Gosh! The Americans have parked their tanks on our lawn and I think I rather like it.
Period drama used to be our thing. The thing we excelled most at, along with cream teas and series about gentle murders. At some point in the last decade, I think it would be fair to say things went rather stale. Everything looked a bit samey. Jane Austen, Dickens, Thackeray; no, I don’t think we will ever tire of them but perhaps endless new adaptations of their work saying nothing new, trying nothing different, became tiresome.
And then came Bridgerton, made by Americans. Ostensibly a period drama, filmed in England with British actors, it turned every single convention on its head; clothes were brash and weren’t period correct (there weren’t even any bonnets, for goodness sake), people of colour were in positions of power and – pass the smelling salts – there was so much sex.
Now we have the glorious The Gilded Age. Created by Downton Abbey and Gosford Park’s Julian Fellowes, it is fair to say that there is more than a bit of British influence. There’s that Upstairs Downstairs feel too – as we get to know the lives and loves of the servants even if they aren’t lived as brightly.
But it’s also so American. Everything is bigger, brasher and even more over the top. The ambition is off the scale. So many fabulous monsters. I love them all.
Ostensibly our heroine is Marian Brook, played by Meryl Streep’s daughter Louisa Jacobson, who was poor and penniless for a whole five minutes when her father died having spent his entire fortune, until she is saved by the charity of her aunt Agnes Van Rhun played to perfection by Christine Baranski who invites her to New York.
There she enters straight into the heart of New York’s pretend aristocratic elite, the old money rich who first invented the city. It’s not hard to predict that she shall find herself at the centre of a love triangle – which handsome young man should she give her heart to?
Agnes is the Dame Maggie/ Dowager Countess of The Gilded Age. She gets all the best barbs. She’s wonderfully snobbish but that is partly because, like so many elitists, she knows how precipitous her fortune and her success are. If she hadn’t made a prudent but unhappy match with her now-dead husband, she might even have had to live in Brooklyn.
In a rather different role from Sex and the City/ And Just Like That’s Miranda Hobbs, Cynthia Nixon plays her sweet little sister Ada who never married and relies on her sister’s charity, as Agnes never ceases to remind her. Just like Miranda, I would really like to see Ada fall in love with someone completely wrong and go wild. Crossing fingers for this.
And then we have the simply wonderful Bertha Russell, played by Carrie Coon. Bertha’s husband George (Morgan Spector) is fabulously rich; she has the biggest house, the best clothes, the French chef, and she is determined to buy her way into old society. When they dare turn their backs on her she is determined that she will not take no for an answer.
This is where the American stuff really comes to play. In a British period drama, there would be lots of passive-aggressive barbs but the power in society will always be with the people will the titles. But Bertha simply loses her temper and George ostentatiously throws ridiculous amounts of money at the situation. Money will always talk more than class in America and that’s refreshing if, I have to admit, the behaviour felt a little disconcerting. It makes me feel very British.
I like that the series is dotted with some of the real Gilded Age characters such as Mrs Astor (Donna Murphy), the queen of the set; although I’m two episodes in and I’m yet to see what makes her so beguiling.
It’s a very white show – as most period dramas are – and there’s a danger that having a character like Peggy Scott (Denee Benton), who is Marian’s friend and becomes Agnes’ secretary, looks like tokenism. But, having interviewed Denee, I know that this character is going to grow and grow with her own exciting storyline. It is also incredibly refreshing to see a black period character who is smart, beautiful, educated, keeper of her own secrets and completely at home with the rich. She’s based on some real black female writers of the time and although the events are set only twenty years after the Civil War, it’s depicting a story that has been too long in the telling.
TV executives over here will be looking closely at the success of Bridgerton and The Gilded Age. They’ve shown that there is still a huge appetite for period drama, but it needs to be one for the internet age.
The Gilded Age continues Tuesdays on Sky Atlantic, HBO and NOW.