Boost your vaccinations, don whatever PPE you have to hand – the new variant Julian Fellowes has breached our shores. This time, his typing is set in late 19th-century New York. Yes, it’s Brownstone Abbey. Its official title is The Gilded Age (Sky Atlantic), but we all know what we are dealing with. There are posh people – the old families who have been in New York since it was a glint in a Dutchman’s eye. Then there are the upstart types who made buckets of stinky new money building railroads and are now busy building mansions all over Manhattan and trying to lay down tracks into smart society. We’ll call them the Shamderbilts. And then there are servants, who live beneath these posh people and bitch about them whenever the restraining influence of the butler is absent.
We lay our scene in Central Park. It is 1882 it’s full of sheep. They turn and run from the camera. It is a wise move, all things considered.
The first note struck is a sorrowful one. Miss Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson, who is still young and will survive the dialogue that is soon to come her way) learns that the death of her father, Henry, has left her penniless and that she will be thrown on the mercy of her two aunts. “Don’t worry, Mr Riggs,” she says, smiling bravely at the handsome young solicitor who has had to break the news. “I’m not beaten yet!” “At the risk of impertinence,” he replies, because Fellowes knows “impertinence” is a very 1882 word, “I’d say you are a long way from being beaten, Miss Brook.”
Get used to this kind of driving redundancy, folks, because there is an awful lot of it. Also, everyone is using that strange voice Americans do to indicate that they are posh in the past – it mixes precise diction with a strained tone, as if they are all having a hard time on the loo. Which, actually – well, never mind. We needn’t labor the point.
Marian’s aunts (or “auurahnts” as it is pronounced in 1882) are Cynthia Nixon as Ada Brook, presumably as punishment for letting And Just Like That … go ahead, and Christine Baranski – who must have a very persuasive agent – as Agnes van Rhijn . ‘Tis Agnes who holds the purse strings and is the most conscious of the standards to be upheld by her and her peers. She and they are aghast at the arrival of the Russells. Mr George (Morgan Spector) is a robber baron (“I may be a bastard, but you are a fool” is a thing he says) and has built his castle opposite Agnes’s elegant home, much to her displeasure. His wife (Carrie Coon) is a social climber who has her finger on the pulse. “We cannot succeed in this town without Mrs Astor’s approval, I know that much,” she tells George when he is taking a brief break from intimidating aldermen and crushing rivals under the weight of his fortune.
All of human life is here. Not in any credible way – just here. Marian acquires a young black woman, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), as a friend on her journey to her aaughuhaunts. She is taken on as a live-in secretary by Agnes so Fellowes can develop as nuanced a portrait of race relations in turn-of-the-century New York as he does of class. It is agony, but no more so than the rest.
There is a younger set – indistinguishable apart from Agnes’s son Oscar and John Adams (John Quincy Adams’s great-grandson, dontcha know), who have a shared feature that will upset Mama no end when she finds out – who care not a jot for convention , so that love across the new/old money divide can play out. “I only ask that you never break your own moral code,” says Aunt Ada, whom I suspect should not be allowed to cross Fifth Avenue unaided. “How wise, Aunt Ada!” says Marian. I will have to look up whether taking the piss had been invented by 1882. And there are secrets among the servants. Miss Turner hates Mrs Russell and is bidding for an affair with Mr Russell. The Van Rhijn butler Bannister (Simon Jones) says he has nothing to hide, which makes me suspect he has something to hide.
In short, it’s just what HBO ordered from the man who by now is surely actually churning this stuff out in his sleep rather than simply giving the faultless impression of it.