‘Downton Abbey’ Creator on Thomas Barrow, Attitudes Toward Gays Then and Now


The NYT talks to Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes about Season 3, and part of their conversation discusses Thomas Barrow's storyline, and the attitudes toward gay people then and now.

Another story line from this season dealt with the household learning that the servant Thomas is gay. Had you decided that about him from the time you created the character?

FellowesHe was always going to be gay. I don’t know about in America, but here, there are so many people under 40 who were hardly aware of the fact that it was actually illegal until the 1960s. Perfectly normal men and women were risking prison by making a pass at someone. Their whole life was lived in fear, and ruin and humiliation and career after career would be smacked down. I think it’s useful to remind people that many things that they take for granted, are, in terms of our history, comparatively new. But I also felt it was believable that someone living under that pressure would be quite snippy and ungenerous and untrusting. But once you understood what he was up against, you’d forgive quite a lot of that. I like to write characters where you change your mind, without them becoming different people.

The reactions from the others in the house, particularly those who disapprove so vehemently, make you see them in a new light, too.

Well, I think it’s a mistake to give people modern attitudes if you want them to remain sympathetic, because I think the audience picks up on that. If Carson had said, “Oh, yes, I think it’s absolutely fine,” that’s a 2013 response. My parents didn’t have any prejudice about this at all, actually. In fact, my brother’s godfather was gay, quite publicly, which in the 50s was pretty wild. This was a good friend of my father’s. He was liberal. It didn’t bother him if people were homosexual. But we can forget how we were ringed in with these prejudices until really quite recently.

Read the full interview HERE.



  1. Zlick says

    Yes, I find Thomas more likable since he was outted, but don’t try to pass off the notion that he stayed the same. He’s was super humble in that episode, and he stood up for himself in a poignnant way. There has been only one episode since then – and not only did he fail to do anything typically despicable for his character, he came to the aid of someone being beat up (albeit his crush-interest) and got beat up instead. This is NOT being the same person, and yet gaining sympathy nonetheless.

    Let’s see where this goes before we buy the assumption that simply knowing the troubles Thomas suffers for being gay in that era is what makes us like him a bit more. I think the proper term in this case is “Balderdash.” 😉

  2. Strepsi says

    I love the quote above, and I think what Fellowes is doing is in good faith as well as in the spirit of Downton, like “Can you BELIEVE there was no electricity in kitchens in the 1910’s?” or “Can you BELIEVE homosexuality was actually illegal?”

    Great stuff. And, given Jimmy’s “the lady doth protest too much” rage with Thomas, I am hoping to see Jimmy ease out of the closet himself next season and get with Thomas for real …..

    The only bad part of the whole storyline was that Thomas did not take off his shirt to change for bed 😉

  3. Lola says

    I am also hoping for a Romance between Thomas and Jimmy in season 4…though I agree with many people’s assessment that the overall reaction to Thomas’ homosexuality was a little too rose-colored. But then again, if I want reality I watch the news.

  4. Alan says

    My great uncle (~1890-1977) was openly gay at a time when that wasn’t easy (though he was in NYC – but still). He was with his partner from at least the end of WWII until his partner’s death. So my family was pretty accepting when I came out. I’m sure this was true in many families – and though accepted – it apparently wasn’t ever discussed.

  5. Billy says

    “And, given Jimmy’s “the lady doth protest too much” rage with Thomas, I am hoping to see Jimmy ease out of the closet himself next season and get with Thomas for real …..”

    God, we really do just always assume everyone’s gay, even fictional TV characters, don’t we? He protested because he was kissed in the middle of the night by a dude. That would freak ME out and I love kissing dudes!

    And zlick, I totally agree. I think my attitude towards a lot of characters has softened, and that is PRIMARILY due to the characters themselves softening. Lady Mary and Edith were both nightmares early on. Cora was a snore. Branson was too idealistic. Barrow was (and is) a prick. I mean, I love them all, and that’s to the show’s credit. But I don’t think the circumstances around those characters are what changed my view on them. They’re just less nasty, mostly. Barrow, still a prick. Ha.

  6. Josh says

    Bring back the 50’s. It took a lot more guts to be gay, but it was more adventurous and exciting. I came out in the ’70’s – the Golden Age. We had it all — before the “marriage mavens” moved in. Agoraphobia lives.

  7. pedro says

    To Josh: what a stupid comment. What exactly did you have in the 70’s other than lots of casual sex? You certainly didnt have rights under the law…I am sorry that your youth is gone, but pining for the old days of discrimination is just stupid.

  8. luke says

    i actually thought the ‘i am not foul’ line with carson was more impactful, but then that’s me.

    i doubt there’ll be anything with thomas and jimmy romantically, and i hope they don’t go down that road, especially after what they’ve already done. it’d end up sending thomas into an asylum.

  9. Henry Holland says

    “God, we really do just always assume everyone’s gay, even fictional TV characters, don’t we?”

    That’s my friend Brent, it’s hilarious to see the contortions he goes in to justifying some of his claims.

    “We had it all — before the “marriage mavens” moved in”

    If by “all” you mean no legal rights whatsoever, being considered to have a mental illness, having to hide at work and school > being wiped out by AIDS, sure, that’s all the “marriage mavens” fault.

    Jeebus. I came out for the first time in 1971 and to my parents in 1975, that era *sucked* for most of us.

  10. Josh says

    Pedro: I’m not pining away for anything. It is not for loss of age or sex. The fact that you are heralding the heterosexual model, shows how insular, mundane, and frankly scared you are of an independent life — one that made being gay so unique and rewarding — Not something to sell with ribbons and bows. May your “rights” keep you warm when your husband/wife/whatever has an affair and leaves you for someone else.

  11. Josh says

    Sorry Henry. My experience was the opposite. Of course I looked much younger than my age — still do. We weren’t looking to live the hetero dream. Gays were on the fringe and we all knew it. We all knew the rules and the risks. You missed the boat. Sorry you never experienced celebrity.

  12. Pedro says

    To Josh: If you want to continue experiencing celebrity…whatever that means, you can do so. Those who wish to live wanton lives are not being prevented. Some of us, however, do want to get married to the man we love and settle down and have a family. We want to have the ceremony before God and our family, and have it recognized under the law. If my fiance ever cheats on me, that will be our business. If my marriage fails, then that will be my heartache. The difference between today and the seventies, is more choices are available. Gay men are now given the choice to live as they please. Some of us want domesticated lives, others don’t. I happen to be more conservative in matters of marriage and family, and so is my fiance. What the hell do you mean by “experienced celebrity”? Please don’t tell me you are that shallow…I hope it’s a metaphor and not a literal comment.

  13. freddy says

    Great article, but the comments are REALLY where the juice is…WOW! I’d love an in-depth piece about the attitudes in our community between those patriarchs who believe ‘being gay’ is not following the path to marriage and children, and those who want to have that life. Such a fascinating argument!

  14. billmiller says

    As with all struggles, many of us have no idea what those who went before us had to endure just to be themselves! I am almost 60, and I have known many many folks who were afraid of exposure!

  15. Henry Holland says

    “You missed the boat. Sorry you never experienced celebrity”

    You don’t know squat about me. I came out for the first time in 1971 when I started having sex with guys, I came out to my parents in 1975, I was going to gay bars in the 70’s.

    I’ve never had any desire to get married or being just like hetero’s, it’s just that for a vast majority of us, especially those of us not living in the Chelsea, Castro and WeHo ghettos, live could really suck. Not gonna be nostalgic for a time of rampant disease, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide.

  16. Bellah says

    just couldnt buy the storyline from Lord Granthams point of view, one week he is popping buttons and blood vessels over the prostitute and then pooh poohing any objection over the gay man who has a terrible history in his house. doesnt wash

  17. says

    well, “Bellah” – we still see things like that today, actually.

    folks that don’t mind “the gay” and yet would freak out if/when their son/daughter brings home someone of a different ethnicity.

    looking for logic and consistency among those still clinging to forms of societally-learned prejudices is futile.

  18. Bellah says

    Well little kiwi we arent talking about today are we. I thought we were talking about a television show and how it portrays life at a particular time and place.

  19. says

    the point is if you think hypocrisy is 20th/21st century thing you’re mistaken.

    don’t forget that for a man like Grantham, misogyny isn’t a bad thing; it’s a way of life.

    also don’t forget that it’s a soap opera.

  20. Anon says

    Why is it that no one remembers that Thomas had kissed a man far before season 3? He kissed the duke in season 1 episode 1. The very first episode. He’d always been known to be gay, from the very beginning.

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