Every writeup of this mentions that it’s by Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, so there you are, we’ve got that out of the way. This is nothing like that, however. It’s a fairly pleasant period drama but that’s about it. The book came out first, and the TV adaptation follows the book pretty closely, in fact I’d go so far as to suggest that the book was written with TV in mind. There are chunks of dialogue which correspond to the TV show’s scenes, and then pages of description of settings, explanations and simple research info-dump. If I’d read the book before watching the show, I’d probably have ploughed through it, but as it was I gave up after only a few chapters. It was just too dry for words.
So this review is essentially of the TV show. The story opens in 1815 on the eve of the battle of Waterloo, at the famous ball by the Duchess of Richmond, which ended with the departure by many of the attendees direct to the battlefield. Invited to this prestigious event are three unlikely people, who are not aristocratic or even gentry. James Trenchard is the man who supplies Wellington’s army, a working class man who’s scratched his way up the ladder of wealth and position until he’s bumping his head against the invisible ceiling that divides those who inherited their money from those who earn it. Trade and privilege must never meet, but for this one night they do, as Trenchard’s pretty daughter Sophia has caught the eye of Lord Bellasis. Watching with disquiet is Trenchard’s wife Anne, born into the lower gentry herself and understanding all the disadvantages that might result from her ambitious husband’s efforts to rise in the world. And so is set in train the events of the book, as Lord Bellasis is killed on the battlefield.
The story then jumps to 1842, when Trenchard is helping to build posh houses in Belgravia and pushing his wife into the circle of the noble families who buy them. Inevitably, the secrets of the past start to emerge, leading to a whole series of increasingly implausible events. The Trenchard’s rather useless son, Oliver, and his discontented wife, Susan, form a good part of the side story, as well as the Earl of Brockenhurst (father of the deceased Lord Bellasis) and his ne’er-do-well family. But the consequences of 1815 and Lord Bellasis’ love affair with Sophia Trenchard form the backbone of the story as events unfold in a fairly pedestrian and predictable way.
As a TV show, the sets and costumes alone make it worth watching, and I loved the way that the wide skirts enforced slow and graceful movements from the ladies. It really wasn’t possible to move quickly without an unseemly amount of swaying. The acting is uniformly excellent. My only reservations were with Philip Glenister and Tamsin Greig, who play the major roles of James and Anne Trenchard. They’re both magnificent actors, but I felt they were somewhat miscast here. Glenister is always himself, no matter the role, and Grieg was just a little too placid. I would have liked more drama from her, considering some of the things that happened to her, but that was a directorial decision, I imagine. As for the rest, they all came from British central casting, so they can play these aristocratic roles with one hand tied behind their backs. Worthy of special mention, Tara Fitzgerald was a creepily believable controlling mama, Jack Bardoe was suitably bewildered as the hapless Charles Pope, and Adam James had the plum role as devious schemer John Bellassis.
If I were assigning a star rating to the production, I’d probably give it a three, and most of that was for the visuals. The script was lifted straight from the rather uninspired book, and added no fireworks to it. The only drama happens in the final episode and is entirely predictable. When the big revelation happens, again in the final episode, the characters sit around drinking tea, saying to each other, “Well, that was a surprise. Never saw that coming.” Paraphrasing only slightly here. It all felt very anticlimactic. There are also glaring problems with the plot. At one point the Trenchards say to each other, “We should have looked into that.” Well, yes, you should, you really should.
Worth watching if you’re a fan of costume dramas, just don’t expect Downton Abbey.