Julian Fellowes and an American Downton Abbey?

Seriously, I hope they have better luck than the last time American TV producers tried to riff off the success of the original Upstairs, Downstairs – it was called Beacon Hill, as I recall and a routine googlectomy confirms. It started with great fanfare and interest, and promptly fizzled out, probably confirming expectations that American TV just cannot do family saga/period drama in anything other than as a TV miniseries with a limited run. It’s certainly a wise choice to go back to the rip-roaring decades of what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age. Twain did not mean it as a compliment, though – he meant something vulgarly over-ornamented, cheap pot-metal covered with a microscopic layer of gold. All flash and glitter, trashy glamor to fool the tasteless and/or newly-rich, of which there were a lot in post Civil War America, which was going industrial in a way and in a degree that made the genteel old-money established families, with fortunes based on land, trade, banking and the occasional eccentric invention look on in horror. So, it seems from the story linked above that Mr. Fellows is going to go for the New York Gilded Age elite – the Vanderbilts, the Astors, Carnegie and Morgan and all. Best of luck to him, as there was a lot of drama in them all, over the years. The trouble is, though – it’ll be hard to encompass the American Gilded Age in just one family, or extended family, or even set of rival families … especially if it’s confined to the New York upper crust of the time.

Ultimately, it might prove to be very boring. New York, contra to what the average Brit entertainment mogul might believe is only a very small piece of the United States, and how long the rest of the country might put up with watching the 19th century society glitterati contemplate their own navels is anyone’s guess. Based on Beacon Hill, probably not for long, but it might be amusing to watch for a couple of episodes anyway. But, how is he going do do it?

Darned if I know, but here’s how I’d set it all up, if it were my project. First, I wouldn’t tie the plot and dramatis personae so tightly to the New York setting. Although the place was the focal point for the glamorously wealthy – other places in the United States produced wealth, or had produced it in the relatively recent past, and often viewed New York as a necessary but easily avoided evil. Mining and transport wealth in San Francisco, transport magnates in the mid-west, old-moneyed Southern aristocrats, clawing their way back into the power game, up and coming steel manufacturers in the upper Midwest, Chicago stockyard barons, Texas cattlemen with adventurous old-money and European investors in the wild trans-Mississippi west… That would be a far more interesting mélange than a bunch of mustachioed, upper-crust suits and their corseted ladies, glooming through the overstuffed rooms of a 5th Avenue mansion. And I wouldn’t tie it to a single family – boring, boring, boring.

So – start with a new-money family, industrial new money in fantastical amounts, made by a man from relatively humble beginnings and not much more than elementary school education, which then would be at least as much as a high school today … someone like Andrew Carnegie, only American born. Add to that, perhaps a rival or sometimes allied family – even perhaps a single character from an old Southern land-and-cotton-rich aristocratic family smarting from the loss of the Southern Dream. This did happen, historically – Alva Erskine Smith – later Alva Vanderbilt and even later than that, Alva Belmont – was a Southern belle of a formerly well-to-do family, ruined by the War. Of a particularly steely and determined nature, Alva engineered her marriage to a Vanderbilt grandson of the founder of that families’ fortune, a fortune made in steam transport on land and sea, and later the marriage of her daughter to an English duke. Then blend in – one of the pre-war industrialist empires … maybe a stage-coach king, like Ben Holliday, who had the sense and vision to adapt his coach line as a profitable adjuct to the railroad, when completion of the transcontinental rail lines superseded his magnificent horse-drawn coaches.

A character like that would bring in a stiff breeze of old west personalities and frontier adventure. Or perhaps some characters and family based on early industrial innovators like the Colt family, of armament fame. Developer and mass manufacturer of a popular revolver through several iterations, Samuel Colt died in the early years of the Civil War, but left his entire enterprise to the control of his widow, making her one of the richest woman in America. Elizabeth Colt never really seemed to embrace that fabulously competitive social life and conspicuous consumption that typified women like Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and the New York society circle at its most rarified. Although she was a contemporary of it, and knew a great many people such as JP Morgan personally, she seems to have moved serenely in her own circle of good works and art collecting and care of her surviving family, as well as burnishing the memory of her husband. Finally, I’d work in some kind of western connection, if the Ben Holliday-type character didn’t make the cut – perhaps a wealthy European aristocrat or remittance man, come to make a fortune by investing in the western cattle boom … like Antoine Vallambrosa, the Marquise de Mores, who came to the Badlands of the Dakotas with his glamorous wife, and made a small fortune in ranching and an innovative meat-packing plant. Of course, he had started with a large fortune …

That’s the way I’d start to set it up – it would be much more fun and typical of the time. But who knows if Mr. Fellowes’ version will last longer than Beacon Hill? I’d hope so, as one gets very tired of the everlasting TV triad of modern-day doctors, lawyers and cops.

(Cross-posted at www.ncobrief.com)

5 thoughts on “Julian Fellowes and an American Downton Abbey?”

  1. Fellows has used the restraint of the British and the constraints of their class system to good effect in Downton. Whether he can do something similar in an American setting is another question. There is a great deal of literary material available for the writers to work with such as Edit Wharton and Henry James.

  2. Basing an historical family saga strictly on Edith Wharton and Henry James though … that will have all the edge of your seat thrills and chills of watching paint dry. Ah well, I can dream…

  3. The problem with America is that peasants, fresh off the boat & don’t even speak English or French, discover oil, or trap furs, invent something or write a program and get richer than God.

    But they have no breeding and no class. They are just former serfs and the ruling classes think they really ought to return to serfdom and they should never act like lords.

    There was a TV comedy series about these people, a movie called Giant, and a few articles in Wired.

    The Progressives are determined to make sure that only people with good breeding and connections may have the ammenities currently usurped by vulgar peasants.

    America may never produce a Downton Abbey but we have produced the Beverly Hillbillies, Elvis and Governor Blogojevich.

  4. “Akron – the Rulers of Rubber” would be a good title and setting.

    Have the Firestones and the Goodyears and the Goodriches battle it out commercially and socially.

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