‘The Gilded Age shows that not only the British have great historical stories’

Counting down the days until Bridgerton returns, period drama’s salvation comes in the form of Julian Fellowes’ latest corset delight, The Gilded Age, which hits our screens Tuesday. Set in 1880s New York, it chronicles social upheaval amid grand mansions on Fifth Avenue as fortunes are built and old money clashes with ambitious arrivism. Characteristic of his deft touch, Fellowes summons Edith Wharton with observations of class, chaste kisses and crushing humiliations. And if the glorious real estate porn of Downton Abbey puts Highclere Castle back on the map, The Gilded Age will send tourists flocking to Newport, Rhode Island, dotted with palatial summer residences and sprawling croquet lawns stretching 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 wealthy through monopolies in steel, oil, and the railroads. Tycoons of the day were John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and JP Morgan. This glittering era of unabashed materialism saw New York high society teeming with the grandes dame vying to be the ultimate hostess. At the center of this sharp-elbowed circle — where old money fought to hold new money against any kind of inclusion — was the all-powerful gatekeeper, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, whose wealth and mores were generations old. She was known simply as Mrs. Astor and oversaw what came to be known as The Four Hundred, the group blessed by her blessing.

As in Downton, Fellowes’ fascination with the upper floor, the lower floor determines the drama. But instead of salons full of toffs, we are 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 sniffing consternation of the old money set. “They’ve been in charge since the Mayflower,” says a hostess in The Gilded Age of the city’s ruling class, where our heroine, Marion Brook, a young orphaned woman, comes to live with her aunts.

“If Downton is up, down, this is the story of the right side of the street versus the wrong side of the street,” explains American director Michael Engler, who has worked with Fellowes for the past decade. The 62-year-old, who lives in New York, has 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 took the #1 spot in the list. came. US and UK cash registers.

It’s ironic that an American director helped Downton scale the heights of success. Engler believes it was his position as an outsider—though a devoted Anglophile—that helped. “I didn’t have all the class assumptions that the British have ingrained, so I had a fresh look,” he tells me. The director, who got along so well with Dame Maggie Smith that they became theater friends, cast Christine Baranski as a regal American version of Smith’s Dowager Countess, with an equally sour tongue.

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