Belgravia versus The English Game: Which of Julian Fellowes' new dramas can match Downton's success?

ITV / Carnival; Netflix
ITV / Carnival; Netflix

In uncertain times, costume dramas are the ultimate comfort viewing.

There’s something innately reassuring (or at least distracting) about immersing yourself in a world of well-mannered family feuds, intricate social hierarchies and yet more intricate hairdos.

This month, Julian Fellowes, king of English period drama, is back with two well-timed new series. Belgravia, which kicked off on ITV in the Downton Abbey Sunday night slot last week, begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo and follows the fallout from a forbidden love affair against the backdrop of London’s new “spangled city for the rich”.

Over on Netflix, The English Game marks Fellowes’s first foray into streaming, a six-part series that traces the inception of professional football in the Victorian era.

But which to prioritise in your increasingly packed viewing schedule? And which best deserves the title of the New Downton? Consider this your cheat sheet.

The concept

All the costume drama tropes are present and correct in Belgravia. There’s the cross-class romance between Sophia Trenchard, a merchant’s daughter, and her aristocratic love interest. There’s the disapproving posh in-laws — and the gauche parents.

Fast-forward a quarter of a century and — scandal klaxon — there’s also a secret love child whose grandmother, one of the fanciest ladies in high society, knows nothing of their existence. Throw in a Greek chorus of bickering servants and you have the tried-and-tested ingredients for a Downton substitute, on paper at least.


Darwen's 'mill team,' pictured, goes up against the Old Etonians in The English Game (Carnival for ITV)

The English Game might not seem like classic Fellowes territory, but five minutes in and it’s easy to see what has attracted the chronicler of class to this particular story.

It’s 1879, and the Old Etonians are football heroes poised to top the league. A team of working-class upstarts from Darwen, Lancashire — “a mill team!” as a shocked aristo puts it — are their rivals for the cup.

Their manager has done the unthinkable and hired two talented Scots to boost their chances of winning. But earning a wage for football is against the rules — and certainly threatens the Etonian monopoly. “This is a game for amateurs and gentlemen,” one of them claims.

Think of the show as a toned-down, less sweary Damned United via Downton, with all the glossy production values we’ve come to expect from Netflix.

The cast

Fellowes has assembled a star-studded cast for Belgravia (Carnival for ITV)
Fellowes has assembled a star-studded cast for Belgravia (Carnival for ITV)

Belgravia boasts the starrier cast. With Tamsin Greig and Philip Glenister as the new-money Trenchards, Alice Eve as their snobbish daughter-in-law, Dame Harriet Walter as an icy matriarch and rising star Ella Purnell as Lady Maria, Fellowes has assembled an ensemble to rival the Abbey's.

Edward Holcroft, right, stars as Arthur Kinnaird (Netflix)
Edward Holcroft, right, stars as Arthur Kinnaird (Netflix)

The English Game’s squad prompts a hazier “oh, him” sort of recognition. Edward Holcroft, ascending to costume drama lead status after bit-parts in Wolf Hall and Netflix’s Alias Grace, captains the Old Etonians as Arthur Kinnaird. His team resembles a Christopher Bailey-era Burberry ad campaign.

Most recognisable of the Darwen men is Line of Duty’s Craig Parkinson, who plays the manager.

The costumes

It's bonnets galore in Belgravia (Carnival for ITV)
It's bonnets galore in Belgravia (Carnival for ITV)

When Belgravia’s opening episode gets mired in endless teas and dances, the dazzling mid-Victorian gowns are enough to keep you watching — and they’re likely to step up a notch when Lady Maria comes on to the scene later in the series.

Over on the pitch, the fashion is less inspiring. There’s something comic about slow-motion shots of grown men running around in knickerbockers, like Prince George gambolling through a royal wedding. Where The English Game does have the upper hand, though, is in the facial hair stakes.


The players sport long shorts and designer facial hair (Netflix)

Many of the Etonian footballers boast extravagant topiary reminiscent of James Middleton, as if they’ve just popped into a hipster barber in Old Street. The Darwen players, meanwhile, are kitted out with no-nonsense handlebar moustaches. Glenister’s impressive sideburns aside, Belgravia just can’t compete.

The Maggie Smith replacement


We'd watch a 19th century Footballers' Wives spin off... (Netflix)

Belgravia’s imposing Lady Brockenhurst, played by Downton alumna Walter, certainly has the requisite froideur to succeed Smith’s Dowager Countess, boasting the ability to make apparently innocuous questions seem like a mortal insult: see the devastating moment when she asks nouveau-riche Mrs Trenchard if her husband is “still supplying foodstuffs?”

The English Game sadly lacks a Dowager substitute. The meagre rations of snark come from the Old Etonian WAGs, who are sometimes allowed to join their menfolk at celebratory post-match dinners. Maybe a 19th-century Footballers’ Wives spinoff should be next.

The anachronisms

Fellowes famously isn’t averse to a sprinkling of anachronistic slang in his period pieces. In both new shows, there’s plenty for historical nitpickers.

Belgravia’s opening voiceover intones that “the past is a strange country” — an odd paraphrasing, surely, of the memorable opening line of The Go Between … published in 1953

The English Game’s pre- and post-match chatter, meanwhile, could have been lifted from a particularly deadpan Match of the Day vox pop, with all the relevant dugout clichés. A later episode will surely see one of the Etonians claim “it was a game of two halves”.

Belgravia continues Sundays on ITV from 9pm; The English Game is available to stream on Netflix now

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