From writer/executive producer Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) and adapted from his book of the same name, the Epix period drama Belgravia tells a story comprised of secrets and scandals amongst the upper class of London society in the 19th century. After attending the now legendary ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, the Trenchards find themselves on a path where the past can threaten everything.
During this interview with Collider, show creator Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame talked about how this particular story came about, why the Duchess of Richmond’s ball was such a pivotal moment in history, how the pursuit of money can be a very powerful motive among families, and why this works as a limited series. Fellowes also talked about telling an American story with his upcoming HBO series The Gilded Age, and how pleased they were with the success of the Downton Abbey movie.
Collider: Julian, how did this come about? What was the seed that this started with, for you?
JULIAN FELLOWES: I was asked to come up with a book by my publishers. I hadn’t written a novel for a bit, and I was really drawing on two things that had interested me for a long time. One was the construction of Belgravia, as a chunk of London, which is unique ‘cause it was all built at once, in very much the form that you see it now. There were one or two war losses from bombs, but apart from that, it’s pretty well exactly as it was when they finished it. And the other is that I’ve always been very taken with the Duchess of Richmond’s ball before Waterloo because it always seemed like such a glamorous tragedy.
GARETH NEAME: Funnily enough, it’s not unlike how we used the Titanic as the event that kicked off Downton Abbey. What the two events have in common is that they place you in a particular moment in history, but they’re also both glamorized. The obsession with the Titanic is this glamorous idea of dancing as the ship went down, and all the great and good in one place, and the upstairs and downstairs of life. The Duchess of Richmond’s ball similarly had that tragic romantic mood about it.
FELLOWES: And I have studied it. I’ve been to Goodwood, I’ve held the fan she was using that night, I’ve seen the list of her guests, which she wrote out herself, I’ve seen the chair that the Duke of Wellington gave them, as a thank you for giving the ball, and all of that stuff. So, it’s quite far under my skin, really.
NEAME: As depicted in the story, it’s completely true that half-way through this wonderful, lavish ball, the news came that Napoleon had advanced much more quickly than they thought, and Wellington literally dismissed the officers that were there saying, “We’ve gotta get cracking.” Many of the men who danced there were dead, within two or three days, from this war. There have been lots of paintings, over the years, of this event. It’s been glamorized in history.
Did you have a moment when you realized that money, whether it’s new money or old money, and how much money people have, and how much people want money, would make for endless storytelling?
FELLOWES: Well, money plays a fairly major part in most people’s lives. Indeed, the pursuit of money , is a very powerful motive, as is the pursuit of rank and importance. People want to be significant. Even if they choose to be something more humble, they want to be the best. I’m always interested in that. I’m interested in people’s ambition, and what they can change, and how much of their dreams they can get, and if they’re pleased with them when they get them. When they get the things they plan for in youth, they still want them when they arrive. All of that stuff interests me very much.
NEAME: Also, there are these fictions that human beings create in societies and have done throughout history, in every society on the planet. It’s like, “This is this group, and you’re not in it.” It’s a strange way that we all conduct ourselves. I suppose there’s something about the British system that’s endured for hundreds of years that really puts that under a microscope, but it was a very prescribed way to behave, which does make a wonderful environment for storytelling and characterization.
FELLOWES: I wrote in Snobs that, if you leave four Englishmen in a room, they will invent a rule to prevent a fifth from joining them. That is the society in which we live, really. The dynamic of family, and why it is at the heart of almost all the drama, is because it is this social arrangement whereby you are tied to people to whom you may feel no sympathy, but you are nevertheless tied to them, for your whole life long, and you’re jostling up against them. In fact, Belgravia is all about family. That is one of its main themes – how you deal with very different characters, within the same family. That’s something we have all come across.
Did you always know, when you were writing this, that you would adapt it?
FELLOWES: No, I didn’t think in those terms, really. When I was writing the novel, I was just writing a novel. Indeed, we never spoke about its possibility of being television until Gareth read the book, ages later, and thought it might be right for a television adaptation.
Gareth, as a producer, are you always waiting for the next story to come from Julian Fellowes, since they’re always so rich?
NEAME: Yes. It goes right back to when Julian wrote Snobs and his voice in capturing that comedy of manners and in watching people, I just felt that there would be as a strong appetite for it, and that was born out by Downton. This is a very different project from Downton because it is a limited series and it has a single mystery that runs through it, unlike the soapier approach that we took with Downton because that was an ongoing TV series. But it does cover a lot of that social observation, the comedy of manners, the class structures, and the codes of behavior that people have enjoyed and which is very typical in his writing. It’s my way of saying that I hope that people who loved Downton will similarly love this show.
Julian, do you like working in all of these different formats, whether it’s film, an ongoing series, or a limited series? Do you like having that mixture of different forms of storytelling?
FELLOWES: They all have their merits. I quite enjoy doing all of them, really. Doing something like Downton, when you’re completely inventing a brand new world, where there’s no precedent and you’re not basing it on anything, is obviously rather entertaining. But on the other hand, when you were adapting, you know that the story, on some level or other, already works and you’ve got something to rely on and trust. But then, I also enjoy doing stage musicals and various other things that have come my way. I don’t think it’s terribly different from an actor being asked to play different parts. One minute, you’re doing a classic on the stage, and the next, you’re in a soap opera on NBC. You just have to take it, each one of them, and see what there is in it to be done.
Do you feel like you have a good internal gauge, if you’re telling a story and something just isn’t working? Are you good with figuring out how to make it work, or do you just throw it out and try something else?
FELLOWES: I think you go through periods on everything, when you doubt that what you’re doing is working. That’s really when your husband or wife has to come into play. They can read it and say, “What do you mean? This is the best thing you’ve ever written. Get back to work.” I think I fairly often hand Gareth a draft and say, “I’m not sure about this.” And then, he says, “Just do this and this, and it will be fine.” That’s all part of the process, really. If there’s no pain, at all, than I don’t think it’s probably very good.
NEAME: There are so many different ways of doing things. That’s what’s great about it. I enjoy this working partnership because sometimes Julian is creating all of this work, but then, I’ll say, “Well, just do it this way.” Sometimes another voice can unlock something, and then the story can go off in a different direction. It’s very enjoyable, that process.
Is it ever challenging to write stories with so many characters, or does having so many characters make the writing easier?
FELLOWES: It’s easier to keep an audience’s attention, if lots is happening. Sometimes, when one is locked into a very linear narrative with very few people, you do seem to be slightly trapped, that you’ve been watching these same three or four people for what feels like half of time. I like moving along and having different things going on with different people because it’s the kind of stuff that I like to watch. In the end, you have to make things you want to watch. I don’t think there’s anything more mysterious to it than that, really.
I loved how the characters are all involved, throughout, and everything is really brought together, by the end of this.
NEAME: I agree. I like the fact that there is a main narrative that they’re all involved in, but also little subplots.
FELLOWES: I like doing that, and I always like to make sure that we’ve answered all of the questions, at the end. I don’t really believe in leaving things hanging. Even if the ending is unhappy, I think most people prefer it to end. I hope we’ve done that. Of course, I do love happy endings. I’m a big happy ending man.
What can you say about your upcoming HBO series The Gilded Age?
FELLOWES: They announced it, some time ago, and I didn’t really know why, but they did. We’re doing the last version of the scripts, so I’m working away fairly furiously, to get them all ready. I think it’s interesting. I think people will enjoy it. It’s a slightly different take on all of this because it’s from America, which was a different society with rather different values. It was much faster moving, in terms of getting in. It didn’t take three generations and 70 years. You had to get cracking, and you could do it in one generation. It’s a quicker rhythm. In a way, I think it’s more modern because of that and more connected to the society we’re living in today. I hope people like it.
How does it feel to tell an American story with an American cast?
FELLOWES: You will have to be the one who judges whether or not we brought it off. I have got very good advisors, watching how we deal with certain characters and the language they use, and all of that kind of thing. What they tell me to do, I do, so I hope we’re accurate.
Downton Abbey was so successful, and the success of that TV series lead to the existence of the movie, but you still didn’t know whether or not you’d get people to the theater to see it.
NEAME: That was certainly a challenge. We were happy with the movie, but it would not have worked if people had said, “Well, I watched Downton Abbey at home, so I’m going to wait until it’s on television. And I’m sure some people did say that. But fortunately, we managed to get people there. Our message was, if you’re a fan and you want the potential of maybe another movie, you’ve gotta go to the theaters and make it a success. Mainly, the direction of travel is entirely from movies to television, and we were going the opposite direction and hoping that our fans would turn out for it, which they did, in large numbers. It was great.
FELLOWES: It was terrific. It was quite moving, actually, the extent to which they loved it. I was thrilled with that.
NEAME: It was very pleasing to see that it worked.
Belgravia airs on Sunday nights on Epix.