The doors of Downton Abbey have closed for the last time, so thank goodness for Doctor Thorne – a luscious new costume drama from its Academy and Emmy Award-winning creator Julian Fellowes.
This time, he travels even further back into British history, 1855 to be precise, for another fresh, gritty feast of class conflict.
Tom Hollander, Rebecca Front, Ian McShane and Alison Brie star in this lavish ITV adaptation of one of Fellowes’s favourite novels by Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), one of the most respected and prolific English writers of the Victorian era.
The three-part drama, which begins tomorrow on ITV Choice, revolves around Dr Thomas Thorne (played by Hollander, a star of movies including Pirates of the Caribbean and In the Loop, and the BBC TV comedy Rev, which he also co-created and wrote), who lives in the English village of Greshamsbury with his niece, Mary (newcomer Stefanie Martini), a girl blessed with every gift except money. It is a pity, seeing as how she has grown up alongside the Gresham family, whose house, Greshamsbury Park, and status dominate the county.
However, Francis Gresham Sr (Peaky Blinders star Richard McCabe) has frittered away the family fortune – and his wife, Lady Arabella, played by Front (The Thick of It, War and Peace, Humans), is distraught at the thought of losing their home.
The fuse to the dramatic dynamite, so to speak, is lit when nasty Lady Arabella discovers that her darling son, Frank (Harry Richardson), has fallen in love with Dr Thorne’s penniless niece. To say she is horrified is a gross understatement. All that has been keeping the Greshams afloat has been the favourable loans that Dr Thorne – as a go-between – has secured from railway millionaire Sir Roger Scatcherd (played by Deadwood and Game of Thrones star McShane), who is drinking himself into an early grave.
Believing it to be her son’s duty to marry a wealthy family to save the family’s estate, Lady Arabella schemes to pair him off with wealthy American heiress Martha Dunstable (Mad Men and Community star Alison Brie). As you might expect, things do not go quite according to her plans.
When the opportunity arose to adapt Doctor Thorne for the small screen, “I knew at once I wanted to do it,” says Cairo-born Fellowes, 66, who is also an actor, novelist, film director and Conservative member of the House of Lords.
“I was fiercely drawn to the challenge set by Trollope’s ambiguity, to bring his wonderfully modern-seeming characters, who are neither all good or all bad, to the screen,” he adds.
“One of the best examples of these being his immortal creation, Sir Roger Scatcherd … where we are encouraged to feel sympathy for the immoral and even criminal perpetrator until we are almost bewildered as to which side we should be on – something [Charles] Dickens would never have attempted.
“[And then] we have Lady Arabella Gresham, who is first presented as a harsh and unyielding snob but gradually we glimpse her humiliation, her desperation, as her world is crumbling around her, where the folly and failure of her husband and the consequent ruin of her son are making her ill.”
“Doctor Thorne is the moral centre of the piece,” says Hollander, whose association with Fellowes goes back to the film Gosford Park in 2001. “He is well-liked in the village and even though he is only the doctor, all the rich people ask him for advice and guidance.
“The Greshams are very vulnerable. There is no middle class, in the sense we understand it. They will lose the house that has been in the family for hundreds of years if their son doesn’t marry someone with money. You had to be sensible at that time about stabilising your future. It’s an attitude to marriage which seems shocking to us, with our modern romantic notions.”
Front says she has always loved Victorian literature.
“Trollope is very good at satire,” she says. “Julian is a big Trollope fan and he likes that satirical edge that Trollope has. Julian is also very witty – he writes with enormous wit and verve. Also, because of the success of Downton Abbey, there is a real confident swagger to the scripts. They feel very confident, well-written and funny. So they were an absolute pleasure to act.”
“It’s one of those classic tales that behind every great fortune is a secret,” says McShane. “He went to prison, came out and then made a fortune in the railways. Now he’s on his last legs but he has all the money – and the upper class, in the form of the Gresham family, have none.
“They are heavily in debt to him but still live in their house, which he all but owns now. He treats them far better than I would have done. I’d have kicked them out of the house and moved in.”
• Doctor Thorne begins at 11.30pm tomorrow on ITV Choice, exclusive to OSN
Source: art & life