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12 April 2020

How Julian Fellowes lost his magic touch

From Gosford Park to Downton Abbey, there was a time when everything Fellowes touched turned to gold. Where did it all go wrong?

By Miriam Balanescu

“It must be hard, moving with the times,” says the working-class footballer Fergus Suter, taunting his Old Etonian nemesis Arthur Kinnaird in Julian Fellowes’ new Netflix drama The English Game.

The line seems rather ironic: this is the latest series from Fellowes, best known for Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, and is yet another lavish, nostalgic period drama exploring British life across class divides. Social hierarchy is also the principal concern of Fellowes’ other recent work, the ITV series Belgravia, which follows two families, one new money and the other old, in stand-off in 1840s London. Since Downton Abbey’s upstairs-downstairs antics first aired in 2010, Fellowes’s blinkered focus on the theme of aristocrats vs the working classes to the exclusion of other issues feels dated. In contrast, other period dramas and films, from Poldark to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, have moved on to other themes – bringing gender, sexuality and race to the fore.

Downton Abbey gained a huge audience on both sides of the Atlantic, and won a host of awards including several Emmys, Golden Globes and a special Bafta. Albeit sickly-sweet, the 2019 film version topped UK and US box office charts. Belgravia, which follows a distinctly Downton-shaped template, hasn’t had the same reception. Lacking the frivolity of Fellowes’ hit series, Belgravia has been called a “snobathon” and “another posho costume drama”. The English Game might have avoided similar censure, as super-rich Arthur Kinnaird takes an altruistic (and slightly voyeuristic) interest in the lower classes, but the show still hasn’t fared well with critics – the Guardian summed it up in one three-word sentence: “It is terrible.” So where did it all go wrong?

Fellowes told the New York Times that he partly attributes the success of Downton Abbey to the fact that it treats “the servants and the family exactly the same” – both sets of characters are given equal screen time and dramatic weight. In the first few episodes of Belgravia, however, it is not obvious why the servants, only present in sparsely scattered scenes in which they gossip, are seen at all – except, perhaps, as a nod to its acclaimed predecessor. Unlike Downton Abbey, in which upstairs and downstairs storylines complement each other in cheerful harmony, Belgravia’s servants are far nastier. Without sufficient substance, these characters become hammy, gloomy caricatures, and the series falls flat as a result.

Dialogue in The English Game has also lost the caustic humour that defined Fellowes’ earlier work, replaced by feel-good artificiality where everyone means well, and real conflict doesn’t exist. In the 2009 film The Young Victoria and in Downton Abbey, Fellowes gave himself room to fully flesh out his characters, but within these recent series, which are both six episodes long, events continually take precedence over people.

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Women, in particular, suffer from this sketchy approach to characterisation. As one might expect from a drama about the creation of football, The English Game is white male-centric, with female characters relegated to the benches. Any opportunities to develop the women in the series are quickly tossed aside – instead, they stay strictly within the realms of child rearing, gossiping and emotionally supporting their husbands. Belgravia’s premise comprises two women squabbling over a secret grandson, in the process unveiling their own prejudices against women, without any trace of the searing wit of Violet Crawley, Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey. Losing a child, Fellowes says, is what brings the two leading women in Belgravia together, and also drives women’s storylines in The English Game. But this trope, while it helped us to see another side to Edith Crawley in Downton Abbey, stands in for characterisation in these recent dramas. Mrs Trenchard’s daughter dies before we feel attached to her; Mrs Kinnaird’s life is transformed by tragedy before we know her. These women’s horizons are minimal, but conveniently they don’t seem to mind.

In recent years, period television and film has posed other possibilities. In Céline Sciamma’s film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, set in the late 18th century, women’s lives are occupied by more than marriage and children. The heroines are conscious of the limitations placed upon them by marital and societal norms, but seek resistance and refuge in art and music. BBC drama Gentleman Jack, taking place in 1832, chronicles the real-life story of landowner Anne Lister as she diarises her relationships with other women. The English Game begins later, in 1879, but any female interest in the sport is entirely absent from Fellowes’ script.

Fellowes has also faced criticism for his whitewashed casts. In response to critiques made against the all-white cast in his update of the musical Half A Sixpence in 2017, Fellowes rebutted, “You can’t make something untruthful.” He reminded the Stage that he had, however, written a storyline featuring a black character – the jazz singer Jack Ross – in Downton Abbey. (This is the only non-white cast member among well over 50 main and recurring characters throughout six seasons.) Three years later, nothing has changed.

If historical accuracy is Fellowes’ concern, then fortunately historians have found that since the Tudor era, Britain has been a multiracial society. Director Josie Rourke, who cast Gemma Chan and Adrian Lester in her debut feature Mary Queen of Scots, told the BBC that, “To entirely represent period drama as white is historically inaccurate. Our bias has been coached and encouraged by period dramas into thinking that.”

Rourke is not alone in making crucial changes to casting: Sanditon, written by Andrew Davies and based on Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, began to address issues of racism in Georgian England head on, casting Crystal Clarke as heiress Miss Lambe. Amma Asante’s 2013 film Belle follows another heiress, Dido Elizabeth Belle – Lord Mansfield’s biracial great-niece – and her part in the abolishment of slavery. Even Poldark explored the colonial history of the 18th century in its final season. Historical accuracy aside, Armando Iannucci in his recent film The Personal History of David Copperfield opted for colour-blind casting, picking “the best person” to play the character rather than tying himself down to “the conventions of a costume drama”.

Enthusiasm for Downton Abbey continues overseas. The title of The English Game gives us reason to suspect that Britain is not the main target audience, for this show at least. The Irish Independent reported last year that Fellowes had claimed that in America he was given “a kind of weight that the English are very reluctant to do”. Perhaps part of the admiration lies in the fantasy of an antiquated, quintessential England, which values tradition, country estates and romanticised master-servant relationships over equality.

Both Iannucci’s David Copperfield and Belgravia are set in the 1840s, but their portrayals of England couldn’t be more different. In a recent interview with the Times, Fellowes asserted, “I don’t think people in 1840 wanted things that are very different from the things we want.” But his characters bear little resemblance to people of today – and perhaps of the past, too.

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