Belgravia - Why Downton Abbey fans will love Julian Fellowes’ new ITV Sunday night period drama

The creator of Downton Abbey, which ran for six seasons on ITV and spawned a spin-off film, moves the world of upper-class scandal from Yorkshire to affluent London for his new series.

By Sophia Moir Published: 16 March 2020 - 9.21am
ITV / Carnival Films Belgravia / Downton

He's an Oscar-winning screenwriter, best-selling novelist and an experienced actor, but Julian Fellowes is arguably best known for creating the critically acclaimed drama series Downton Abbey.

The 70-year-old award-winning producer is back in his specialist genre of posh period telly for the new ITV mini-series Belgravia, which is coming soon to the channel in the same cosy Sunday night slot once occupied by the Crawleys and their servants.

The series is billed as “a story of secrets and dishonour amongst the upper echelon of London society in the 19th Century”, and is set in the eponymous affluent neighbourhood of central London near Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace Gardens.

Here are the top three reasons why we think Downton Abbey fans will love Belgravia.

1. It’s from the makers of Downton Abbey

Julian Fellowes created and wrote every episode of Downton Abbey, including the Christmas specials and the 2019 spin-off film.

Luckily for Downton fans, Fellowes wrote the novel Belgravia in 2016 - and adapted his own book for the small screen with the same production company he worked with on Downton: Carnival Films, so we're definitely in safe hands.

Julian Fellowes Getty

Speaking about the process of working with Fellowes for Belgravia, Gareth Neame, Head of Carnival Films and an executive producer on both shows - explained: "When I read [Belgravia], I thought ‘this is absolutely in our genre, and if I don’t buy the book from Julian, someone else will snap it up and do it, so I better do it'."

Neame added that ITV was a 'fantastic partner' to work with on Downton Abbey, so it seemed only natural that Belgravia would air on the same channel that Downton appeared on for five extremely successful years.

With Fellowes penning the script, fans of Downton can expect more of the scandal, secrets and love affairs synonymous with the award-winning period drama.

But while Downton depicted historical events from the early 1900s including the sinking of the Titanic, the outbreak of the First World War and the Irish War of Independence, Belgravia is set some 100 years earlier.

The central historical event in Belgravia is the Duchess of Richmond's ball, hosted in Brussels in June 1815. The ball was on the eve of the Battle of Quatre Bras, which preceded the Battle of Waterloo. 

British historian Elizabeth Longford has described it as "the most famous ball in history".

The glamorous ball was interrupted by the Duke of Wellington, the commander of the allied army, ordering the attending officers to join their regiments as Napoleon had unexpectedly advanced nearby. 

Belgravia Duke of Wellington ITV / Carnival Films

Fellowes said that the ‘strange mix of danger and glamour’ at the Duchess of Richmond's ball has long fascinated him.

“After the announcement [by the Duke of Wellington], when the soldiers were leaving and the girls and the mothers were crying, some of them went on dancing. I find that so bizarre that we deliberately included that [in the show], these hard-faced dancers," he explained.

“Some of the soldiers didn’t have a chance to change [their clothes], so mostly they went straight to the ball to Quatre Bras, fought that, and then they moved on, and a few days later they went to Waterloo, and some of them died in their dress uniforms [from the ball].”

2. There’s Earls and Countesses - and servants too!

One of Downton’s greatest strengths was inviting us into the the world of the  aristocratic Crawley family upstairs, while also showing us the goings-on of the servants and butlers downstairs too.

Like Downton, Belgravia features the upper echelons of society - so you can expect plenty of Ladies, Earls, Dowagers and Countesses. 

And with these upper-class characters, you can expect the same sort of comedy of manners that fans warmed to in Downton, especially with Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by Maggie Smith) and her witty remarks.

There’s certainly a similar sort of humour in how Belgravia character Caroline, Countess of Brockenhurst (played by Harriet Walker) behaves, and from her blunt rudeness.

Belgravia Caroline ITV / Carnival Films

Like Downton, there are servants, butlers and housekeepers featured in Belgravia, all of whom live by the sound of the call bell from their wealthy employers.

When we witness a scene 'upstairs' in Belgravia, expect to see the response from the servants downstairs too - or as cast member Tamsin Greig (who plays Anne Trenchard) puts it, a ‘Greek chorus’. 

She explains: “You’ll get much more of it through the series, then it becomes really rich and vivid, because you see these servants commenting on the central action. Not just commenting on it, but how they can manipulate the information and allow it to work for themselves.”

But while most of the servant characters in Downton were largely loyal to the Crawley family, and emotionally invested in the family’s relationships, the servants in Belgravia are doing it because it’s a job - and they aren’t particularly loyal to their employers.

Belgravia servants ITV / Carnival Films

Speaking about how Belgravia reflects common attitudes of servant workers at the time, Fellowes explained: "It’s logical to assume that, since being a servant in the 1800s was the greatest single employer in the country, an enormous number of people were doing this work because there was nothing else for them to do. 

“Especially for women, it was very difficult to find employment... it was basically either factory or domestic work. They weren’t particularly miserable, but it was a job. 

“It’s always quite nice to be reminded of this strange way of life where you’re living as a family, but around you, in the attics and the kitchen, there were people who were always there, who could walk in at any time, who had no emotional connection to you at all."

3. You’ll be in awe of the ornate period fashions

With Downton putting life in England between 1912 and 1926 under the cultural microscope, we were transported to the world of Edwardian and Georgian times from yesteryear.

Belgravia, meanwhile, is set in two distinct time periods that have their own cultural look and feel. 

The first period starts in 1815, around the time of the Battle of Waterloo, with the cast donning period costumes from the regency fashion of the time. These flashback scenes are also largely set in Brussels, Belgium, during the Napoleonic War. 

The scenes set in the 1840s look and feel different - they’re set in the affluent area of Belgravia in London, which was newly built at the time, with the characters wearing early Victorian styles.

Belgravia dresses ITV / Carnival Films

In terms of costumes, you’ll certainly see a lot more corsets in Belgravia than you would have in Downton Abbey, as corsets declined in popularity at the end of the 1800s.

You’ll also notice differences between the corsets the women wear in the two distinct time periods in Belgravia. 

Cast member Tamsin Greig explained that the fashion changes actually reflected the way women were being oppressed at the time.

"When you have flashback scenes to the [Battle of] Waterloo, that’s a regency line, so the corset is really tight [under the breasts]... which means that the waist can be slightly looser, because it’s the empire line," she explained.

"When it goes through the century, the industrial revolution is finding its momentum, men are being separated from family businesses because then they’re going out to work, and the corsets are getting tighter and tighter. 

"So in the 1840s you have a very different corset, creating this tiny silhouette, which is trying to replicate the teenager [Queen Victoria] on the throne. They’re looking for a silhouette that doesn’t match most women. So as men find greater industrial and financial freedom, the women were agreeing to be more and more constrained."

Belgravia corset ITV / Carnival Films

And in terms of filming locations, you won’t see Highclere Castle - the setting for Downton Abbey - but you do see similar, lavish stately homes in Belgravia.

In fact, Greig joked that her National Trust membership was a waste this year because the production "went into some beautiful places for free!" 

Filming for Belgravia took place at a range of stunning Victorian locations in England, including London and the home counties, Bath and Northumberland.

Shooting also took place in Edinburgh, with the largely untouched Georgian architecture of the city's New Town doubling for 19th century London. 

Key scenes are also shot in the nearby stately homes of Hopetoun (which has featured in Outlander) and Manderston in Scotland.

Belgravia continues Sundays at 9pm on ITV.