It cannot be – no, most assuredly and for the good of humanity, it cannot be – that there are people out there who aspire to write like Julian Fellowes. It simply cannot be. And yet. Now has come Bridgerton (Netflix), suddenly into our lives, and as the minutes and the hours and the eight episodes of the new costume drama roll, the thought becomes ever more inescapable.
For Bridgerton is the tale, set in 1813 London, of the Regency rivalry between the lordly Bridgerton family and the lordly Featherington family who are each keen to be seen as the most lordly of lordly families and lord it mostly lordily over the rest of Regency London’s high society. We are in the Regency period, btw, and London. I, like the writers of the show, wish to make this very clear (the extensive filming in Bath notwithstanding).
Those writers – foremost among them Chris Van Dusen, who is (is “credited” the right word?) with creating the series, which is based on Jane Austen superfan Julia Quinn’s series of romance novels – show every sign of having watched one too many episodes of Downton Abbey. Like learning one too many facts before an exam and it pushing everything else out of your mind, that final, fateful hour in the company of the Crawleys has squeezed out everything the writer once knew about dialogue, language and character and left them only with the echoes of Fellowes ringing – as they might put it – round their mental ears.
How else do we explain the abundance of lines that look like English, sound like English but are not in fact English, and certainly not English as she is spoke? Lines such as: “It has been said that of all bitches dead or alive a scribbling woman is the most canine!” And: “But! As we all know, the brighter a lady shines, the faster she may burn!” Not if you haven’t already established that she’s shining as a result of conflagrations we all don’t! Lines such as: “They all try to avoid the dreadful condition known as the Spinster”. By which point I myself was leaning fully into the condition known as the Heavy Drinker. Because when nothing matters, nothing matters – y’know?
Anyway. Let us turn towards the condition of the plot. It is nugatory. Everyone with daughters is preparing them to be presented to Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) at court. Lady Featherington (Polly Walker, who remains da bomb, da very bomb) is lacing her daughters Penelope (Derry Girls’ Nicola Coughlan), Prudence (Bessie Carter) and Philippa (Harriet Cains) into their corsets and doubtless inspiring a thousand fanfics as she goes. The Dowager Countess Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) is doing likewise for her brood. Her hopes for advancement are pinned on the delicate Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and at first it looks like she’s bet on the right corseted horse. Prudence passes out in front of the Queen (“I have failed to avoid the condition of Unbecoming Crumpled Heap at the Foot of Royal Personage” she cries as she goes down. No, she doesn’t. I can’t speak for the first draft though) but the radiant Daphne is anointed with a kiss. “Flawless, my dear,” says the Queen. “And in the condition of The Vertical!” No, again, not the second bit. But …
Then it all goes to the condition of pot for everyone. Daphne’s oldest brother, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), Deputy Acting Lord Bridgerton now that his father has died and nobody in American TV seems quite sure how inheritance works, is overzealous in his protection of her and puts off every suitor save a particularly determined man who makes Mr Collins look like Mr Darcy. Her untouchable status becomes the staple feature of a new, scurrilous newsletter written by “Lady Whistledown” (Julie Andrews in arch voiceover, giving a touch of Georgian Gossip Girl to the whole thing – and let the record show that should anyone wish to commit in full to such an endeavour, I would be entirely here for that).
Lady W’s other favourite topic is the new arrival at the house of Featherington; the girls’ cousin Marina, who eclipses the trio in every way and whose star rises as rapidly as Daphne’s falls but who is harbouring a growing secret of her own. Dum-dum-daaaah!
Throw in the arrival of the dashing Duke of Hastings, an abandoned (by Anthony) mistress, and there you have it. A programme. I felt by the end of the first episode it had delighted me with its presence long enough, and yet … and yet … Was there not, after all, room for just one more? And, perhaps, another after that? This is not a feeling I ever had about Downton, so maybe Bridgerton is … better? Or – I am now worse? I find myself in the condition of Unable to Judge.
• This article was amended on 28 December 2020 to make clear that Bridgerton’s setting is London, with Bath often the site of filming. A daughter who fainted in front of the Queen was Prudence, not Penelope.