When I first learned that the writer and producers of “Downton Abbey” were teaming up for a new TV series, I was alarmed. “Ugh,” I thought to myself. “There are already too many shows to watch. How am I going to make time for this one?"
Then I learned that “Belgravia” is a six-episode, closed-ended series with a beginning, middle and end. Which was a huge relief. And a further enticement to watch the show, which debuts Sunday on the cable channel Epix.
Like “Downton Abbey,” “Belgravia” is a period piece — but it’s a different period. The narrative begins in 1815, almost a century before the Titanic went down and the events portrayed in “Downton” started up. The stories are not at all related, except that “Belgravia” is about nobility and servants and, this time, people somewhere in between.
“Well, I think there’re bound to be some similarities because they’re written by the same guy,” said Julian Fellowes, who wrote both of them. “And there’s a kind of limit to how many voices one possesses.”
“Belgravia” opens at one of the most famous parties in history — the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels, Belgium, shortly before the Battle of Waterloo. (The Duke of Wellington and many of his officers had to leave the ball early to go fight off Napoleon’s army.)
James (Philip Glenister) and Anne Trenchard (Tamsin Greig) have gotten themselves invited, although they’re not in the upper crust. He’s supplying Wellington’s army, and he really wants to climb the social ladder. She’s more realistic about that situation.
Their daughter, Sophie, is in love with Edmund Bellasis, the son and heir of a powerful noble family. Their budding romance is cut short when Edmund heads off to Waterloo — and he doesn’t survive. And, months later, Sophie doesn’t survive the birth of their child.
This being Victorian England, the child’s grandparents can’t acknowledge him. And after a 25-year jump forward, both sets of grandparents — the upwardly mobile Trenchards and the fabulously wealthy Lord Peregrine (Tom Wilkinson) and Lady Caroline (Harriet Walter), the Earl and Countess of Brockenhurst — are ensconced in Belgravia, among the ritzy new homes built just a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.
If you remember “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the Bellamy home was in Belgravia. And, yes, I went and found the real house they used as the exterior on a trip to London a few years ago. It’s an amazing area that hasn’t changed much (from the outside) since the 19th century.
“The irony, of course, is we didn’t do any filming there at all,” said executive producer Gareth Neame, because of all the embassies located in Belgravia and the accompanying security. So they built sets that look like Belgravia elsewhere.
“The great thing about it is all these characters live within yards of each other,” Neame said. “It’s all these secrets behind those doors. That’s the heart of the show.”
The Trenchards and Lord and Lady Bellassis are the only ones who know that handsome young merchant Charles Pope (Jack Bardoe) is their grandson. And the rest of society — not to mention the servants — can’t figure out why they’re so interested in him.
There’s a big cast, fabulous costumes and sets, drama, scandal, heartbreak, joy and lords and ladies behaving badly. And sometimes nobly.
“There is a fascination in seeing human nature facing the same dramas that we are all facing now or have faced during our lives,” Fellowes said, “but being played out according to different rules. It’s really about people achieving what they want despite the difficulties that society places in their path.”
And, again, it’s just six episodes. “Downton Abbey” was 47 and a movie. “It has a kind of tauter narrative,” Fellowes said. “It’s a single narrative, a completed story.”
“That wasn’t on the cards, and who knows [about ‘Belgravia’]?” Neame said. “It’s not impossible, but we don’t have a plan for that.”
“Belgravia” premieres Sunday on Epix — 7 p.m. on Dish and DirecTV; 10 p.m. on Epix.