Bloggers’ note: Although the early years of Victoria’s reign falls before this blog’s specialisation we have decided to review this programme as we believe that the years before 1870 are crucial to understanding the era she lent her name to and how in some ways they affected the twentieth century, even today.
In my old workplace, I had a colleague who had a collection of humorous workplace maxims on his desk. One of them read: “aim low, reach your goals and avoid disappointment” and this came to my mind when I read in the papers that ITV had commissioned a drama about Queen Victoria’s early years with the script being written by Daisy Goodwin. Given that she is a historical romance writer known for such novels as My Last Duchess and The Fortune Hunter, I guessed early on that Victoria will dwell more on romance and skirt over the pressing issues that bedeviled the early years of the queen’s reign and which would set in motion the changes that would take place over what turned out to be a long reign.
Two episodes down and I have been proven right. The chryon in the opening episode already gives away that this would be long on drama and short on historical accuracy – “1837: The monarchy is in crisis” and sets the stage for the new queen Victoria who had just turned eighteen only a few weeks’ before, pitted against Sir John Conroy, her mother the Duchess of Kent and her uncle the Duke of Cumberland who for reasons of their own all want a regency. Complicating matters is the presence of Lord Melbourne the Prime Minister who Victoria comes to heavily depend on leading to talk among society and sniggerings about “Mrs Melbourne”. Her determination to break free of her past and hang on to Melbourne at all costs as demonstrated by the Lady Flora Hastings scandal and the Bedchamber crisis were touched on lightly as it became clear that the main drama would be the supposed attraction between the Queen and Lord Melbourne.
Before telecast, the press had been hyping this as the “new Downton Abbey” and seeing the first two episodes, it’s easy to see why. We are treated to the machinations of some of the servants -particularly the steward Mr Penge (Adrian Schiller), the lady’s maid Miss Jenkins (Eve Myles), her deputy Miss Skerrett (Nell Hudson), Brodie the footman (Tommy Knight) and Francatelli the chef (Ferdinand Kingsley). When Baroness Lehzen (Daniela Holtz) tartly informs Mr Penge that she is now in charge of the household the grumbling between Penge and Jenkins afterwards is reminiscent of Thomas and O’Brien while Skerrett’s mysterious past has parallels with Baxter as do her interactions with Francatelli which has a whiff of Baxter and Molesley about them. The subplots involving the servants are mostly fillers and don’t really add much to the narrative so its baffling why they are included at all unless as a nod to Downton and a belief that viewers want to “identify” with characters and are more likely to do that with downstairs.
The acting is mostly hit and miss, Jenna Coleman does strike a fairly good balance with Victoria’s girlishness yet strong will but she does seem to lack the gravitas say demonstrated by Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria) and especially Annette Crosbie (Edward the Seventh). Peter Firth (Duke of Cumberland) and Paul Rhys (Sir John Conroy) are out and out pantomime villains supported by Catherine Fleming (Duchess of Kent) and Alice Orr-Ewing (Lady Flora Hastings). German actress Daniela Holtz makes a brisk Baroness Lehzen but the best actor so far is Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne. He might be too young to play the ageing Prime Minister and bon vivant but he brings a depth to Melbourne that goes beyond the sappy script. A scene where he recalls his late wife Lady Caroline is one of his best in my opinion and he conveys grief through gestures with no need for words.
The CGI shots of London also looked fairly unconvincing save for the external shots of Buckingham Palace as it existed then with Marble Arch serving its original purpose – as the main entrance to the Palace. It was well done and for me it brought to life how the Palace would have looked just as its’ architect John Nash envisioned it.
Over all the script is very uneven, while there are a few flashes of good dialogue such as an exchange between Melbourne and Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay) where the former gives the latter some advice on how to deal with the Queen (a foreshadowing of Gladstone and Disraeli); others were verging on the hammy and straying into cliché territory. Goodwin also can’t seem to resist beating the viewer over the head – the Duke of Cumberland’s constant mutterings over his father George III’s madness was irritating as is the tug of war between Penge and Lehzen over whether Buckingham Palace should convert to gas lighting.
Historical accuracy has also gone out of the window here for the sake of the drama. I can understand why certain liberties are taken for the sake of the narrative but to say that the monarchy was in crisis in 1837 is an exaggeration. The only “crisis” was that the new queen was 18 and totally inexperienced; everyone was looking forward to getting shot of the gouty dissolute old men who had preceded her. Her youth was seen as a breath of fresh air and she was generally preferable to her unpopular surviving uncles. The early years of Victoria’s reign is ripe for exploration of the political, social and economic conditions during that period and yet that was barely touched on. Another niggle that I have is why Lord Melbourne was not wearing court uniform especially in the scenes where it would have been necessary to wear it – during the Coronation and Queen Victoria’s first Privy Council. It’s a little detail but the court uniform would have helped establish Lord Melbourne’s character and his position.
I’d like to think that somewhere in this programme is a decent drama and one that can help viewers learn and appreciate more about a pivotal period in British history but I get the feeling that Daisy Goodwin is not exactly the writer who will do that. As for what will follow next, who knows but in the meantime, I will stick to that maxim of aiming low to avoid disappointment.
Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria
Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne and the real Lord Melbourne by John Partridge at the National Portrait Gallery London (photo taken by blogger)
A detail of Queen Victoria’s First Council at Kensington Palace by Sir David Wilkie showing Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne, currently on display at the Queen’s Gallery London (photo taken by blogger)
Further reading and other reviews:
Elizabeth Longford. Victoria R.I. (London, 1964)
A.N. Wilson. Victoria (London, 2014)
Matthew Dennison. Queen Victoria: A Life of Contrasts (London, 2013)
Douglas Hurd. Sir Robert Peel: A Biography (London, 2008)