This new series is very different in both style, tone and time period. Its first episode is a slow build, of which over half is framed as a flashback, with a laundry list of characters whose names are difficult to both learn and remember. And though it is titled Belgravia, the show lacks the sense of place that immediately resonates throughout Downton, a drama that was largely driven by the idea that no matter how much the world around it might change, that house would go on forever.
All of this, of course, is meant as a warning to temper your expectations accordingly. Belgravia, initially, is kind of hard to get into, and its first hour serves almost entirely as set-up for the series of episodes that will follow. But by the time you get to the end of this initial installment, you’ll be in this for the long haul. True, it’s possible you won’t wish happiness for most of these people – almost all of them are pretty much openly terrible and the one who isn’t dies – but, nevertheless, their story is wildly addictive to watch.
At least, it is once we get past the boring party in the past, a stolid, darkly lit twenty minutes of class snobbery that gives us the doomed, illicit romance that drives the rest of the story. It’s Brussels in 1915, the very eve of the Battle of Waterloo, and our story focuses on an up and coming merchant couple known as the Trenchards. Everyone refers to them very deliberately as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” all the time, so you know immediately that they’re basically calling them trash, a pair of strivers rising above their station on the back of the husband James’ almost magically successful ability to procure supplies for the military.
No, really. Those in command call him “The Magician,” and the snootiest of the British men sling that nickname around like a knife and James is either too blind or too dense to see the insult in it. But, oh, his wife does. Anne Trenchard, you see, is a woman that knows her place. She’s perfectly happy with their comfortable home and middle-class life, and she doesn’t believe in chasing after the station of her betters.
Is there a word for “snob, but in reverse”? Because that’s Anne. Perhaps this is because she started out at a slightly higher station in life than her husband did, but she’s very aware of how…not status-ed she is, and how uppity it is for her to aim for more than she was born with. When her husband wrangles an invite to the Duchess of Richmond’s infamous ball, she’s kind of furious about it – not just because they don’t belong there (as the Duchess repeatedly points out when they arrive), but because her daughter Sophie has been engaged in a very ill-advised flirtation with the Duchess’ nephew.
Which, naturally, ends about as well as you might expect in a story like this. Sophie’s boyfriend Edmund turns out to be a grade A dirtbag, getting a friend to pose as a priest and “marry” them so they can have sex before he heads off to Waterloo and dies, leaving Sophie alone, tragically unwed and, unfortunately, very pregnant.
As most of you probably already guessed from the trailers, the bulk of Belgravia’s story is centered around this secret. Sophie tragically dies in childbirth, and her parents never inform the boy’s family that her baby existed. Which, of course, makes things extremely awkward when Anne and Edmund’s mother, Lady Brockenhurst, run into each other at a newfangled “tea party” twenty-four years later.
Anne’s family has continued its rise in the intervening years. They’ve got a house in the snazzy up-and-coming rich neighborhood named Belgravia, thanks to the fact that James has had a hand in developing it. The Trenchards now live in a fancy house with servants themselves, and their other son Oliver has married a Mean Girl socialite named Susan. Lady Brockenhurst, for her part, is – what else – a feisty Dowager Countess with a quick mind and a sharp tongue. (Fellowes does have a type, after all.) She remembers Anne, because the story requires her to, and the two women bond over both having children who died young, without Mrs. Trenchard mentioning that their kids knew one another rather intimately.
Lady Brockenhurst is played by the great Dame Harriet Walter, ably following in Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess footsteps and doing a lot with only a few scenes. This is a woman who is equally as resistant to modern conveniences - she’s not a huge fan of this whole afternoon tea thing – but who seems much more broken, carrying the sort of bone-deep sadness that’s so prevalent it’s just become part of who they are. Anne, despite her general dislike of everyone above her station in life, is clearly moved by her and suddenly has some regrets about, well, some stuff.
Such as the fact that the two don’t just share a similarly tragic past. They also share a grandchild. Which, clearly, no one has ever told poor, sad Lady Brockenhurst about.
Welcome to Belgravia folks. Now the real story can start.