There was a wonderful ITV period drama last week, with sets, costumes and dialogue that brought the past thrillingly and convincingly to life. Quiz, James Graham’s retelling of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? coughing scandal, might not seem like competition to Belgravia. But it was meticulously constructed history, with large sums of money, erratic siblings, rogues and hacks and snobs and celebrities, and at its heart two flawed characters on the make, in the teeth of the English class system. Real events were intertwined with elegant fictions that served the story. In short, it achieved everything Fellowes must dream of every time he sits at his desk, loosens his silk dressing gown and once again dips his quill.
Belgravia, on the other hand, does not, which is a shame seeing as he wrote it. The sixth and final episode brings the goings-on in Victorian SW1 to a series of tired conclusions, somehow frantic and dull at the same time. Susan Trenchard (Alice Eve) is pregnant, not by her plodding husband Oliver (Richard Goulding) but by the dastardly John Bellasis (Adam James). Still, she has a plan. If she keeps the child and her immediate family can keep the secret, Oliver will have an heir and his parents Anne (Tamsin Greig) and James (Philip Glenister) will have a grandchild.
Meanwhile, Lady Maria Grey (Ella Purnell) is determined to marry the industrious Charles Pope (Jack Bardoe), much to the irritation of her mother, Lady Templemore (Tara Fitzgerald), at least until she learns he is a secret posho. And so on and so on. The meddling staff, led by Turton (Paul Ritter), are confronted; there’s a confrontation on a quay. It all ends reasonably happily for the right people, especially Lady Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter), who has been the series stand-out in the Maggie Smith-cushioned hotseat.
Fellowes’ best work, in Gosford Park or Downton Abbey, was taut and balanced and leavened with wit. This is none of those things. The dialogue is flabby, even in the hands of canny pros like Greig and Glenister and Ritter. Emotional crises come and go before we’ve had time to notice. Have all the editors been fired, like so many ungrateful servants?
I don’t want to read too much into a script in which a daughter says to her mother, “Mama, let us not be at odds, like ruffians fighting in the street,” without an iota of irony. But the creator leaves his thumbprints all over the place. Titles and money are valid markers in Fellowesland, particularly money, but only if they come coupled to busyness. You can be busy at work or busy meddling with other people’s affairs, but you have to be up to something. Nothing is worse than being idle and rich, except possibly being idle and poor.
It might explain why Fellowes keeps putting himself through this wringer. Otherwise it’s rather baffling. He has more money than anyone could spend; awards and fame and title. He could cough on some blotting paper and someone would give him £10m to film it, although maybe not this summer. Yet he still churns it out. It’s not just Belgravia; there’s The English Game, on Netflix, and an upcoming “American Downton”, The Golden Age.
Towards the end of Belgravia, one character says of another that you might as well tell a fish to stop swimming as tell him to stop working. It’s meant as a compliment, but sometimes less can be more. As for ITV, if they are to survive the streaming reckoning, their historical dramas need to start looking a lot more like Quiz and a lot less like Belgravia.