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
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