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Television must stop portraying black people as victims, according to Julian Fellowes, who said he is redressing the balance in his new period drama.

Fellowes has created The Gilded Age, a lavish production set in 1880s New York which chronicles the clash between old and new money.

His most famous show, Downton Abbey, drew criticism from some quarters over its lack of black characters. The Gilded Age is more balanced and features Denée Benton as a young, middle-class black woman who aspires to be a writer.

Explaining the character, Fellowes told Radio Times: “I suppose I do feel, not with a woke hat on but with a slight hat on of some sort, that it’s not good for the younger black community to constantly watch black people being portrayed as victims.

“I think it’s why sportspeople and people in the entertainment world are so important because it’s about positive achievement. I think it was fun for Denée to play a dynamic part in a costume drama. Well, she found it interesting enough to take the part, which is what matters to me.”

Fellowes said he had researched the period and learned that there was a thriving black middle class in New York in the late 19th century.

The Gilded Age stars Louisa Jacobson, daughter of Meryl Streep, in her television debut as a young woman who moves into the Fifth Avenue home of her aunts, played by Emmy Award-winning actress Christine Baranski and Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon.

Denée Benton and Christine Baranski on the set of new drama The Gilded Age Denée Benton (left) stars opposite Christine Baranski (right) in the new HBO/Sky Atlantic drama Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa/Heyday Productions

The series is aimed at audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, launching in the US on HBO and in the UK on Sky Atlantic on January 25.

Downton Abbey was a runaway hit in the US, and HBO hopes that those fans will flock to The Gilded Age in similar numbers.

Fellowes added a black character – Jack Ross, a jazz musician played by Gary Carr – to Downton following criticism of the show’s all-white line-up, which had prompted the comedian Barry Humphries to joke that Downton was so popular in the US “because there are no black people in it”.

However, Gareth Neame, Downton’s producer, said at the time that “Britain was not a multicultural country in 1920” and should not be portrayed as such.

Fellowes said he is working on scripts for a second series of The Gilded Age but that a recommission would depend on its popularity with US audiences.

“I hope we’ll be able to reach the Americans with it. I don’t think they have the same automatic connection with their own history that the British seem to, unless it’s about the founding of their nation or the Wild West,” he said.

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