New Downton Abbey movie shines a light on the ‘horrific’ treatment of gay men in 1920s England

Thomas Barrow

Downton Abbey star Robert James-Collier spoke about his character’s “emotional” journey in the new film adaptation.

The actor, who plays butler Thomas Barrow in the ITV series and its big-screen outing, said that his character’s storyline “hammers home what it was like to be a gay man” in 1920s England.

“It was horrific and it’s brought back and it just shows how different it was,” he told the Press Association.

It was horrific and it just shows how different it was.

“It must have been so hard for him and that is why the people warm to him and root for Thomas now, and they certainly will in the film if you watch it.”

James-Collier teased that Barrow has “this little vignette off the side” of the main plot, which returns to Downton on the eve of a royal visit from King George V and Queen Mary.

Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.

Convinced that Barrow isn’t up to the task, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) enlists his predecessor Mr Carson (Jim Carter) to spruce up the manor, freeing Barrow to go off on his own adventure in town.

“You see Thomas discover a whole new world, and that is closer to who he is and there is a joy there, but then that joy may get taken away, but it’s very emotional, Thomas’s journey,” James-Collier said.

Downton Abbey film trailer suggests gay valet Thomas finds romance

Thomas Barrow shares a kiss with an unidentified man in the Downton Abbey trailer (YouTube)

Alistair Bruce, who served as a historical adviser on the film, said that Barrow’s experiences are an accurate depiction of gay life in interwar Britain.

“I think what we’ve done with Thomas in the story is tried to reflect how scary it was,” he told Town & Country magazine.

Downton Abbey series had lengthy gay plot.

Barrow’s sexuality was explored throughout all six seasons of Downton Abbey, which originally aired from 2010 until 2015.

In the very first episode, he was revealed to have had a relationship with the Duke of Crowborough.

An infamous storyline saw him attempt to “cure” his sexuality by injecting himself with drugs. 

James-Collier said that it was a “privilege” to tackle the subject through the character, but later courted controversy for saying that the role had a negative impact on his career.

“Because Thomas Barrow is gay and is, essentially, the bad guy for much of the show, a lot of people within the industry can only see you as that,” he said in 2017.

“They might not be in a rush to see you as a heterosexual love interest. It can lead to typecasting.”

Despite his fears, James-Collier returned for the Downton Abbey film, which is already sparking talk of a sequel.

“In the end it’ll be very much down to how the film is received, if they like it and if they enjoy it, and if we feel there is an appetite for more, then – maybe,” creator Julian Fellowes told RadioTimes.