Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes’ new series Belgravia is set to air on ITV this spring.
Words by Jonathan Whiley
Riveting period drama Belgravia promises a story of secrets and dishonour among the upper echelons of London society.
The new six-part ITV series is adapted from the 2016 novel of the same name by Oscar winning writer Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey.
Set in the early 19th century, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, the series hits our screens this spring. The cast is led by Tamsin Greig and Philip Glenister.
And, if a sneak peek of the first episode is anything to go by, Fellowes – working alongside long-time Downton executive producer Gareth Neame – has another hit on his hands.
The intricacies of class – which first propelled him to Academy award success with 2001 whodunnit Gosford Park – takes centre stage once again.
Born in Egypt and brought up in South Kensington, I wonder when he first became aware of class in his own life?
“When you’re a child, you don’t notice things like that. You just notice that people have got a good bike or whatever,” he says.
“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 was my first awareness of the cruelty of class really.”
British appetite for class struggles
Downton’s final episode drew a peak audience of 9.5 million and last year’s film took £5.1 million at the box office on its opening weekend.
So our appetite for class and its struggles shows little sign of wavering.
“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 brings 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,” he says.
Belgravia opens in suitably regal fashion at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels in the summer of 1815.
Then the drama jumps 25 years into the future to unravel the secrets of that night.
“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,” he says.
Belgravia – a city for the rich
“The other theme of the book, obviously, was about this new city of the rich, this new creation of Belgravia,” he says.
Belgravia was in essence, Fellowes says, a home for the wealthy who could no longer be contained within Mayfair.
Fellowes is himself a long-time resident of the area. He splits his time between London and Dorset with his wife, Emma Kitchener.
But 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 outsider looking in rather than a participant,” he says.
The 70-year-old 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.
After an idyllic childhood and education at Ampleforth College, he read English at Cambridge 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.”
Second Downton film
Fellowes also has a new Netflix series on the way – The English Game, exploring the origins of football in the 1800s.
Plus, there’s a second Downton Abbey film in the pipeline.
He tells me he was “very pleased” with the reception for the first film.
“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!”
Belgravia is coming to ITV this spring.