'The Gilded Age': Is it the US 'Downton Abbey'? How Julian Fellowes' new drama is different
The long-awaited The Gilded Age, a new period drama from the creator of Downton Abbey, airs its first episode tonight - but how similar is it to the ITV hit?
Writer Julian Fellowes has been working on the new Sky Atlantic series since before Downton Abbey ended and if you're wondering whether you could be tuning in to a US version of the drama, the series creator has explained all about the differences and similarities.
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Get set for The Gilded Age with all you need to know about it.
When is The Gilded Age on TV?
The new series begins tonight (Tuesday) on Sky Atlantic at 9pm and will then air weekly for nine episodes.
How similar are The Gilded Age and Downton Abbey?
Julian Fellowes working on another 19th century period drama was inevitably going to draw comparisons with Downton Abbey, his most successful ever TV series that has also spawned two films.
Again, it's a tale involving wealthy families, social scandals and the search for romance, but there are plenty of differences that take it away from being labelled a straight US remake of Downton.
Main character Marian Brook moves to New York City from rural Pennsylvania to live with her wealthy aunts after the death of her father and discovers a society that is all about appearing to have the most and best of everything.
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The Gilded Age sees Fellowes working with Downton executive producer Gareth Neame again, who said: "When we were working on Downton and it had become a success, it came to my attention that Julian had been working on a script about the true story of the Vanderbilts. That never got made, but it was quite clear to me that he was interested in this era and I thought that would make a compelling series.
"The Gilded Age is an American story and it needed to have an American perspective. Downton was always about the dying of the light, the end of an era. That’s why it started with the sinking of the Titanic.
"But in The Gilded Age we’re seeing the beginning of the American Dream, the industrialisation of America, and seeing how that created enormous fortunes.
"This is a genre that Americans think of as typical British fare. I think it will be an eye-opener for some viewers that this world existed at all. It was such a fascinating place and time, when America was overtaking Britain as a global superpower."
The Gilded Age also features the friendship between Marian and Peggy Scott, a Black woman navigating the upper echelons of New York society in the 19th century when she takes a job in Marian's aunts' home.
Director Salli Richardson-Whitfield said: "I think this is the first time Julian has had a big, predominantly Black storyline.
"I’m a Black woman, so obviously I can lend a voice to that if something doesn’t feel right. We also have a writer (Sonja Warfield) who’s Black, so she can do that too. My background is mixed – one part of my family is white, one part Black – so I can speak to a lot of different experiences."
Rutgers University History professor Dr Erica Armstrong Dunbar also kept the script authentic to social class as a producer on the show.
She said: "Just as important in the show as the wealthy are the people who are not wealthy. We get a glimpse of people who are living day-by-day, who are living lives in service. For some of them, what was once considered a career is now seen as just a job to get them from one place to the next."
Why did Julian Fellowes set his new series in America?
Fellowes is known for his use of English stately homes and familiarity with British history in his productions, so it might come as a surprise that he's headed across the Atlantic this time.
However, he revealed a lifelong love of the US: "America has been part of my life since I was 21. My parents’ 21st birthday present to me was a tour of the country, and I’ve been coming back regularly ever since.
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"I lived in Los Angeles for more than two years in my early thirties and I previously worked on a number of American projects. I have a greater knowledge of and affection for America than any other country besides Britain.
“I was always interested in the so-called ‘Gilded Age,’ that period after the Civil War in the 1870s and 1880s, when enormous fortunes made from railway, shipping, copper and coal were flooding into New York.
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"It's the ‘gilded age,’ not the ‘golden age.’ It was all about the look of things, making the right appearance, creating the right image.
“Ten years ago, I used to walk around New York City and think all the Gilded Age palaces had been demolished, but I discovered they hadn’t. If you go up Fifth Avenue, you can still find some of the Gilded Age houses in the cross streets. Seeing the houses where these people lived made it very vivid for me."
Who is in the cast of The Gilded Age?
Starring as Marian Brook is Louisa Jacobson, with Denée Benton playing her new friend Peggy Scott.
Marian moves to the home of her old money aunts Agnes van Rhijn and Ada Brook, played by Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon.
Sex and the City star Nixon said: "I loved Downton...and you don’t often get the chance to do a period drama in New York.”
She added of her role: "I found the character of Ada delicious, her humour and her sweetness. I play a lot of brave people, and Ada is not that. She’s an effusive, enthusiastic, heart-on-sleeve kind of person. I don’t get the chance to play that kind of character very often, but I am like that in real life."
Fellowes explained that keen Broadway fans might spot a few familiar faces, thanks to director Michael Engler.
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He said: "Michael Engler lives in New York and is part of that community. He pushed to have us use Broadway actors. They were going through a hellish time because the theatres were dark thanks to the pandemic. I like to think we performed a service, but we were the real beneficiaries.
Executive producer David Crockett added: "At times you’d look at the set and it was like being backstage at the Tony Awards."
Agnes and Ada's neighbours George and Bertha Russell are played by Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon.
The Gilded Age begins tonight on Sky Atlantic at 9pm.
Watch: See The Gilded Age trailer