From Down­ton to the su­per-rich of Amer­ica

Writer Ju­lian Fel­lowes has a sur­prise for Dowa­ger Count­ess fans as High­clere gives way to New York

The Sunday Telegraph - - News - By Steve Bird

AS THE cre­ator of Down­ton Abbey, Ju­lian Fel­lowes is a proven mas­ter of turn­ing ec­cen­tric­i­ties of the English aris­toc­racy and foibles of the down­stairs ser­vants into grip­ping tele­vi­sion drama. And as he pre­pares to start work on a US drama about two su­per-rich fam­i­lies vy­ing for power in 1880s New York, he has ex­plained the dif­fer­ences be­tween the Amer­i­can and Bri­tish up­per classes en­joy­ing the trap­pings of high so­ci­ety.

In his first in­ter­view since NBC an­nounced that he would be writ­ing The Gilded Age, the Con­ser­va­tive peer re­vealed that one of Down­ton’s best-loved char­ac­ters will make a guest ap­pear­ance. Set 30 years be­fore Down­ton, the Amer­i­can show will fea­ture a young Vi­o­let Craw­ley – the Dowa­ger Count­ess of Gran­tham played by Dame Mag­gie Smith in the ITV se­ries – and her teenage chil­dren.

“It might be quite fun to have a young Vi­o­let get­ting into trou­ble, and her son, Robert, and daugh­ter, Rosamund, who would be in their early teens in the 1880s,” Lord Fel­lowes said from his home in Dorset.

If so, they will rub shoul­ders with Mar­ian Brook, the Amer­i­can show’s hero­ine, the scion of a con­ser­va­tive fam­ily who at­tempts to in­fil­trate an in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful clan dom­i­nated by George Rus­sell, a ruth­less rail­road ty­coon. “It’s about a so­ci­ety form­ing it­self out of two dis­parate groups; the old New York fam­i­lies and the peo­ple with new money,” Lord Fel­lowes said yes­ter­day. “One fam­ily thinks they are much grander than the other, and the other knows they are much richer. Be­tween the two of them they fight it out.

“One of the in­ter­est­ing as­pects of the Amer­i­can elite is they never saw the need to di­vorce them­selves from the source of their money. The English would make their for­tunes in car­pets, or what­ever, then sell the busi­ness, buy a coun­try house, do­nate a li­brary to get a baronetcy and go hunt­ing. The Amer­i­cans, on the other hand, weren’t like that. Peo­ple richer than any­one could imag­ine would still go into the of­fice, the bank and in­spect the ships or the rail­ways. That, to me, is more mod­ern and nearer the way we live to­day.”

Just as Down­ton fea­tured fic­tional char­ac­ters with ref­er­ences to his­toric events like the First World War and the sink­ing of the Ti­tanic, the new se­ries will draw on Amer­ica’s rich cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal his­tory.

“I will get a list of what hap­pened in the world in 1881, then 1882, but par­tic­u­larly what hap­pened in Amer­ica. It will say that this was in­vented then, or they were all eat­ing this, or the bat­tle of some­thing or other hap­pened then. It’s a way of giv­ing tex­ture to the show.”

Any story about the US af­ter the Amer­i­can Civil War, the abo­li­tion of slav­ery and the in­flux of im­mi­grants seek­ing their for­tunes has to ex­am­ine the is­sue of race – a “tremen­dous seedbed for a writer”.

He added: “There were Irish, Ger­man, Ital­ian im­mi­grants and a large Jewish com­mu­nity. Every­one was pour­ing into Amer­ica. I cer­tainly in­tend to take ad­van­tage of that in telling the sto­ries.”

Just as Down­ton had High­clere Cas­tle as the grand set­ting, the writer en­vis­ages the for­mer palaces of New York’s Fifth Av­enue, built by the likes of the wealthy so­cialite Cor­nelius Van­der­bilt II, as the back­drop to the se­ries to be re­leased next year.

“The char­ac­ter in The Gilded Age which is the bal­ance to High­clere Cas­tle – a kind of char­ac­ter in Down­ton – will be New York it­self. Dur­ing this pe­riod there was enor­mous ex­pan­sion of the city.”

In the com­ing months, Lord Fel­lowes will di­vide his time be­tween Dorset and the US, a coun­try he first vis­ited at 21. “I think Amer­ica has a dif­fer­ent rhythm and so the show will have a slightly dif­fer­ent rhythm from Down­ton,” he con­tin­ued. “The writer of an Amer­i­can se­ries has a rather dif­fer­ent role to a Bri­tish se­ries. I will have more in­put with things like cast­ing, de­sign and di­rec­tors. It’s a whole new ad­ven­ture.” What of the pres­sure of be­ing an Os­car, Emmy and Golden Globe win­ning writer? He laughs and says: “I would rather be try­ing to live up to a hit than re­cov­er­ing from a flop.”

High so­ci­ety: the Van­der­bilt man­sion, above, had 37 ser­vants. Be­low: Mrs Cor­nelius Van­der­bilt at a so­ci­ety ball in 1883. Right: Dame Mag­gie Smith as the Dowa­ger Count­ess of Gran­tham

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