When it comes to period drama on television, viewers have become so accustomed to lavishness on an epic scale that producers make every effort to fulfill those expectations and promise sumptuous locations, costumes and production values. Stately homes, palaces and castles are used and various print and online articles (some thinly disguised press releases), behind the scenes footage and books are used to entice people to watch the programme. The recent success of Wolf Hall, the continuing run of Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife and Mr Selfridge as well as a new drama set during the days of the Raj (Indian Summers) have illustrated why despite bouts of fatigue audiences’ love affair with costume drama has never completely gone away.
Pitted against the multi-million pound budget of a Wolf Hall or Downton Abbey which have places such as Montacute House and Highclere Castle at their disposal, Edward the Seventh (which was made by ITV under its affiliate Associated Television (ATV) and telecast between April and July 1975) on the surface pales in comparison to today’s period dramas. The programme was mostly made inside a studio with very few location shots for outdoor scenes; and unlike today’s period dramas where improvements in filmmaking has ensured that there is no distinction between a studio set and the interior of an actual country house, that wasn’t the case with Edward the Seventh. Watching the programme it is patently obvious that majority of the action takes place inside a studio set with painted scenes providing the backdrop.
Based on Philip Magnus’ biography of the same title, Edward the Seventh was a thirteen part drama depicting Edward VII’s life as Prince of Wales then later King, and boasted an all-star cast which included Timothy West in the title role (Simon Gripps-Kent and Charles Sturridge played the child and young Bertie respectively), Helen Ryan as the Princess of Wales later Queen Alexandra (Deborah Grant played the younger Alexandra), Annette Crosbie as Queen Victoria, Robert Hardy as Prince Albert and Sir John Gielgud as Benjamin Disraeli among others. The large cast also included actors who were later to find fame in film and other television programmes; Felicity Kendal (The Good Life, Rosemary and Thyme) as Princess Vicky, Charles Dance (The Jewel in the Crown, Game of Thrones) as Prince Eddy, Derek Fowlds (Yes Minister, Yes Prime Minister, Heartbeat) as Lord Randolph Churchill, Nigel Havers (Chariots of Fire, Coronation Street) as the Hon. Frederick Crichton and Francesca Annis (Lillie, Cranford) as Lillie Langtry.
With each episode an hour long, we are shown a tableau of British history from the time of Bertie’s birth in 1841 to his death in 1910. By the nature of her long reign, Queen Victoria is featured in the first ten episodes and Bertie’s reign as King is covered in the last three episodes. Owning to the limitations imposed by filming on a studio set, the programme had to rely on behind the scenes interaction between the characters to explain key historical events. However the few crowd scenes such as the public welcome Princess Alexandra received as she set foot on British soil, the royal party making its way to St Paul’s for the Thanksgiving service in 1872 (after Bertie’s bout of typhoid) and surprisingly even the arrival of the King into Paris to begin his state visit were done well. Costumes, props, depictions of royal entertaining and the King’s coronation are of high quality especially by the standards of the 1970s and one can see the amount of research, attention to detail and choreography involved in order to make the depiction of characters and the world of royalty and the aristocracy as accurate as possible.
For a cast with some of the biggest names in the British acting industry, one expects that the acting is top notch and for most part the great majority do deliver. The acting style in my opinion was very suitable to the demands of the drama, the cast of Edward the Seventh (unlike many actors today in period drama) were able to mentally position themselves in an age that was more formal and buttoned up, their speech patterns and movement were more appropriate to the time the programme was set and they were able to capture the morality of the period as well as contrast between the formal and informal.
The programme is significant in many ways; Crosbie and Hardy as Victoria and Albert (especially Crosbie as Victoria) were the first to portray the monarch and her consort as human with their strengths and flaws as individuals, as well as portraying their marriage being warm and loving despite being punctuated by rows and disagreements. It is possible that audiences in 1975, many of them who were born when Victoria was still on the throne and grew up with the image of her as a black clad widow perpetually not amused, would have been shocked at seeing the monarch being portrayed as a very human woman expressing the same joys, sadness, happiness and fustrations as they did. The same is also true with Bertie; Timothy West in particular portrayed him as a sympathetic and human prince determined to do his duty despite his parents having written him off as a lost cause while Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Neame) does come out as a cartoonish villain at times but recent studies and documentaries on the Kaiser does for me justify Neame’s over the top performance.
However, the programme does verge at times on the hagiographic. While the important scandals that engulfed Bertie’s life were duly portrayed, the details are certainly skated over and some were ignored. His less than admirable characteristics were not really given full rein and the way his marriage to Alexandra was portrayed was highly selective.
Nevertheless despite these shortcomings and the fact that Magnus’ biography has been superseded by new studies and biographies, most recently by Jane Ridley, Edward the Seventh stands as one example of quality British programming and despite its limitations, especially on the technical front, can still be seen as superior to many of today’s period drama. While there seems to be an inability with today’s writers to write period drama without shoehorning some love story or “ship”, Edward the Seventh reminds us that good storytelling can thrive despite the absence of such flummery.
Another difference that Edward the Seventh has with for instance Downton Abbey is with regards to characterisation and reflecting the spirit of the age. The characters in Edward the Seventh are more credible as personalities of that era than those in Downton Abbey given their attitudes reflect more the twenty first century than the early twentieth. One also gets the sense that the likes of West, Crosbie, Gielgud, Hardy, Ryan and Kendal had clearly bothered to study how their characters would behave and the attitudes of the time, whereas one wonders if Bonneville, Dockery, McGovern, Carmichael, Froggatt and Collier among others have really understood just how different the early twentieth century was to the early twenty first.
Viewers too do get a sense of the morality of the period with Edward the Seventh; adherence to the cast iron rules of discretion, duty and public service were some of the prevailing themes in the series. Downton Abbey acknowledges that there were taboos against homosexuality, illegitimate children and sex before marriage but they are very much seen through a modern, tolerant filter that would have been unthinkable in the era it was supposedly set. And finally while it didn’t have the slickness and sophistication of today’s dramas, Edward the Seventh cannot be accused of being a soap opera with a dodgy script: which has been one of the recurring charges leveled against Downton Abbey.
Despite the passage of time Edward the Seventh can stand in comparison as a series with the likes of more modern offerings such as Downton or Call the Midwife. While later costume dramas may be more sophisticated in terms of locations and technical wizardry, Edward the Seventh remains noteworthy for solid production values and its respect for the values and behaviour of an era very different from our own.