They come over here, taking our TV shows, and – gravest insult of all - making them better. It was announced last night that NBC and Universal Television have signed Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes to transfer his period drama midas touch stateside. The Gilded Age will be set in 1880s New York, which, says Fellowes, “was a vivid time with dizzying, brilliant ascents and calamitous falls, of record-breaking ostentation and savage rivalry; a time when money was king.” So a bit like the Downton Abbey days then, only with ten times the budget.
The history of US remakes of UK shows is long, patchy and characterised by a blithe disregard for cultural niceties. If any television exec had really, truly thought about it, would they have attempted to reset Manchester council estate drama Shameless in Chicago with William H Macy cast in the lead? They certainly wouldn’t have had the balls to tamper with The Office’s quintessentially British brand of bleak (with added stapler gags). Yet both worked – the US version of The Office is now on its ninth season. They worked because hard-nosed, US production teams took what they liked from the UK originals, mercilessly discarded the rest, and then let the shows evolve their own identities. That’s Americans for you, no regard for tradition.
But Downton, you say, is nothing sacred? Surely any attempt to recapture the class-based nuance, the cosy Sunday night feel is doomed to failure? Well, not really. Fellowes might have won a screenwriting Oscar for Gosford Park, but enjoyable and popular though it is, his soapy ITV drama is basically The Only Way is Post-Edwardian Yorkshire (in which analogy Dan Stevens is, of course, Joey Essex and Shirley MacLaine is Nanny Pat).
So why do they bother? Why would American TV execs spend thousands (millions?) courting Baron Fellowes of West Stafford when they already have perfectly good period dramas of their own (Boardwalk Empire) – not to mention endless reruns of the original Downton. Perhaps it’s the TV biz equivalent of one of those sensibly loveless, 19th century marriages that Fellowes writes about so often. NBC is in it for the aristocratic connections and he must need a yank cash injection. Those crumbling country piles don’t renovate themselves, y’know.