Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes’ new series Belgravia airs on ITV on Sunday 15th March at 9pm. The riveting period drama, inspired by Belgravia of the mid 19th Century, promises a story of secrets and dishonour among the upper echelons of London society.
Dishonour amid the darjeeling, secrets concealed in corsets and deliciously acerbic dialogue skating across lavish ballrooms. Sound familiar? Probably because it is. Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, is bringing another period drama to our screens this spring as he serves up a liberal helping of gilded nostalgia set right on your porticos.
Belgravia, a new six-part ITV series, is adapted from his 2016 novel of the same name. Set in the early 19th Century, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, the cast is led by Tamsin Greig and Philip Glenister as Fellowes fixes his creative gaze on the upper echelons of London society once more.
Downton fans fearing difficult second album syndrome should fear not. If a sneak peek of the first episode is anything to go by, Fellowes – working alongside long-time Downton executive producer Gareth Neame once more – has another hit on his hands.
Navigating the intricacies of class – which first propelled him to Academy Award success with 2001 whodunit Gosford Park – has become something of an art form and social mobility once again takes centre stage.
Born in Egypt and brought up in South Kensington, I wonder when he first became aware of class in his own life? “I think it was just a gradual awareness,” he says. “When you’re a child, you don’t notice things like that. You just notice that people have got a good bike or whatever. I came from a slightly uneven marriage and my father’s family were very unkind to my mother.
“It didn’t ultimately matter much as they were very happy, but nevertheless their behaviour to my mother as a child was puzzling. As I moved into my teens I started to understand what it was based on and why and I suppose that my first awareness of the cruelty of class really.”
I wonder where he feels he would have slotted into Belgravia society during that time. “I think I’m too ordinary,” he says. “I had forebears who were governors of this, that and the other all over the world and was part of the Empire and serving in the Army and Navy, it was a quite a big thing in my family. But I don’t think any were exactly contemporary glitterati. They might have been lucky enough to go to a few parties in Belgravia, but I doubt very much they would set up home there.”
Nonetheless, our appetite for a depiction of class struggle shows little sign of wavering. Downton’s final episode drew an impressive peak audience of 9.5 million and last year’s feature film took £5.1m at the box office on its opening weekend. Does Fellowes think our fascination is a uniquely British condition?
“I think the British live their history in a way – I wouldn’t say no other people do, but they carry their history with them in a way that not all that many other nationalities do,” he says. “Americans are very interested in their history; you only have to look at Hamilton to see that and they are proud of it and so on, but in a sense they are driven by what is coming next.
“They are interested in the future and what is going to be possible then that isn’t possible now, whereas I think the British always have one foot in the future and one in the past.
“There is an enjoyment of tradition and a sense of continuity that bring them security and comfort. I think it makes it easier to bring an audience in for a period drama, because they are already halfway there. Having said that, with something like Downton, we had a tremendously loyal fan base in America and it was a big hit there, so there are no absolutes with these things.”
Belgravia opens in suitably regal fashion at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels in the summer of 1815, before jumping 25 years into the future to unravel secrets of that night.
Fellows tells me he has long held an interest in the ball – it features in his screenplay of Vanity Fair – and was always truck by the way glamour could be spliced so immediately by great loss of life.
“It all seemed to me an acme of glamorous tragedy, that these handsome young men should leave the ball – many of them still in their evening dress uniforms – and be dead two days later. The other theme of the book, obviously, was about this new city of the rich, this new creation of Belgravia. It was one of the only parts of London that was conceived and built as a unit. I didn’t grow up gradually, it was a series of marsh and fields that were then drained and covered by the Cubitt brothers. That always interested me and so what we needed was a story with a time jump, which is what I had to invent.”
Effectively built to accommodate the new rich – growing in number following the Napoleonic wars, the beginning of Empire and a major increase in manufacturing and trade – Belgravia was in essence, Fellowes says, a home for the wealthy who could no longer be contained within Mayfair.
“Even more than Mayfair, it’s never altered much. Admittedly most of the houses in Belgravia are divided into flats now, but apart from that it has never lost its status. It’s still one of the smartest places you can live in London and it interests me that the Cubitt brothers had such an understanding of what that particular market wanted.”
Christened a ‘spangled city for the rich’ in the series, Fellowes maintains that it still holds true today. “People are richer now than they were when I was young,” he says. “There is far more money flying around.”
A long-time resident – he splits his time between London and Dorset with his wife, Emma Kitchener – he says that while he “technically” lives in Belgravia with a flat in Sloane Gardens, it isn’t what he considers Belgravia.
“I feel [that] starts with Eaton Square, so in a sense I’ve always been an outside looking in rather than a participant,” he says.
Did he feel a sense of duty towards his portrayal of an area close to his heart? “Well, I don’t know if I would define it as duty… but I hope that I have been truthful about the history of Belgravia and how it came to be and how, rather surprisingly at the time, they were expecting a big take up from new money, but were surprised by how many of the ‘old’ families left Mayfair to move into the new Belgravia. You have this mixture of old and new money, which is part of what the book is about.”
Given his phenomenal success on the small screen, did he always have a TV adaptation in his mind whilst writing the book? “It’s quite difficult to answer really, because I’ve worked on television so much so I think in television terms almost unconsciously really. I didn’t have any plans for it to be made into television when I wrote it, but when I’m writing I think quite visually. I have the sort of film running in my head and I think that helped when it came to adapting it for the screen.”
Now 70, though his energy and work ethic suggests otherwise, Fellowes is an affable but modest fellow, forever aware of appearing pompous. The youngest of four, his father Peregrine spent time in the Foreign Office and knew members of the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring, including double agents Guy Burgess and Kim Philby.
An idyllic childhood and private education that included Ampleforth College, he read English at Cambridge University before training to be an actor at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.
“I spent most of my life not being famous at all,” he says. “When I was an actor, I was quite a busy actor, but I was never – until the end, when I was in a few series like Monarch of the Glen – recognised as an actor. Before people used to just think they had met me in Norfolk because my face looked vaguely familiar. Then the Oscar changed that and that I suppose was when it began in any real way.”
Has he been able to embrace fame? “Well, fame – even at my level, which is not great – as you get older it becomes slightly more difficult to manage. That sense of being a public figure, which is something you crave when you are young, later on it becomes the price. There is no point objecting to it, if you want people to buy your books or watch your programmes, then you can’t object to the fact they are curious about you and want to read about you. That comes with the terrority and I don’t have much sympathy with public figures constantly complaining. The truth is you can always go home and shut the door. I think the public is entitled to a bit of you, because they are the people who keep you going.”
Even so, I wonder whether his status as a renowned author and screenwriter somewhat limits his creative choices. Would he like to act again for example? “Well I do miss acting a bit and I would have enjoyed it, but I’ve developed – over the last few years – something called an essential tremor. It means you have a slight shake in your hands. I think that would read on camera and I feel that has rather put pay to any such ambitions.”
He has plenty on his hands regardless. There is a new Netflix series on the way – The English Game, exploring the origins of football in the 1800s – and a second Downton Abbey film is in the pipeline.
Given the success of the last, was he able to enjoy the moment or is it more a sigh of relief? “Oh no, I was very pleased with the fact it went down so well. You never know, you take something into a different dimension and you hope the public will like it in its new wrapper. It’s both a relief and a pleasure when they do!”
Originally published in Belgravia Magazine #159. Words by Jonathan Whiley.
Belgravia airs on ITV at 9pm on Sunday 15th March.
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