Changes are most definitely coming to Downton Abbey. We knew, in light of spoiler-y recent events at the abbey, that the cast would be undergoing some changes. Among those—and following criticism—was a plan by Julian Fellowes and Co. to add some needed diversity to the show's lily-white roster ahead of the British season four premiere this fall. Today comes news that Gary Carr has been cast in the role of Jack Ross, a "black and very handsome" jazz singer.
Carr's character will, according to executive producer Gareth Neame (via Deadline), "bring interesting twists to the drama." Not that the last season of Downton didn't have twists—it certainly did—but we're hoping whatever "twists" the show has planned for this outing involving Carr's character are a little more nuanced, less maudlin, and avoid tokenism. (Carr himself is a veteran of British television.)
While British period drama has never exactly been known for diversity, Downton Abbey has not been left out of the harsh criticism of all-white casts on big-time TV shows, if not exactly to the extent of, say, Girls. In reporting today's casting news, David Itzkoff at The New York Times writes:
Even for a series about white aristocrats and their servants in the early 20th century, “Downton Abbey” has been criticized for its lack of diversity, and its creator, Julian Fellowes, has said he has wanted to introduce more black and Asian characters if he could do so in a way that was “historically believable.”
Before season three aired in the U.S. Fellowes told the Telegraph, "You have to work it in in a way that is historically believable, but I am sure we could do that. The show certainly ought to have an Indian character from that period." Black musicians appeared when some of the characters visited a jazz club in one of the last episodes of season three, though the musicians were very much background players.
Meanwhile, Downton Abbey has been bulking up its cast for the fourth season, especially with anchors that initially enchanted us Americans now gone—including Siobhan Finneran, who plays evil lady's maid O'Brien. Two dames are joining Maggie Smith, including Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, an opera star who plays a guest that sings, and Dame Harriet Walter, who plays Lady Shackleton, a friend of the Dowager Countess. The show is also welcoming Tom Cullen and Julien Ovendon, as a lord and an aristocrat respectively, and Joanne David as a duchess. (The lord, Lord Gillingham, will likely be a suitor for Lady Mary, per The Sun.) Nigel Harman plays a new valet. Carr's role obviously holds the most interest because it's not one of the archetypes we've already seen on the show. Lords and aristocrats, even if they are suitors for Lady Mary, are familiar faces at this point. And diversity is welcome on any show of note.