It’s one of the most keenly anticipated new television dramas of the year. Based on Julian Fellowes’s own 2016 novel, Belgravia, named for the well-to-do area of London where so much of its action is set, tells a 19th-century story of class, money, aspiration and the invention of afternoon tea – and of how family secrets can surface long after those involved tried to bury the truth.
Gareth Neame, managing director of production company Carnival Films, tells us how his team went about recreating the past, in part a case of getting telling details right in order to build trust with viewers, and why he so often looks for historical subjects as the basis for TV series…
Jonathan Wright: How did the show initially come about?
Gareth Neame: It was a very different approach to Downton Abbey where I had gone to Julian Fellowes and commissioned him, said, “This is the idea of the show and will you devise a group of characters?” Belgravia was very different because I was reacting to a completed novel. I knew he was writing it, but I waited until it was published and then I read the whole thing and said, “Yes, we should do this”.
It’s not going to become a Downton with multiple seasons and lots of storylines. What it does have in common with Downton is that extraordinary social observation, the comedy of manners, that Fellowes writes – hierarchies, people’s views of themselves and of others, and where they sit in society, and people who are ambitious or want to fall in love or make something of their lives. It has all of those themes, but it doesn’t have that soapy, multiple-character, separate-storyline thing that Downton has. It works more in the style of a Victorian novel.
JW: The story has a time-shift element, bringing to life two quite distinct periods, the Regency era and the early Victorian era of the 1840s. The 19th century covers a vast swathe of social development and changes.
GN: Yes, it’s two very distinct periods. Downton Abbey started with an iconic event, which was the sinking of the Titanic. This one similarly starts with an iconic event, the Duchess of Richmond’s ball the night before the Waterloo campaign [held in Brussels and attended by the Duke of Wellington]. But we fairly quickly then jump into the Victorian period. I thought that would be very intriguing as drama.
JW: It’s in part a story about class. There’s a bit more of a challenge to the society in the writing than in Downton.
GN: I think that’s well put. Downton was elegiac, about the dying of the light, the end of the power and dominance of the aristocracy – they were running out of money, they now had to pay tax, they couldn’t afford the servants, they had to sell off land, the primacy of the British empire and the aristocracy were coming to an end.
In 1840, it’s completely different. We’re at the beginnings of the industrial revolution and we’re seeing middle-class men like James Trenchard [played by Philip Glenister], because he’s a brilliant businessman, able to amass a fortune, establish a business. He can’t quite get into polite society on his own terms, because he’s a middle-class professional man, but by the next generation his son will become a gentleman. We can see that the industrial revolution allows this huge social mobility that probably wasn’t seen again until the 20th century. This is incredibly dynamic, optimistic in a lot of ways, – anything is possible – and that is the world in which these characters are all living.
JW: The relationship between two women – Tamsin Greig as Anne Trenchard, wife of James, and Harriet Walker as aristocratic Lady Brockenhurst – is also central to the story.
GN: They’re very different people but they’re united in one thing: they’re both women who have lost a child and the loss of that child informs every single aspect of the rest of their lives – as it does for any parent. I think that’s something that we can completely understand to this day. A mother’s love for a child is at the heart of Belgravia, and that is what they have in common.
JW: The story picks two moments where classes can meet: the military during the Napoleonic War and the building of Belgravia, where you need the expertise of a man like Trenchard because you’re building a community from scratch.
GN: Mostly, officers in the British Army [under Wellington] at that time would have been quite aristocratic I think and James Trenchard in the story is the supply man [to the British forces], a trading man. And then years later he’s completely changed the business he’s in. He’s had another brilliant idea, he gets into business with the Cubitt brothers, [real figures] great architects, builders who developed a lot of London at that time.
Belgravia is a fascinating place because it was the first new area for rich people that had existed in London for hundreds of years. It wasn’t part of old London. That land to the west of Mayfair had been fields so it was an expansion of the city, specifically with this new architecture, which itself is an iconic architectural style [grand terraces of white stucco houses]. The neighbourhood itself has got an important presence in the whole show. It’s named after the neighbourhood, it’s what’s going on behind the doors of those houses.
JW: For you as filmmakers, how much research goes into getting these periods right?
One would always say this: first and foremost, it’s a drama, it’s a story. But Julian and I, quite independently of each other, are drawn towards historic subjects. I’m an amateur historian, I love historical stories. Julian writes with a lot of confidence about these different eras. The things he’s not intimately acquainted with, I’m sure he researches very clearly. Then, when we come to bring a project to the screen, our art department, our wardrobe department, all of these creative experts who work on these shows, work fastidiously to make sure that every detail is correct.
We have historical protocol advisors, making sure that the actors know how to behave, that the tables are set properly, that people hold their knives and forks properly, that people stand up when somebody comes into the room, know how to doff their hats, get in and out of a carriage, all these sorts of things that are alien to us now. You want to get those details right. You want to get them right I think because it gives the audience confidence that they really are being transported into a historical world.
I felt this very strongly – and this was before I knew Fellowes – but when I watched Gosford Park [Robert Altman’s 2001 country house ensemble drama, scripted by Fellowes] I was struck by specific historical details, which gave me confidence I was watching a film made by people who knew what they were talking about. I didn’t feel like they were wasting my time. I thought this is an accurate portrayal. This has been based on very detailed research and I think it helps audiences on their journey. You can become completely lost in this world because it’s been presented to you in a very believable and authentic way. It all starts with taking the facts seriously…
JW: You need to be sure as an audience member that the filmmakers have forgotten more than you know.
GN: Yes, there’s room for only a few bits of historical detail, but just by seeing those you think, “Who would have thought that the Duchess of Bedford [1783–1857] invented the institution of afternoon tea in the 1840s?” That’s why she’s there [in episode one of Belgravia]. The idea of saying, “Let’s have the first tea party, and where it came from, and how it was invented,” really captures my imagination. Very few things have always existed, they had to be created by somebody.
We make The Last Kingdom for Netflix and what appealed to me about that was that these books were about the formation of England. I thought that’s very interesting and a good setting for a piece of drama: England before it became England, or England just on the political cusp of that event happening. I thought that was fascinating in the same way that going to what’s effectively the first ever tea party [is fascinating] – I think that’s a cheeky and rather delicious idea.
JW: How did you go about choosing locations?
GN: We built a lot of sets. We also went to a lot of country houses and used those interiors as London townhouses – Basildon Park near Reading, Manderston House, which is on the Borders. But the real challenge was it’s quite impossible to shoot in Belgravia. It’s the heart of London, it’s filled with embassies; there’s no way you can shut down these parts of London and have horses and carriages going around for four days. It would never happen, so what we did was to go to the New Town of Edinburgh. We shot all of the exteriors for Eaton Square and Belgrave Square, we shot around there, and then in post-production we added all of the stucco and the porticos.
JW: Is there anything you couldn’t do?
GN: In the book, Julian writes about a meeting in a hotel in Trafalgar Square and he comments on the construction of Nelson’s Column. And it’s so good, and I said to Julian, “Put it in the script and we’ll see if we can do that”. We probably could have shown it, but it didn’t seem like a really important way of spending a lot of money. So what we did as a way of incorporating that is it’s in the title sequence [the column’s construction shown in illustrations]. It’s half-built. I’d love to have included that actually as a scene in the show.
Belgravia, a six-part series, will begin on Sunday 15 March 2020 at 9pm on ITV, and will air weekly.