Julian Fellowes, the bard of progress in Victorian London
Titles, inheritances, and reputations are at stake in Belgravia, a new six-part series from Julian Fellowes—the insufferably poncy creator of Downton Abbey, The Young Victoria, and Gosford Park—who adapted it from his own 2016 novel. But don’t let the swoony theme song and cut-glass accents fool you; Belgravia is more Dickens than Downton. Fellowes even describes one character as having “great expectations.”
The first episode opens with a faithful reenactment of a real-life historical event that’s stranger than fiction: the Duchess of Richmond’s spectacularly ill-timed ball in Brussels on the eve of the battle of Waterloo. The festivities came to an abrupt end when the guest of honor, the Duke of Wellington, received word that the Frenchies were closing in on the city. Belgraiva plays this moment like George W. Bush interrupted while reading My Pet Goat. Some guests went straight to the front lines, still in evening dress.
The battle that doomed Napoleon also sealed the fates of the two English families at the center of Belgravia. Even before the smoke clears, the action skips ahead 26 years, leaving the giddy whirl of the Continent at war for staid Victorian London, and specifically Belgravia, a posh, orderly West End suburb so modern that it’s still under construction.
The neighborhood is fertile ground for exploring Fellowes’ twin obsessions: class and the fear of change. The two prove to be intimately related. “Why does everything have to change?” asks one character, a well-fed white male in line for an earldom. “I like things the way they are.”
But progress waits for no man, however rich and important he might be. “What a difference these railways will make!” his female companion counters. Fellowes crams the script with similarly awkward history lessons explaining the origins of afternoon tea, “the new London Library,” and Belgravia itself, “a new city for the rich south of the park.”
What Belgravia lacks in subtlety, however, it makes up for with soapy melodrama, dressed up in sumptuous costumes and period furnishings. In the grand tradition of family secrets, the cover-up is worse than the crime, and the more the characters try to bury the past, the more attention it draws.
As in Downton Abbey, two female frenemies of a certain age head the cast, brought together by an unlikely and possibly unsavory family connection. Anne Trenchard (Tamsin Greig) is the matriarch of a wealthy clan that made their money “in trade”; her husband James (Philip Glenister) has risen from Wellington’s wartime provisioner to the business partner of real-life Belgravia developer Thomas Cubitt. Anne is extremely conscious of her social inferiority even as she unapologetically enjoys the comforts and connections her husband’s success brings. Catherine, Countess of Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter) finds Anne’s pragmatic self-confidence both appalling and fascinating. Her incredulous “EAST London?” rivals Maggie Smith’s “What is a weekend?”
Physically, the two women could almost be sisters; the casting emphasizes how the circumstances of their births have shaped their very different lives. But they find that’s not all they have in common. They’ve both lost a child. Anne and James have a lazy, ineffectual son and a petulant, social-climbing daughter-in-law; Catherine and her husband Peregrine (Tom Wilkinson) face the grim prospect of leaving the family fortune to their playboy nephew John (Adam James), who’s unhappily engaged to Maria (Ella Purnell), a plucky heiress he doesn’t deserve. Tying together all of these stories is Charles Pope (Jack Bardoe), the innocent orphan who is (unknowingly) the catalyst for Belgravia’s secrets and scandals. As if to compensate for his murky past, Pope is a man of the future, with ambitions to build not just factories, but empires.
Because this is a Julian Fellowes joint, everyone has an army of servants that serve as a Greek chorus and whisper network. Compared with the jovial downstairs crew of Downtown Abbey, however, the servants of Belgravia are positively Machiavellian. They’re all Baxters and Barrowses, eavesdropping, drinking the Margaux, and dabbling in bribery, blackmail, and petty theft. Is London life to blame for all this bad behavior?
It’s certainly not Fellowes’ forte. As a setting, Belgravia lacks the insular, idiosyncratic character of a country house or castle; it’s neither exotic nor relatable. The characters talk about “progress”, but the actual progress itself mostly remains offscreen. And the plot hinges on a big misunderstanding that Fellowes could have neatly tied up in one episode if the characters had just talked to one another. Instead, it all culminates in a deus ex machina so contrived that Dickens himself would blush. In true Dickensian style, goodness prevails, wrongs are righted, and the baddies are banished to France, where, one hopes, the ghosts of Waterloo are enjoying a more tranquil afterlife.