Roush Review: ‘Downton Abbey’ Author Spins a Dickensian Web in ‘Belgravia’
Close your eyes whenever John Lunn’s pervasive musical score wells up, and those soaring strings and piano arpeggios will take you right back to Downton Abbey. And why not? The six-part Belgravia is Downton creator Julian Fellowes’ lavish follow-up to his celebrated PBS series, operating in a more Dickensian mode of ripe romantic melodrama, hissable villainy, and star-crossed coincidences.
You’ll sense disaster looming in the prologue as soon as a handsome and titled young soldier declares, “We’re the luckiest couple alive” to his socially inferior beloved on the eve of the battle of Waterloo. Jump forward a quarter century to the 1840s, when the parents of these ill-fated (now deceased) lovers are still coping with the ramifications of this secret relationship.
Fellowes, adapting his 2016 novel, is perfectly at home depicting a class-conscious Victorian society that’s still adjusting to the newfangled notion of an afternoon tea. Into this rigid world of rules and barriers, defined by the new enclave for the affluent known as Belgravia, an ambitious but self-effacing young cotton trader named Charles Pope (dashing Jack Bardoe) is astonished to be welcomed by an aristocrat like Lady Brockenhurst (the witty and regal Harriet Walter). When she takes an interest in his fledgling business (to the consternation of her family’s needy and greedy relatives), gossip percolates above and below stairs.
Little does anyone, least of all Charles, know of his long-hidden personal connection to the Brockenhurst fortune — or to the more middle-class lives of trader-builder James Trenchard (blustery Philip Glenister) and wife Anne (an affectingly subtle Tamsin Greig). The Trenchards have been hiding the scandalous details of his parentage since his birth, but once Anne impulsively reveals the adult Charles’ existence to the now-childless Lady Brockenhurst, there are ripples through high and low society.
The most shocking aspect of Belgravia is not that the newly public Charles suddenly becomes the target of slanderous rumors and murderous schemes, even as he falls for Lady Maria Grey (the delightful Ella Purnell), said to be way above his station. These are the misadventures we expect of any stalwart hero from this genre. What might surprise you from the writer who idealized the servant class in Downton is how greedy, scheming, and duplicitous nearly every butler and maid is in this story as they spy on their employers. Carson would be appalled!
Belgravia, Series Premiere, Sunday, April 12, 9/8c, Epix