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Belgravia (Julian Fellowes) - First episode review

Belgravia

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 2 out of 5

WITH Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes stole the hearts of a nation, becoming the kind of the Sunday night, 9pm slot in the process. Needless to say, hopes are high that he can repeat the trick with new prestige period drama Belgravia.

Adapted from his own book of the same name, and boasting a star-studded cast and similarly lavish settings, the first episode nevertheless flattered to deceive. It continually flirted with comparisons to Downton and, by doing so, emerged as something wholly inferior.

Where Downton hooked viewers from the very start, Belgravia has yet to really take shape. If anything, the first hour dragged, perhaps because of its resemblance to Downton and subsequent failure to catch fire immediately.

The first episode predominantly focused on the Trenchard family: headed by James and Anne Trenchard (Philip Glenister and Tamsin Greig, respectively) and their spirited daughter Sophia (Emily Reid).

James is a merchant, or army victualler known as ‘The Magician’, who is charged with supplying Wellington’s army in Brussels, circa 1815. He and his slightly more affluent wife manage to secure an invitation to the Duchess of Richmond’s (Diana Kent) grand ball, thanks in no small part to the fact that their daughter, Sophia, is having an affair with the Duchess’s nephew, Lord Bellasis (Jeremy Neumark Jones).

The party in question is in full swing, when Wellington gets word that [Napoleon] Bonaparte has advanced, prompting a mass exodus of all those eligible to fight (including James and Lord Ballasis) in order to head for Waterloo.

One advert break later, James has returned a broken man, shattered by what he has seen on the battlefield [despite victory for Wellington], and bearing bad news about the fate of Sophia’s beloved Lord Bellasis.

Still moments later, we’re thrust 26 years later, with the Trenchards’ elevation to high society gathering further momentum. James, for instance, is working with the architect Thomas Cubitt to develop a new area of London – Belgravia – for the wealthy to live in (as well as his own family), while Anne is accustomed to socialising at ‘new tea parties’ – gatherings for well-to-do women to discuss the business and gossip of the day.

It’s there that Anne bumps into the Duchess of Richmond, who remembers her from all those years before, as well as The Duchess’s sister, Lady Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter) – aka Bellasis’s mother – who harbours a secret.

And it’s during these conversations that the fate of Sophia is also revealed: she died soon after Waterloo.

Rounding out the principal players, thus far, are the Trenchards’ son, Oliver (Richard Goulding), who is now married to a beautiful socialite, Susan (Alice Eve), as well as the townhouse servants, led by Turton (Paul Ritter), who has an acerbic wit about him.

And thus the stage is set for a Downton-style family saga in which the lives of the rich upstairs and poorer downstairs become entwined against the backdrop of the history of the time.

But – and here’s a big but – something is missing. Belgravia lacks the freshness or good heartedness that enabled Downton to become such a nation’s favourite. The characters are colder, to this point, and less vividly drawn.

Where the likes of Carson, Bates and Lord Grantham immediately became bastions of decency and good manners, there’s no one who seems capable of filling those shoes. And there’s certainly no immediate Dame Maggie Smith!

But casting aside the comparisons for a moment [which, I felt, Fellowes’ does writing style does invite], Belgravia simply didn’t click in the way that it should. And while I am told it remains entirely faithful to its source material [Fellowes’ own book], the writing thus far didn’t do enough to truly make the characters engaging in their own right.

It promised more than it delivered. Given its lavish production values, the lack of any battlefield action was perhaps a little disappointing. But even without that, the big loss at the halfway point of the opener didn’t land with the emotional whallop you feel it merited.

Word of Sophia’s demise, too, felt too glib, delivered almost in passing. There was no sense of loss, as yet.

Perhaps, via flashback, we’ll be afforded the opportunity to grasp the enormity of the tragedy at play. But Reid and Neumark Jones felt short-changed by the decision not to afford them more time to build an involving relationship.

Grieg, meanwhile, carried herself well in the pivotal role of Anne but – again – she lacked any real warmth, or any sense of regret or loss. She’s acutely aware of society’s dictates and how they affect social standing but this only makes her seem cold and distanced. There weren’t enough scenes between her and Glenister to establish a more intimate and loving relationship.

And with supporting players such as Alice Eve and Paul Ritter, we have yet to be afforded enough time in their company to allow for any kind of impression to be formed.

Belgravia therefore has its work cut out to keep us as hooked as Downton Abbey. Indeed, were it not for Fellowes’ association with Downton, I may even be about to give up. But the goodwill generated by Downton and other acclaimed work such as Gosford Park allows Fellowes’ room to play. He could yet turn Belgravia into another Sunday night favourite.

But there’s no escaping the sense that episode one was a patience-testing disappointment.

Belgravia airs on ITV on Sunday nights from 9pm.