Not so long ago, newly installed in my seat on a transatlantic flight, I received news that left me feeling wobbly and tearful. Desperately in need of a non-gin-based anaesthetic, once we were in the sky, I therefore made the highly sensible decision to watch Downton Abbey, a movie in which, I was fairly certain, no one would say anything remotely controversial, and nothing of any consequence would happen. And so it proved. Ah, Carson! I thought, zombie-like, my equilibrium all but completely restored. How wonderful it is that England’s repressive prewar class system has brought you, a humble butler, nothing but unbridled joy and soaring upward mobility.
Like the TV series that gave birth to it, Downton Abbey the movie is the work of Julian Fellowes, an actor-writer whose weird, prelapsarian obsession with dukes and duchesses seemingly knows no bounds – and now he’s back, with Belgravia. At this point, I can’t fully vouch for its tranquilising properties – I dutifully took an extra cup of coffee on the day I watched the first episode, the better to keep my eyes wide open – but at ITV, they must be hoping that this is the series that will get the nation through the worst of the coronavirus. OK, so some viewers may not, once it’s in full swing, have seen their ageing parents for a month, and they’ll soon be clean out of penne. But never mind. On the plus side, here’s an old snob called the Duchess of Richmond whose proudest boast is that her father did indeed “raise the Gordon Highlanders”. Surely all’s right with the world?
Belgravia begins in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo (“I’ll fight him [Bonaparte] here… in Waterloo,” says the Duke of Wellington, helpfully, stabbing a map with his finger). But the action then swiftly moves to London. Twenty-six years after the great battle, the man who supplied Wellington’s troops with their victuals, James Trenchard (Philip Glenister), is now working for Thomas Cubitt, the master builder and developer of that “spangled city for the rich”, Belgravia. He and his wife Anne (Tamsin Greig) are not only newly wealthy; they also have a major secret on their hands. However, as is the way with Fellowes and secrets, this one may turn out to be a jolly good thing. For years, the toffs have looked down on them. Now, though, they have in their possession a means of gaining access to the glorious realm of Lady Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter), a countess whose late son – a viscount! – was once (hint, hint,) very friendly with their late daughter.
Walter is the best thing in this by a mile and a half; at moments, she makes the dialogue sound almost convincing. Greig and Glenister, on the other hand, are comically miscast; if Glenister whipped off his tailcoat to reveal a Bowie tour T-shirt you’d hardly be surprised. It’s good to see Paul Ritter as Turton, Trenchard’s butler, but my God, we’re on familiar territory here. Already, he’s told the chattering servants downstairs they must treat their master “with respect” for all that he’s come from trade. In Fellowes World, you see, servants always love their employers; they would work 365 days a year for them if they could (oh, sorry – in fact, they do! hooray!). And why’s this? Mainly it’s because the ruling classes are just so damned lovely and paternalistic. The way they let you brush their hair! The way they let you decant their port!
Will Belgravia be as big a hit as Downton? My guess is that it won’t. Downton was its own world, a cloistered domain whose particular enchantment – those turrets, that sweeping drive – worked on its audience to the point where people barely seemed to notice the shonky plots, the fact that Lady Mary had the on-screen presence of a mahogany tallboy. In Downton, moreover, London was far away. The problem for Belgravia is that it is set in a city which, post Brexit and post the election, is widely loathed by the rest of the country – though the Trenchards do have, one gathers, a weekend place (“Glanville”, to be whispered in tones the rest of us reserve for wine or chocolate). This could yet save it, assuming the long drive crunches obligingly, and the turrets can be seen from several miles away.
This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning