The Case of Mr Bates: Downton Abbey

Warning: This blog post contains spoilers for all 6 seasons of the hit ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey: the British period drama that captured the hearts of those across the world. A show that I, a student with a passion for both history and television, decided ‘wasn’t my thing’ having only heard the title. However, recently, in the final year of my undergraduate degree and largely confined to my bedroom because of the lockdown situation, I finally decided to listen to recommendations from several friends, and squirrelled myself away with Downton Abbey for the first few weeks of being home. I was instantly in awe of the beautiful scenery and complex female characters. These were not, however, the only aspects of the show to pique my interest. The show’s opening season featured Earl of Grantham Robert Crawley hiring old acquaintance John Bates as his valet: a prestigious position which younger, existing members of the downstairs staff aspired to. Bates’ apparent lack of experience of the job was not, however, the key concern of existing staff members. John Bates, a war veteran, had a limp, using a walking stick much of the time.

Even in today’s twenty-first century world, with laws against discrimination and in favour of ‘reasonble adjustments,’ there are many instances of people expressing concern that those with certain medical conditions will be unable to effectively perform their duties (I won’t reference or link to them here, as I do not wish to give them any more traction, but trust me, they’re there). It is therefore not surprising that, in a programme depicting a twentieth-century society which did not benefit from such laws, other characters would raise concern about the impact of disability on a man’s work.

This leads to a powerful storyline in the show’s first season, which sees John Bates, hurt and frustrated about the possibility that he will again find himself out of work due to a medical condition, try to take correction of this condition into his own hands. In episode 3 of season 1, Mr Bates attends an unlicensed medical shop and purchases a ‘limp corrector’: a painful metal contraption screwed onto the leg, which was shown to cut into it and actually make performing his duties more difficult. A powerful reminder of the lengths individuals such as Bates would go to to be able to perform working duties is especially relevant to the twenty-first century viewer who is suspicious of and criticises ‘benefit culture.’ The case of John Bates serves to remind them that working is often the desire, and that people with disabilities may sometimes consider themselves victims not of their medical conditions, but of a world which refuses to put simple adjustments in place to allow them to fulfil the roles they are more than capable of performing. This is a sentiment expressed by Robert Crawley who, whilst initially hesitant about some of the adjustments Bates expresses regarding paying for extra footmen himself where required, eventually comes to realise that ‘it wasn’t right’ (1×01, 01:01:00) to let somebody go for a situation in which adjustments could be made to make it work, leading to Bates’ successful career as Robert’s valet for many years. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I was impressed that Downton Abbey didn’t just leave Bates’ journey with his disability there. As in everyday life, Bates’ limp continued to play a part. He continued to face and overcome discrimination. When another man tried to justify his attack on Bates’ wife Anna in the third episode of season 4 by using his disability to argue that Bates couldn’t possibly keep her happy, Anna firmly corrected him. Furthermore, Bates’ limp ended up being his saving grace come the season 5 Christmas special (‘A Moorland Holiday), when it was the reason a stranger was able to identify him and provide him with an alibi, proving he could not have committed the crime for which he was accused.

Overall, I was impressed with Downton Abbey’s ability to sensitively incorporate Mr Bates’ disability storyline into all of its seasons. Whilst it would’ve been nice to see a disabled actor tackle the role, Brendan Coyle did an excellent job of showcasing both Bates’ vulnerability and determination to succeed. As housekeeper Mrs Hughes told Bates: ‘We all carry scars, Mr Bates, inside and out’ (1×03, 48:00), and Downton Abbey certainly demonstrates that, if a twentieth-century world of social hierarchy could make reasonable adjustments to enable everybody to perform their job to the best of their ability, then the modern day, with infinite access to technology and the existence of anti-discrimination laws, really does have no excuse.

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