‘The Gilded Age shows it’s not just the British who have great historical stories’

If you are counting the days until Bridgerton returns, then period drama salvation is coming in the form of Julian Fellowes’s latest corseted delight, The Gilded Age, which hits our screens on Tuesday. Set in 1880s New York, it chronicles the social upheaval amidst grand Fifth Avenue mansions as fortunes are built and old money clashes with ambitious arrivisme. Characteristic of his deft touch, Fellowes evokes Edith Wharton with observations on class, chaste kisses and crushing put-downs. And if the glorious property porn of Downton Abbey put Highclere Castle back on the map, The Gilded Age will send tourists flocking to Newport, Rhode Island, studded with palatial summer residences and vast croquet lawns, sweeping down to the sea.

The Gilded Age was a term used to describe the prosperous years in American history after the Civil War, when the elite grew fantastically rich through monopolies in steel, oil and the railways. Tycoons of the day included John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and JP Morgan. This glittering era of unabashed materialism saw New York’s high society bristling with grandes dames vying to be the ultimate hostess. Central to this sharp-elbowed circle – where old money fought to keep new money from any form of inclusion – was the all-powerful gatekeeper, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, whose wealth and mores were generations old. Known simply as Mrs Astor, she oversaw what became known as The Four Hundred, the group blessed by her benediction. 

As in Downton, Fellowes’s fascination with the upstairs, downstairs divide defines the drama. Yet instead of drawing rooms stuffed with toffs, we’re in America – the land of opportunity – where the nouveau riche, who made their millions from the industrial revolution of the late 19th century, strive for social acceptance, to the sniffy consternation of the old moneyed set. “They have been in charge since the Mayflower,” says a society hostess in The Gilded Age of the city’s ruling class into which our heroine, Marion Brook, an orphaned young woman, arrives to live with her aunts. 

“If Downton is upstairs, downstairs, this is the story of the right side of the street versus the wrong side of the street,” explains its American director, Michael Engler, who has collaborated with Fellowes for the past decade. The 62-year-old, who lives in New York, directed four episodes of series five and six of Downton, as well as the Christmas special in 2015, and was chosen to direct the 2019 Downton film, which shot to No 1 at the US and UK box offices. 

It’s ironic that an American director helped Downton scale the heights of success. Engler feels that it was his position as an outsider – although a committed Anglophile – that helped. “I didn’t have all the assumptions of class that the British have ingrained, and so I had a fresh view,” he tells me. The director, who got on so well with Dame Maggie Smith that they became theatre-going pals, cast Christine Baranski as a regal American version of Smith’s Dowager Countess, with an equally acid tongue.

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