CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews Julian Fellowes's drama The Gilded Age

In the US Downton, the worst snobs are the servants: CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews Julian Fellowes’s latest costume drama The Gilded Age

THE GILDED AGE

Sky Atlantic, last night 

Rating:

Railroad tycoon George Russell has his feet up on the furniture. ‘Careful,’ warns his wife, ‘that table belonged to King Ludwig of Bavaria.’ 

George flashes a devil-may-care grin. ‘He had it once. I’ve got it now!’ he crows.

You can trust Julian Fellowes never to leave us in doubt about his intentions. 

The creator of Downton Abbey has returned with an even more lavish costume drama in The Gilded Age (Sky Atlantic) – and it’s all about New Money.

The creator of Downton Abbey has returned with an even more lavish costume drama in The Gilded Age. Pictured: Sisters Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski in The Gilded Age

Set in New York, 1882, the overblown wealth was on display from the opening shot. 

Horse-drawn carts loaded with statues, chandeliers, antiques and grand pianos rolled up Fifth Avenue to the mansion commissioned by George and his ambitious wife Bertha (Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon).

But across the road, Old Money is in residence. Spiteful widow Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and her fluffy-headed younger sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) are surrounded by footmen and butlers – and the servants are even bigger snobs than the ladies.

The budget for The Gilded Age is a well-guarded secret, but to judge from the spectacular computer graphics that recreate New York 140 years ago, this production would make a hole in any family fortune.

Fans of Downton will be hoping for complicated romantic entanglements, and, of course, Cupid is hovering. 

The sisters have taken in their penniless niece Marian, Louisa Jacobson. Marian brings her new best friend to stay – the young black writer Peggy, Denee Benton (both pictured)

The sisters have taken in their penniless niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), whose no-good papa (their brother) has wasted their inheritance.

Meanwhile, the Russells’ raffish son Larry, played by Harry Richardson, is enjoying the high life – and Marian has already caught his wandering eye.

But the emphasis is on the older female characters. Bertha is a social climber who makes no secret of her desire to be a queen of the New York party world.

‘She has imagination, taste and nerve,’ boasts hubby George, whose chief job is to roll his eyes at his wife’s extravagance and sign the cheques.

At the climax of this opening double episode, Bertha threw an opulent soiree, her table piled high with lobsters spitted on swords like seafood kebabs. 

Nobody came – certainly not Agnes and Ada. ‘We only see the old people in this house, not the new,’ proclaimed Mrs van Rhijn.

How out of joint her stuck-up nose will be when she learns the shocking truth about her disreputable son Oscar, who keeps a barrel-chested blond sportsman in his apartment for frisky fun after the day’s parties are over.

Agnes is confronted in other ways by the changing times, as Marian brings her new best friend to stay – the young black writer Peggy, (Denee Benton) an aspiring novelist twice as clever as any of the other characters.

It takes Peggy all of two minutes to win Agnes over, and land a job as her live-in secretary. She has to sleep in the servants’ quarters, though, and one or two of the maids are not quite sure what to think.

Celebrities, billionaires and pots of money – this is reality TV from the steam railway era

Amid this rush of faces, we barely had time to get to know the below-stairs staff. Simon Jones presides over the van Rhijn residence as butler Mr Bannister, and he already has a catchphrase: ‘It is not for us to have an opinion.’

Across the street, conniving housekeeper Mrs Turner (Kelley Curran) seems to be setting her cap at Mr Russell. 

If Bertha catches wind of that, which she undoubtedly will, the saucy servant might end up speared with a lobster stick.

With so much scene setting, the story was slow to get going. It’s very different to Lord Fellowes’s last drama, Belgravia, which packed the whole of the Battle of Waterloo and a wedding into its opening sequence.

But the good lord enjoys all the fancy dress history so hugely that it is impossible not to be carried along.

‘Did you hear they shot Jesse James?’ cries Mr Russell. ‘Good evening, Mr and Mrs Roosevelt,’ calls a footman.

Celebrities, billionaires and pots of money – this is reality TV from the steam railway era.

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