From book to blockbuster, Belgravia is the Imperial Leather of TV soap

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With its tightly-corsetted young women, and its stiff-upper-lip gentlemen, the world of Belgravia is immediately familiar. A swirling of fabric and faux modesty which echoes Pride and Prejudice, the unequalled master of the genre, and Belgravia creator Julian Fellowes’ own Downton Abbey, to which this new series will inevitably be compared.

But in truth, like many of the compelling webs Fellowes spins, Belgravia is as much a stepchild of Downton as it is something entirely different, which subverts many of the audience’s expectations.

Tamsin Greig and Emily Reid as Anne and Sophia Trenchard in Belgravia.

Tamsin Greig and Emily Reid as Anne and Sophia Trenchard in Belgravia.Credit:NBC Universal

Fellowes revels in a world where history is written by men but shaped by the decisions of women, and where the spectre of war, and the looming loss of a generation of young men, is merely a launching pad into a story about the ties that bind two very different women, the newly-monied Anne Trenchard (Tamsin Greig) and the establishment empress, Caroline, Countess of Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter).

The story begins at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in 1815, held in Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Quatre Bras, and two days before the Battle of Waterloo. But that too is something of a misdirect, merely a platform for the audience to meet Anne’s daughter Sophia and Caroline’s son Edmund, who have, despite their different stations in social life, fallen in love.

The audience is quickly whisked 25 years into the future, with the two families ensconced in London’s ultra-wealthy enclave Belgravia, and where the events of the ball – no spoilers here – are still felt two and a half decades later.

Fellowes is a passionate historian, and not unlike other historians-turned-story tellers – Antonia Fraser springs to mind here – the fictional strands of the story can sometimes teeter under the weight of the historical detail they are carrying. It’s not properly a flaw, but rather the style of those writers and the kinds of stories they like to tell.

Philip Glenister as James Trenchard in Belgravia.

Philip Glenister as James Trenchard in Belgravia.Credit:NBC Universal

Downton perhaps got the recipe right, using a soapy lather to divert the audience from the historical detail. Belgravia is more ambitious, setting the story against the backdrop of a period of change in Britain during which its aristocratic establishment was waning in power, and a new vortex of wealth and power, thanks to the industrial age, was coming to prominence.

Moreover, Fellowes uses these two women and their rivalry as a mechanism to explore that. They might be bound together by the events of the past, but each is representative of those two opposing forces, the old and the new.

That is not to say this is too worthy. Fellowes is, after all, a master of soap even if he’s cranking out televisual Imperial Leather, rather than the generic brand.

And Belgravia has all the touchstones of a bodice-ripper. Great romance and thrilling revenge. And the usual coterie of leaching and sneering in-laws, from Peregrine Brockenhurst’s brother Stephen (James Fleet) to the Trenchards dreary offspring Oliver (Richard Goulding) and Susan (Alice Eve).

Based on Fellowes’ novel of the same name, Belgravia comes with the promise that unlike most book-to-broadcast blockbusters, there is no risk of a second season. Fellowes framed the novel as a singular narrative and he has done the same with its screen adaptation.

In part that is a fair nod to the limited series format, but also an acknowledgement that this is a very different story to Downton, and one with intentionally higher stakes and a cracking pace that flies towards the kind of finish that leaves little room for sequels.

Belgravia airs on Sundays at 8.30pm on BBC First.