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Downton Abbey Crosses Racial Divide With Black Character

Will Explore Interaction of British Elite With Emerging Classes

Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham on Downton Abbey.

Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham on Downton Abbey.

The Earl of Grantham is about to confront another social reality as the modern world catches up with Downton Abbey, the existence of black people. A dashing new character is joining the cast, musician Jack Ross. Will he sweep Mary off her feet? Or Lady Edith?

African Americans have always made up a fraction of the population in Great Britain, which even today is still 95 percent white, with 63 million people, according to it’s most recent census.

Back in the 1920s, where Season 4 of Downton Abbey will be set, the country had around 42 million people and blacks were even a smaller fraction of the population. The number of blacks increased significantly as a result of World War I, and in 1919, Britain was racked by race riots in several cities.

So, a black character is in keeping with the times. Matthew Cawley (Dan Stevens) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) were introduced to the Jazz Age in Season 3, when they track young flapper cousin Rose to a nightclub.

Ross is described in a casting call as a male, 25-30. A musician (singer) at an exclusive club in the 20s. “He’s black and very handsome. A real man (not a boy) with charm and charisma,” according to London’s Sun newspaper.

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The part calls for someone who can sing “brilliantly” and “overall he should be a very attractive man with a certain wow factor.”

Musicians and actors were looked down upon by civil society in Great Britain at that time, which in part, accounts for the name of this website, TheImproper.

Proper gentlemen did not associate with actors or musicians. Gentlemen and ladies who took an interest in the arts were considered improper, and the name became a badge of honor in Britain’s bohemian set during the Roaring 20s. Hence anyone who is “Improper” has a deep interest in the music, theater and the arts.

By the 1920s, there were plenty of famous black entertainers in Europe and the United States. Ethel Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record in 1921. Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Bessie Smith, the most popular jazz singer of the ’20s also fit the bill.

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