Axed: John Barrowman on the set for Gilded LilysThe show was to have been America’s version of Downton Abbey: the story of a complex, wealthy family set in New York’s first luxury hotel in 1895.
With a multi-million-dollar budget and backed by ABC, whose hits have included Desperate Housewives and Lost, the series hoped to emulate the success in the U.S. of British-made costume dramas Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs.
John Barrowman was signed up to play a major part in the show, tentatively called Gilded Lilys — the name of the family at its centre. And Tony and Emmy award- winning actress Blythe Danner, Gwyneth Paltrow’s 69-year-old mother, was to have played the family’s matriarch.
A pilot episode was made, with no expense spared. But the show was dropped without even screening the pilot. No one will say why, though insider gossip has it that Barrowman was considered not to have a big enough profile in the U.S. to carry the show.
Gilded Lilys was dead in the water. But now a similar costume drama is being made, this time set in the 1880s, called The Gilded Age. And who better to write and produce it than Downton creator, Julian Fellowes?
He is working on a pilot episode for NBC at the same time as writing the fourth series of Downton — and the two may be rivals when they are shown in the U.S. late next year.
For Barrowman, however, the news that Gilded Lilys has been replaced on American networks by The Gilded Age is a bitter disappointment. He had hoped that the role would finally establish him as a household name on the other side of the Atlantic.
When Barrowman was called to a meeting in Hollywood at the beginning of the year, the star of BBC drama Torchwood was offered the ‘role of a lifetime’ in the most highly anticipated drama in a decade.
After Downton’s success stateside — it was nominated for an unprecedented 16 Emmy awards this year — it seemed that a U.S. TV network was about to reverse decades of tradition to make a period drama of its own.
The drama would mirror the ITV show’s upstairs/downstairs division of the classes. But rather than being set in a grand country house, the story of the wealthy family and its staff is transported to luxury hotel splendour in Manhattan.
But months later and after spending millions of dollars, ABC pulled the plug. Home-made retro-dramas do not attract huge audiences in America. Mad Men, set in the Sixties, and Boardwalk Empire, set in the Twenties, air on niche cable networks and have tiny audiences, even though they regularly win awards and were huge hits in Britain.
For popular entertainer Barrowman, 45, the news came as a hammer blow, not least because the lucrative contract he had signed restricted him from acting in other series.
But now that deal has expired, after the producers gave up hope of finding another TV channel for Gilded Lilys.
‘I’m a free man,’ said Barrowman, putting a brave face on it.
‘They waited until the last minute because they were trying to find a home for it on a cable network. But they didn’t.’
The decision clearly astounded him, especially in the wake of Downton’s popularity. So what went wrong?
‘There was a lot of buzz around the show because of Downton Abbey. However, in America they’ve never done a big period TV show, they’ve only ever done mini-series,’ he says. ‘But that said, our pilot episode was very good.’
The pedigree of the show’s behind-the-scenes staff was impeccable, with the project being driven by producer Shonda Rhimes, the woman behind ABC’s hit hospital serial Grey’s Anatomy.
Rhimes, 42, from Chicago, is a committed fan of British drama and had tried to secure Barrowman’s services for many years after watching him star as Captain Jack Harkness in the Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood.
‘Shonda’s a fan of Doctor Who. She’d asked me to be on Grey’s Anatomy in the past, but because of my schedule with Torchwood I couldn’t do it,’ says Barrowman.
Just as his BBC schedule became clear, Shonda was looking for a leading man for Gilded Lilys. When she outlined the show’s story to him, he quickly agreed.
‘I was told I couldn’t say too much about the plot,’ he says. ‘But the story was a saga between two brothers and their mother. I played the bad brother.’
Some staff on the drama, who have asked not to be identified, say the decision to hire Barrowman as leading man proved contentious and could have been a factor in ABC getting cold feet.
This is backed up by top U.S. TV critic Brian Lowry, the chief TV columnist for Hollywood bible Variety.
‘I’m a huge fan of Torchwood, but I don’t think John Barrowman had the profile in the U.S. to make this work,’ he says.
‘Casting him in the lead role only works for the narrow group of us who have admired his work from Britain. To put it bluntly, he’s not well known enough here.’
But there were fans of Barrowman on the project, too. They blame ABC’s risk-averse strategy, rather than the quality of the show.
‘The fact is that unless a drama is set in a hospital, apartment block, courtroom or police station, American broadcasters don’t want to know,’ one insider says.
‘There’s still a tremendous amount of scepticism about a period piece, even though Downton has helped to change attitudes,’ Lowry says.
‘But more than anything else there is an age bias in Hollywood. No one’s going to want to cast Maggie Smith in a show here.’
Barrowman, who was born in Glasgow but grew up in Illinois, has not let his disappointment about the axed show stop him pursuing work across the Atlantic.
He enjoyed a guest role, as killer Patrick Logan, on Desperate Housewives and has just finished presenting a show for the science-fiction network G4.
‘You don’t put your bets on these things,’ he says. ‘When they don’t come off, I just move onto the next thing.’
Meanwhile, according to Fellowes, The Gilded Age charts ‘the dizzying, brilliant ascents and calamitous falls’ of New York society.
It is being billed by NBC as ‘an epic tale of the princes of the American Renaissance and the vast fortunes made — and spent — in late 19th- century New York’.
‘This was a vivid time in America,’ says Fellowes. ‘There was record-breaking ostentation and savage rivalry, in a time when money was king.’
If anyone can make a success of a U.S. period drama, it’s him.
Source (including photo): Daily Mail