When Julian Fellowes offered Downton Abbey to the NBC network he was told that American viewers would never sit through an Edwardian-era period drama.
But the broadcaster has had a change of heart after US viewers fell for the series and now Fellowes will create an “American Downton” for NBC, set in 19th century New York.
Three years after sending the Oscar-winning screenwriter packing, NBC has asked Fellowes to put an American twist on the British show, which has won 6 Emmy awards and posted record ratings for the PBS network.
The Gilded Age, the working title for the new show, will be set in New York City in the 1880s and focus on the rising, and inevitably plunging, fortunes of “the princes of the American Renaissance,” according to the network.
Fellowes, who will be executive producer, said: “This was a vivid time, with dizzying, brilliant ascents and calamitous falls, of record-breaking ostentation and savage rivalry; a time when money was king.”
Jennifer Salke, President of NBC Entertainment, says the network was “thrilled” to have the “immensely talented” Fellowes on board. “Having him on our team represents a major creative coup,” she added. The network, which hopes to get the show, produced by the Universal Television studio, on air next Autumn, promises a “sweeping epic”.
Historians define the Gilded Age as the boom period following the Civil War, running from 1877 to 1893.
Coined by writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, it was an era of huge economic growth for the United States, as new railroads connected the vast country, scarred by political corruption and social inequalities which followed industrialisation.
Fellowes’ series is expected to reference the Vanderbilts, the family which attained huge wealth through railroads and shipping in the 19th century, becoming “New York royalty” through their social standing in the city.
Fellowes, who will continue to write Downton Abbey, shook up the ITV drama this year with the introduction of New York millionairess Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine (pictured above with the Dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith), as the mother of Lady Cora. However speculation that The Gilded Age might act as a “prequel” to the British show, which has now reached the mid-1920s, appears premature.
The NBC network is under new management since executives rejected Downton Abbey. Period dramas traditionally do not fare well in US prime-time slots, which are dominated by high-volume, crime procedurals.
But although it screens on the PBS cable network, which picked up the series when NBC passed, Downton has built an audience of 5 million viewers and become a national talking-point, spawning “Dress like Downton” segments on US breakfast television and a range of unofficial merchandise, including a “Lady Cora pearl set”.
The Gilded Age is set to compete against another US series based on the snobbery and rituals of a closed, New York, high society. Teen drama Gossip Girl is inspired by The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s 1870-set novel chronicling Manhattan’s wealthy classes.
Fellowes will take Downton into a new era following the news that Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew Crawley, will leave during the fourth series. The actor is currently appearing on Broadway and says he wishes to pursue new opportunities in New York.
ITV is to launch a new big-budget period drama next year. Set in the early 1900s, Jeremy Piven takes the title role in Mr Selfridge, the story of the visionary American founder of the London retail department store.