both The Paradise and Downton Abbey have been utterly different, but also rather brilliant.
Last week, The Paradise featured a brand new character named Christian Cartwright (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a talented photographer hired by Tom Weston to take portraits of the staff. Suave and artistic, Mr Cartwright’s ethnicity is completely ignored, suggesting that in this fictional (ideal?) world it is irrelevant. He blends seamlessly into the bourgeois tableau of this era, as if he had been there all along. Indeed, shopgirl Susy and Myrtle the cook notice only how deliciously handsome he is… By the end of the show he has formed an intimacy with Clara, an intimacy that would be extremely frowned upon during the restrictive world of the 1870s in which the story is set.
In contrast, the media went crazy when it was leaked that Downton was introducing a black character to the show. Gary Carr plays smooth-talking, jazz-singing Jack Ross, but his racial background is far from ignored. When Lady Rose takes an interest in him, her family and the Downton staff are all hilariously shocked. I believe at one point Carson asks if he has ever considered ‘going back to Africa’, to which he replies politely in the negative as he has never actually been. Downton’s portrayal of a black character is so fantastic, simply because it mocks the imperial ideals of this era. We can watch and laugh at such ridiculous discrimination of a pompous nation taking itself so seriously; we can also remind ourselves of the damage of mindless prejudice, as Downton‘s storyline draws closer to World War II.
Whilst both shows have taken entirely different routes in their portrayal of a black character, they both succeed in either ridiculing racism or dismissing it as an outdated way of thinking, not worthy of attention. Fabulous!