The Gilded Age is perhaps not so much Downton Abbey Revisited as it is Fairytale of New York.
A new series from Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes was always going to attract attention and comparisons to its super popular predecessor. That show was one of the biggest British hits in years, smashing records both in the UK and the US, where broadcaster PBS declared it its highest-rated drama of all time in 2013, with it picking up Emmys, Golden Globes, Baftas and more over the course of its six seasons and one film to date (a second film is due this March).
Indeed, when The Gilded Age was initially conceived in 2012, it was touted as a prequel to Downton, but after 10 years, numerous rewrites and at least three separate broadcasters attached, it finally lands on HBO, and OSN in the Middle East, as a rather different beast.
What is 'The Gilded Age' about?
Audiences will still recognise the opulence and societal disparity in the new show, but while Downton Abbey was very much set within the rigid class confines of early 20th-century England, The Gilded Age takes place a couple of decades earlier in the US, during an era when the assumed authority of the European, old-money “aristocracy” was being challenged by the “new money” of railroad magnates and gold prospectors.
Thematically, the new show has more in common with the social realism of late 19th-century US literature than quintessentially English Upstairs Downstairs-esque class intrigue.
Fellowes, himself as English as afternoon tea, says it wasn't a difficult transition to make, largely thanks to him having two American writing partners – alive-and-kicking series co-writer Sonja Warfield and, from history, the late 19th-century novelist Edith Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence.
“I’ve always been interested in American history, and I've read about it for a long time,” Fellowes explains. “I'm a big fan of Edith Wharton, who helped me through it, and so is Sonja. We're both sort of ‘School of Edith Wharton’, but I think that's why I have found it helpful to have an American partner in this. She will sometimes say ’they wouldn't say that, they'd say this’, and ‘they wouldn't do this, they do that’. I think she's protected me, really.”
New York as a central character
While The Gilded Age is set in a bygone era, Fellowes says it's useful, as an outsider, that he was able to see its remains today. “When I had a free day in New York, I used to walk up Fifth Avenue, and when you get beyond where all the houses have been pulled down to build apartment blocks, you can still find huge chunks of the Gilded Age.
"If you go to the University Club built by Stanford White, you get such an image of how these people saw themselves. They thought they were giants, and they built houses for giants to live in. I love all that, and that sort of informed me.”
The show is ostensibly about a young girl (Marion, played by Louisa Jacobson) who moves from rural Pennsylvania to live with her aunts in New York following the death of her father, and becomes unwittingly central to the ongoing war between her Aunt Agnes, a flagbearer for the old European money set, and their unfathomably rich self-made neighbours.
There’s another character who doesn’t even make an appearance in the credits, but who is equally vital to the narrative: the city of New York.
Gareth Neame, Fellowes’s long-term collaborator, and executive producer of both Downton Abbey and The Gilded Age, picks up on the New York theme. He says it presented its own set of unique challenges to a British production team arriving to film.
“[New York] really was the biggest challenge of all from the moment we embarked on it,” he recalls. “There are so many historical properties in the British Isles that you can shoot in. There are castles and so much of that exists, but we had to create the city and the buildings. As Julian referred to, you can walk up Fifth Avenue and you can look at these buildings, but you can't shut down a block in the Upper East Side, remove all the street furniture and all the signage and have horses and carriages. You’re going to have a lot of people tooting their car horns and shouting at you. It's quite impossible.”
The solution, says Neame, was threefold: some impressive set building, a willingness to use New York exteriors that were available and a sprinkling of CGI.
“We were blessed with this utterly exceptional production designer, Bob Shore, so we built a whole block of the Upper East Side, and that’s seamlessly interwoven with locations that we can use, primarily in upstate New York, which is still a remarkable location,” he says.
“It's this mesh of the wonderful historical properties that are still there with the building of the places that we needed the most control over, and of course, critical CGI. I think that’s another reason why this era hasn't really been dealt with before. If you look back at [Martin] Scorsese’s Age of Innocence from the early '90s, there are really no exteriors in that film at all because you just couldn't deliver it in those days, so CGI is also a vital component. What a challenge, and what talents that we've seen.”
While some may wonder why a different location may have been easier to film in, Neame insists the city is simply too vital to this story to drop it from the cast. “The great thing about telling this story of New York is that it's been done pretty much entirely in New York.
“That’s allowed these characters to be realised by the Broadway, New York acting community, and I think that's fantastic as a piece of creative endeavour. There's an inner truth about it because these people who perform were either born here or certainly come to make the city their home. I think that's a remarkable thing.”