Introducing the black man in The Paradise and Downton Abbey..

Books & Literature, Reviews

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.

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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 beenDownton’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. 

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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!

Little update: The lovely Gary Carr (Downton‘s Jack Ross) enjoyed this post enough to tweet me! Hooray!

Screenshot from 2013-12-16 14:46:31

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15 thoughts on “Introducing the black man in The Paradise and Downton Abbey..

  1. I enjoyed that episode of The Paradise too. I did not know it was based on a Zola story. I do wonder if such a character is pure fiction and if not would he have been more likely to have emerged in Paris or London ?

    1. Yes, I’ve asked for the original novel for Christmas! I wonder too.. There were interracial marriages going on at the time, but they were very frowned upon and the ‘other’ race would still be looked down upon as inferior. I’d love to know more about it! But I imagine it would be more acceptable in Paris than London!

  2. Very interesting post, I also watched the Paradise last Sunday and was excited to find Nathan Stewart-Jarrett has gone all Victorian. Ignoring racial tension in Victorian England It is something of a fantasy, as you mentioned in your post, and it probably would have been more interesting if they had given a more realistic presentation of the character instead of just weaving racial acceptance into a period drama. Then again this is the ‘paradise’ so anything goes… Got to hand it to him Stewart-Jarrett does make a rather dashing Victorian!

    Take a look at this Guardian article, it’s from a few years back but interesting still:

    http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2005/oct/02/art

    1. That’s a cool article, thanks for sharing! You’re right, presenting a more accurate interpretation would have been interesting, but after a few episodes of ‘Oh my goodness, a black man!’ in Downton, I must say it was quite refreshing to just get on with the story. But yes, Stewart-Jarrett was looking miiiiiiiiighty fine… 🙂

  3. I’ve never seen “The Paradise,” but will look for it now. Enjoyed so much your review of the shows’ ability to introduce the new characters.

  4. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is profoundly unattractive. Yet the women of The Paradise gush about how “beautiful” he is. Riiiiiight. Beyond the physical ugliness of the actor, the inclusion of an African love interest in English Victorian upper-class society is completely ludicrous. It’s nothing more than a transparent, politically correct token made by the lilly-livered, liberal producers of the series. Why not an Italian, French, or Asian photographer? Why a black man, and an especially unattractive black man? We all know the answer, and either we’re too brainwashed by political correctness, or too afraid to speak the truth.

    1. The introduction of Cartwright seems, at best, an extremely clumsy attempt at jumping on the politically correct bandwagon and, at worst, a cynical ploy to rope in a different demographic of viewers. Both of these are insulting and certainly dishonest. If this series was really so concerned at presenting a diverse a cast as possible then why have they waited until now to take steps in that direction?

      While I believe in equality for all, I don’t care for something so shockingly pandering as this. Shows like “The Paradise” are popular partly because they hold themselves up as a window into another time in the world’s history; an honest attempt to show the viewer what life was like in a society of long ago. Stunts such as this, however, rob the show of its intellectual honesty and calls into question its ethics.

      1. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is stunning. “Beard of Odin ” obviously does not know what women finds attractive (most unbearded commenters are quite pleased with his look”)

  5. I found your blog searching about the same question regarding The Paradise. I was also surprised because the normality of a black men in the store. But, now after reading the comments here, I have divided feelings. On one side, I think it is good to show normality because at the end it is not abnormal a black men who is photographe. But on the other side, I think the serie ignores the reality of the History and this episod could be an opportunity to denounce the difficult fight that color (black, indigenous, latino) persons have to be recognize as equals.

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