The Gilded Age shows it’s not just the British who have great historical stories

January 25, 2022
The Gilded Age was a term used to describe the prosperous years in American history after the Civil War, when the elite grew fantastically rich through monopolies in steel, oil and the railways CREDIT: Alison Cohen Rosa

Julian Fellowes’s tale of 1880s New York channels hit period dramas like Bridgerton and Downton Abbey but with a fresh transatlantic spin

If you are counting the days until Bridgerton returns, then period drama salvation is coming in the form of Julian Fellowes’s latest corseted delight, The Gilded Age, which hits our screens on Tuesday. Set in 1880s New York, it chronicles the social upheaval amidst grand Fifth Avenue mansions as fortunes are built and old money clashes with ambitious arrivisme. Characteristic of his deft touch, Fellowes evokes Edith Wharton with observations on class, chaste kisses and crushing put-downs. And if the glorious property porn of Downton Abbey put Highclere Castle back on the map, The Gilded Age will send tourists flocking to Newport, Rhode Island, studded with palatial summer residences and vast croquet lawns, sweeping down 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 rich through monopolies in steel, oil and the railways. Tycoons of the day included John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and JP Morgan. This glittering era of unabashed materialism saw New York’s high society bristling with grandes dames vying to be the ultimate hostess. Central to this sharp-elbowed circle – where old money fought to keep new money from any form of inclusion – was the all-powerful gatekeeper, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, whose wealth and mores were generations old. Known simply as Mrs Astor, she oversaw what became known as The Four Hundred, the group blessed by her benediction. 

As in Downton, Fellowes’s fascination with the upstairs, downstairs divide defines the drama. Yet instead of drawing rooms stuffed with toffs, we’re 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 sniffy consternation of the old moneyed set. “They have been in charge since the Mayflower,” says a society hostess in The Gilded Age of the city’s ruling class into which our heroine, Marion Brook, an orphaned young woman, arrives to live with her aunts. 

“If Downton is upstairs, downstairs, this is the story of the right side of the street versus the wrong side of the street,” explains its American director, Michael Engler, who has collaborated with Fellowes for the past decade. The 62-year-old, who lives in New York, 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 shot to No 1 at the US and UK box offices. 

It’s ironic that an American director helped Downton scale the heights of success. Engler feels that it was his position as an outsider – although a committed Anglophile – that helped. “I didn’t have all the assumptions of class that the British have ingrained, and so I had a fresh view,” he tells me. The director, who got on so well with Dame Maggie Smith that they became theatre-going pals, cast Christine Baranski as a regal American version of Smith’s Dowager Countess, with an equally acid tongue.

The cast is a sublime ensemble that includes the cream of Broadway, which is no surprise given that Engler cut his teeth in theatre. Having directed three plays on Broadway by the age of 31, and worked on the defining dramas of the day – Six Feet Under and Sex and the City – he was able to attract stars such as Cynthia Nixon (Miranda in SATC), Jeanne Tripplehorn, Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin to The Gilded Age. 

“The American actors were so excited,” says Engler. “They had done period stuff on stage but not on screen. There was a sense of American pride that yes, we can do this. It’s not only the British who have great historical stories, and they don’t have the monopoly on period drama.” 

Just as Downton launched Lily James as an actress, The Gilded Age looks set to send Louisa Jacobson – Meryl Streep’s 30 year-old daughter – into the celebrity stratosphere with her breakthrough role as Brook. “She’s one of the most talented actresses I’ve ever worked with,” says Engler. He also foresees a glittering future for Denée Benton who plays Peggy Scott, a young black girl who goes to live in one of the old-monied houses to work as a secretary. 

Delicately tackling issues of racism, Engler says that he and Fellowes assiduously researched this plot line. “We shut down filming for the summer of George Floyd’s murder due to Covid and came back to take all this very seriously. Not just in our sensitivity to issues of race in the show but also on set – how we work, how we talk to each other – it all had to be reconsidered. In filming, we tried not to be blind or sentimental to race, but to be honest about what the situation would be.” 

Would a girl like Peggy have really lived in Fifth Avenue? “A lot of the rules of society were constantly broken,” Engler says. “There wasn’t a law against a girl like Peggy ending up in a house like this and we heard stories where this had happened. Every detail is grounded in truth.”

With Fellowes’s obsession with class, could The Gilded Age be considered anti-woke? “I feel like wokeness – the word itself has been turned into a political volleyball,” sighs Engler. “People are so quick to take offence and find offence were none is intended. We tried to approach the material with sensitivity and understanding of what were the real expectations of the time.

“There is the understanding that there are barriers within people and also those that society creates to keep us separated. You have a set of limitations and opportunities, and how you push against them determines your character.”

Does he think that class still exists in America? “I definitely think that there is still a class system in America,” he says. “But it was during the Gilded Age that the power shifted from being about the right families and European legacies, to being about wealth and celebrity, that we see today. Other than with a few families like the Kennedys, there are no entitlements assumed by the children. They get to inherit wealth but they only inherit the social position if they use what they’ve inherited to make a name for themselves through charity or politics, or their own acquired – rather than inherited – celebrity.”

Engler was surprised, and disappointed, by artistic condescension towards Downton in Britain. “I was always shocked that Downton won so many Emmys and Golden Globes but never a Bafta,” he says. “There is this odd snobbishness that something that had so much commercial appeal wasn’t edgy enough.”   

It’s interesting that the people in The Gilded Age are as rich and powerful as in Succession but it’s the opposite view of their accension. Whereas in Succession there is a cynicism and cruelty between characters as they play out their dynastic power broking, in The Gilded Age they are honest and human. “Mostly every character is doing the best that they can. They have deep wounds that they are trying to assuage. They are trying to get ahead. They are trying to be loved. There’s a fundamental decency to it all.”     

As Engler promises: “this is the perfect antidote to our world-weariness with modern life.”