Bloggers’ note: We apologise for the delay of this review. This is what you get when being out of the country when the special is aired and afterwards real life gets in the way
Titled “Comfort and Joy”, there’s not much of one or the other during the programme’s two hour run. Albert is busy recreating what in his mind was the perfect family Christmas (until Ernst tells him otherwise) while Victoria is keen to forget Christmases past and isn’t amused when Albert invites her mother to the festivities without consulting her. Christmas also brings two unwelcome visitors – King Leopold who is still plotting to marry off Ernst, this time to Princess Gertrude of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Nina Pavlovic), and the Duke of Cumberland (now King of Hanover) demanding the return of a suite of jewels belonging to his mother Queen Charlotte that he claims was left to him.
Apart from Albert’s obsession that the celebrations should be pitch perfect, the other main story line of this special is Victoria receiving an unusual present from King Gezo of Dahomey (Derek Ezenagu), in the form of a girl rescued by Captain Forbes (Ben Lamb) and christened Sarah (Zaris-Angel Hator). He recounts to the Queen and the court how she came to be a slave – captured with the rest of her family during a tribal war, she was earmarked for human sacrifice while her parents and siblings were all slaughtered. Captain Forbes persuades King Gezo to hand the girl over to the “Great White Queen” and thus Sarah’s life is spared.
Upon meeting Sarah, Victoria recognises right away that the girl is of royal blood and is impressed by the Captain’s reports of how Sarah is a quick learner and has blossomed under the care of his wife (Catherine Steadman). Despite being repulsed at the idea that the girl is given to her as a gift, the Queen invites Sarah to stay with her and the rest of the family at Buckingham Palace. Albert isn’t too sure about this but Victoria over-rules his misgivings: especially as he’s invited her mother for the festivities without telling her.
The rest of the special consists of little storylines that tie up those from series 2 – Harriet finally learns of Ernst’s syphilis, and Lord Alfred, who is still in mourning for Drummond is touched by maid of honour Wilhelmina’s attempts to comfort him and finally proposes marriage to her. Downstairs, Mrs Skerrett has come into an unexpected windfall from a distant relative and the inheritance will be more than enough for her and Francatelli (who has also proposed marriage to her) to set up home and the bed and breakfast business that they have dreamed of.
While this special does tie up a few storylines from series 2 and gives us a preview of what to expect for a series 3, the narrative over all felt a tad disjointed; the two main storylines – Albert’s zeal with his preparations for Christmas and desperation to believe that Christmas was the one bright spark in an otherwise unhappy family life as well as Victoria’s wish to forget her unhappy childhood and finding a kindred spirit in Sarah do seem to complement one another. But the other storylines particularly downstairs were simply fillers and while one might care for Ernst and root for his happiness, it’s hard to feel the same with the others – Penge’s little storyline as well as Skerrett and Francatelli’s feels forced and crowbarred into the narrative.
Hovering in the background is the of course the history. Although it’s now established that the first Christmas trees were brought into Britain by Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III in the 18th century, it is still generally assumed that it was Prince Albert who was the first to introduce them into this country. However Prince Albert does deserve credit for popularising Christmas trees as following illustrations and accounts of the royal family’s Christmas celebrations, the idea of having a tree inside the house decorated with baubles and lights eventually supplanted the old sprigs of holly, yew and mistletoe that were a staple of Christmases past.
The Duke of Cumberland’s claim to the jewels on the other hand was not resolved in the simple way that the special would lead us to believe. Victoria held on to the jewels until 1858 on the grounds that they belonged to the British crown, while her uncle claimed that Queen Charlotte left them to a male heir – which after the death of King William IV meant him. A settlement was finally reached with the Duke’s son George where the jewels were handed over to him and Victoria began a new collection which she designated as Crown property to avoid a repeat of the fiasco over Queen Charlotte’s pieces.
Apart from Albert’s role in popularising how we now celebrate the festive season, this Christmas special also explores the issue of slavery. Although the slave trade was outlawed in 1807 and slavery itself was abolished in the 1830s in Britain and its empire, it was still widespread in other parts of the world and the Royal Navy was deployed in stamping out the practice and freeing slaves. Sarah herself was none other than Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880): her maiden surname coming from Captain Forbes himself and his flagship HMS Bonetta. After her rescue, the real Sarah was indeed presented to Queen Victoria who agreed to serve as her godmother and pay for her upbringing and education. Sarah and the Queen did enjoy a close relationship and the former was frequently a guest at the various royal residences and played with the royal children. Upon her marriage to a businessman James Pinso Davies, they had three children, and the oldest Victoria Matilda was named after the Queen and as she did with Victoria’s mother the monarch was honoured to act as the girl’s godmother. In the special there are touching scenes between Victoria and Sarah and sadness is palpable as the Queen grants Sarah’s request that she would like to return to live with the Forbes family. Yet again as we have seen in series 2 and in real life, this story line depicts Victoria’s lack of racial prejudice and what were for the time very enlightened attitudes. However while the relationship between Victoria and Sarah is moving, the parallel storyline of Skerrett’s inheritance which turns out to be 20 slaves (she learns that the uncle she has never met was a slave trader) doesn’t ring true at all and feels very disjointed from the main narrative. I would have preferred to have seen more of Sarah’s personality and interacting with Victoria and her children all of which are documented in the accounts of Captain Forbes and the Queen herself.
This Christmas special is a feast for the eyes as Buckingham Palace and its gardens are transformed into a winter wonderland and we are treated to a panorama of the way the royal family celebrated Christmas, which would have a considerable influence on how we observe the festive season to this very day. It also taps into the universal and perhaps timeless desire to relieve and create happy memories and a happy home, as exemplified by Albert’s obsessive preparations and stubbornness in the belief that his childhood Christmases were as magical as he thought they were. However I wished that Daisy Goodwin stuck to the main elements of her narrative rather than to muddle it further with various indifferent and clearly forced subplots that either lead nowhere or are resolved so quickly that no-one cares about them.
Somewhere in this two hour special is a decent drama that did touch on historical issues and family dramas which could have been so much better had the writing stuck to the core story lines. Hopefully we’ll see a much tighter and coherent narrative in series 3 but perhaps I’m too optimistic.