Bates behind bars: With 20 years of hard labour ahead of him, the valet’s quick temper could land him in even deeper trouble



23:38 GMT, 7 September 2012

As the New Year dawns, the residents of Downton are poised to embrace the new decade with optimism – all that is, but Bates.

Valet to the Earl of Grantham, husband of Anna, and friend to almost all the other servants, Mr John Bates is locked in a prison cell, convicted of his first wife’s murder.

He is in for a long stretch, 20 years at least; though this is better than it might have been – at his trial he was sentenced to hang. His present mental state is something that we – and those around him – can only guess at.

Mr John Bates is locked in a prison cell, convicted of his first wifes murder

Mr John Bates is locked in a prison cell, convicted of his first wifes murder

Bates has admitted he felt lost and became a drunkard when he was invalided out of the Army after the Boer War. He believed he had made his wife’s life such a misery, he needed to atone by going to prison for a crime that she had committed, stealing the regimental silver.

Bates has not been able to take whatever life threw at him with a stiff upper lip. Beneath that calm exterior we know there is a man who is both kind and sensitive to the feelings of those close to him, which is why he is one of the most loved characters in the series.

Meeting Anna changed everything for Bates. When he began working at Downton Abbey, his one hope had been to hold onto his job, which at times looked highly unlikely.

The other servants were doubtful he’d be able to do the work due to his limp, and some plotted to get him fired. Bates fought to keep his position. It provided a refuge and kept him apart from his estranged wife, Vera. Having a criminal record, he knew other work opportunities would be limited.

At Downton he had a roof over his head, three meals a day and the patronage of his friend and master, Lord Grantham.

Despite his enigmatic manner, Bates’ fundamental goodness shone through and it wasn’t long before he had won the respect of nearly all the staff below stairs. Although the butler, Carson, initially took against Bates on the grounds his disability would impair his work, he now knows better.

Brendan Coyle as Bates in prison in the third series

Brendan Coyle as Bates in prison in the third series

The fact the valet is in prison for murder is not enough for Carson to waver in his protection of the man.

Unexpectedly, Bates fell in love with Anna and she returned his feelings. Together they planned a family life, running a small country hotel. Now he’s in prison, Anna’s faith in her husband keeps Bates going. She loves him, absolutely and entirely, giving him the strength he needs.

As Brendan Coyle, the actor who plays Bates, says, ‘At first he doesn’t think he’s worthy of Anna – of this goodness that’s come into his life.

She frees him from himself, and allows him to express himself more. He comes to feel he’s worthy of her.’ Thwarted once again in their desire to be together, those years in prison will be long indeed. ‘Don’t you understand,’ he tells her, ‘while I’m in here you have to live my life as well as your own.’

Having been jailed before, Bates knows what he’s in for. But it’s one thing to serve a sentence on someone else’s behalf, knowing your release date is not far off, and quite another to be staring at many long years of hard labour.

Nor should we underestimate what Bates has been through up to now.

His experiences in the Boer War would have been traumatic, intense and difficult. ‘It was a horrific conflict, a guerrilla war,’ says Brendan Coyle – and extraordinary enough for him to forge a friendship with Lord Grantham, to whom he was a soldier-servant. In addition, his former wife turned into a bitter harridan, intent on making his every moment wretched. He must have felt he had taken enough punishment, even before his incarceration.

On entering prison, inmates faced a dehumanisation process. Bates would not be referred to by name but by a number. His sentence would have begun with a 12-week period of ‘lone confinement’, when the prisoner was supposed to reflect on his crimes with just a Bible for company.

One convict at the time described the hell: ‘Prisoners often had nervous breakdowns. There was a great danger of suicide and incipient madness during that early period.’

Not only was prison life monotonous, there was the constant threat of violence from both warders and fellow inmates. The League for Penal Reform concluded that the warders were often ‘tyrannical bullies’ who gained promotion by intimidating the prisoners.

Bates will have a battle to hold on to his sanity, as he struggles to survive for as long as it takes to prove his innocence. His most important possession is a photograph of Anna, reminding him of life beyond the prison walls.