TV Review – Titanic’s Tragic Twin: The Britannic Disaster and Dan Snow on Lloyd George: My Great-Great Grandfather

Celebrations for the First World War centenary continued in 2016 with events and new books published commemorating and observing the centenaries of the Battles of the Somme and Jutland. It is therefore unsurprising that media attention was focused on the two main events – especially the Battle of the Somme owing to the number of lives lost and its significance to British history and the British psyche.

However, there are also two events that are also significant in their own way but have been overlooked and even forgotten. 1916 also saw the sinking of the hospital ship Britannic and David Lloyd George becoming prime minister, but unlike the Somme and Jutland, the sinking of the Britannic has been forgotten and Lloyd George is almost unknown. Why both have been consigned to near or full obscurity is something the BBC has attempted to address and rectify with two documentaries – Titanic’s Tragic Twin: The Britannic Disaster and Dan Snow on Lloyd George: My Great-Great Grandfather.

HMS Britannic was a hospital ship that began life as the sister ship to the ill-fated Titanic. So much has been written about the Titanic especially the circumstances of her sinking in 1912 that it has overshadowed the story of the Britannic. When the Titanic sank in 1912, Britannic was still being built, so both Harland and Wolff and the White Star Line decided to modify her design by adding a second watertight compartment and adding more lifeboats to avoid another disaster on the scale of 1912. Upon the outbreak of the First World War, Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship and by 1916 had already taken part in five missions transporting wounded soldiers from the front back to the UK. On November 1916, Britannic undertook what was to be its final mission before she sank – to go to the Mediterranean to collect the wounded who had been stranded in the aftermath of the Gallipoli campaign. But on 21 November, tragedy struck when the ship hit a mine and the Britannic sank in just under an hour with 30 people dead.

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The documentary was an attempt to piece together what had happened and this was done through the records of some of the survivors, including Charles Bartlett, the captain of the ship; Archie Jewell, a Britannic crew man; Violet Jessop, a White Star Line stewardess who also survived the Titanic and Sheila Macbeth, a nurse assigned to the Britannic. There were also interviews with descendants of the above but what was baffling was the presenter Kate Humble asking the descendants whether they ever “got a sense of what it was like on the day the ship went down”. Such a pointless question, on a par with a journalist asking disaster survivors ‘and how did you feel?’ – and one that didn’t have to be asked if the production had stuck to the story –  from the accounts, the sinking of the Britannic was every inch as dramatic as the Titanic. Captain Bartlett was still hoping to avoid the ship being sunk by heading towards the nearest island but it proved to be futile. In the end, bad luck and human error resulted into the sinking with the loss of 30 lives. Overall, Titanic’s Tragic Twin: The Britannic Disaster was a wasted opportunity for viewers to learn more about the Britannic and the important role played by ships such as these for the war effort, and a superb example of how history increasingly is dumbed down and trivialised for mass appeal.

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TV historian Dan Snow is on the trail of his great-great-grandfather David Lloyd George (fun fact: he’s descended from the older of Lloyd George’s two daughters Olwen), seeking to find out more about his ancestor including skeletons in the cupboard that his family would rather not talk about, and why despite the fact that he won the First World War for Britain, he has been overshadowed by his friend Winston Churchill who achieved the same feat during the Second World War. His journey takes him to North Wales where David Lloyd George grew up (and a young Dan Snow spent his holidays with his grandparents), to London where his political career grew from the strength to strength – ultimately achieving the premiership and Paris where he played a pivotal role in drafting the peace treaties that ended the First World War.

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Snow tries to assess Lloyd George’s life and career in a balanced way and with this documentary he has pretty much succeeded. He examines his great-great-grandfather’s rackety private life – a popular schoolboy song in the early 20th century went “Lloyd George knew my father/Father knew Lloyd George” which was thought to be a reference to his slippery character. Early in his political career he was cited as a co-respondent in a divorce case. Whilst this did not ruin his career, it taught him the necessity of taking a leaf out of the aristocracy’s book and conducting his infidelities with discretion. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George had begun an affair with his youngest daughter’s governess (later his secretary) Frances Stevenson and despite her desire for marriage and family she acquiesced in remaining his mistress and even underwent an abortion so as not to jeopardise his marriage to his wife Margaret. Margaret Lloyd George just like Queen Alexandra played her role too, condoning the affair so long as it did not threaten her own relationship with her husband.

While Lloyd George helped lay the foundations of the modern welfare state as Chancellor of the Exchequer, his greatest success was as Minister for Munitions and as Prime Minister where he introduced a number of innovations that were used again during the Second World War – such as the establishment of a war cabinet and ensuring that minutes were taken. He was also responsible for the idea of bringing in outside experts to help keep the business of the war economy ticking and reached out to the Empire as well, recognising the value of the member countries’ contribution to the war effort. He was seen as a contrast to his predecessor Herbert Asquith, whose languid ways and refusal to change his governing style as the war dragged on played a factor in Asquith being forced out of office in 1916.

Lloyd George was one of the key players during the Paris Peace Conference but the enthusiasm for peace quickly soured as the war economy wound down and the government was faced with millions of unemployed servicemen and women who were forced to step aside once the war was over. His leadership style which suited the war years did not translate well into peacetime and in 1922 he resigned and although he continued to sit in Parliament, never again was he to hold any position of power.

The documentary is not without its weaknesses. Much is made out of Lloyd George’s status as an outsider and fair enough that was the focus especially with regards to his early career but with regards to his relationship with Field Marshal Douglas Haig and King George V, the usual explanation of “establishment vs. outsider” is clichéd and simplistic. Snow could have made more of World War 1 being a war unlike any other and how each of the three men approached the handling of the conflict rather than resorting to the well-worn and overused class based narrative.

Over all Dan Snow on David Lloyd George is an interesting and informative documentary and in the end as Snow himself acknowledges, his great-great-grandfather was not a hero in the classic sense, just a man capable of both greatness and failure.

 

Titanic’s Tragic Twin: The Britannic Disaster was telecast on 5 November 2016 on BBC2

Dan Snow on David Lloyd George: My Great-Great-Grandfather was telecast on 7 December 2016 on BBC1 Wales.

 

 

 

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) Part 4 – And baby makes three

Unsurprisingly given her vigorous marital life with Albert, Victoria finds herself pregnant just months into her marriage and with the spectre of Charlotte looming over the young queen, she is treated as an invalid by her mother which she resents. As childbirth then was seen as a “dangerous business”, the issue arises of who should be regent should Victoria die or become incapacitated due to child birth. She proposes Albert but the Tories are opposed to a foreigner as regent.

Albert meanwhile is still searching for a role especially as his wife still refuses to share her duties with him, and it’s patently clear that her isolated upbringing under her mother’s care has left her ignorant of current affairs and that she takes little interest in the conditions of her subjects. His knowledge of his adopted country is far superior to hers and he uses his enforced idleness to educate himself on the technological advances and changes making their mark. While on a visit to a local squire up north who happens to be a neighbour of Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay), the arrival of the railways becomes a focal point of conversation: the royal couple’s host is opposed to them owing to their view that the railways encroach on private land. Albert on the other hand welcomes the railways, as he sees them as a vehicle for progress allowing people, products and ideas to travel from one part of the country to another. Much to his delight, he’s invited by Sir Robert to take a ride on the train on the latter’s estate and he accepts the invitation by sneaking out one early morning. This results in another row between Albert and Victoria – sadly we do not see the latter’s famous fierce temper deployed to full effect here but later having taken a ride in the railway herself, she slowly begins to recognise that there are things she needs to learn and where Albert can be of help to her.

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Back in London, Parliament approves the motion that Albert is to be regent in the event of Victoria’s death or incapacitation. Victoria spurns the plain food that her mother suggests for her by ordering food that she wants to eat and crucially begins to involve Albert while she works on the red boxes.

The final episode seemed to be a return to the soap opera-like intrigues I thought disappeared with the beginning of this series. Fast forward a few months, Victoria is getting bored and restless, it’s clear she hates being pregnant and she blanches at the thought of breastfeeding so she dispatches Lehzen and Jenkins to search for a suitable wet nurse.

As the first female Sovereign to be expecting, it’s understandable that the atmosphere is very tense and that certain people stand to benefit should something happen to her and the baby. What is maddening is the constant reference and bleating about Princess Charlotte’s death, repeated constantly in the last two episodes; everyone watching knows it by now but it’s easily forgotten that there were other women in the family who survived childbirth, especially King George III’s wife Queen Charlotte who managed to give birth to fifteen children with thirteen surviving into adulthood.

The tense atmosphere is made worse by the arrival of the Duke of Cumberland who taunts his niece in very unsubtle ways especially as she has been the target of an assassination attempt by a young man called Edward Oxford, who attempts to shoot her while she’s out on one of her regular carriage drives with Albert. Suspicion falls on the Duke, especially as evidence seems to point to him being aware of a plot to do away with his niece. (Even though at the time it was later revealed that Oxford was a lone wolf, insane and that his pistol wasn’t loaded, Cumberland’s unpopularity both in Britain and Hanover through rescinding the constitution promulgated by his predecessor William IV as well as his past history – being accused of murdering his valet and suspected of fathering his sister’s illegitimate son, among other things – showed how much people were willing to believe he was behind the plot).

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In other developments, the slow burning romance between Francatelli and Skerrett ends on a sad note when she declines his offer to join him after he receives an offer to open his own establishment. As for Ernst, he returns not only to support his brother but also to have a catch up with the Duchess of Sutherland. When Albert remonstrates his brother for what he has done, Ernst sets the record straight by showing him a lock of the Duchess’s hair which he has requested.

The last two episodes also depicted Victoria’s close relationship with Baroness Lehzen who has been with the Queen ever since she was a child. Her role as Victoria’s gatekeeper especially when it comes to her personal correspondence is something that Albert is suspicious of especially as this correspondence nearly led to a security breach (which brings home the point that it’s not only the present British royal family who are the targets of fantasists). Another touching scene is that between the Queen and her uncle Leopold which gives us an insight into his marriage to Princess Charlotte-  which by all accounts was a loving one despite being cut short by her tragic death.

The series ends on a happy note when we see Victoria and Albert with their new born baby daughter who Albert suggests be named after her mother. While ITV has already commissioned a second series for next year, there are already new story lines shaping up – most notably a looming showdown between Albert and Lehzen and Victoria’s confident prediction that their next child will be a boy. But we will have to wait until 2017 to see how these and others will play out. Oooh, the suspense – and we aren’t going to check wiki or google ‘Queen Victoria’s children’ or ‘Prince Albert and Lehzen – what happened?’ in the meantime and spoil it for ourselves, are we?

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So, all in all what do I make of this series? While there are some good bits and there is a huge effort made to depict as faithfully as possible the attitudes of the time, the rituals of court life and the politicking of the day, they are spoiled by unnecessary padding: especially with the downstairs story lines and the constant beating of the viewers over the head with certain lines and themes over and over again. A major omission was overlooking Baron Stockmar’s role in bringing together Victoria and Albert and his role as their unofficial counsellor in such matters as the way they viewed and developed the monarchy and the education of their children. That was a wasted opportunity, and something that could have been explored instead of all the pointless downstairs scenes.

Crucially any meaningful way of exploring Queen Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne was junked in favour of romance. I can see why the writer took liberties with Prince Ernst and the Duchess of Sutherland as it reveals a kernel of truth about how standards of morality were slowly changing and that Albert was determined to reform the Court and distance the family from the more louche Hanoverians, but with Lord Melbourne it doesn’t make any sense. Instead of using the Victoria/Lord M story line as a way to chart Victoria’s political education and serve as an insight into her personality, the Lord M storyline degenerated into the romance that never was.

Hopefully by series 2 things will be better. Queen Victoria’s own story and her reign are interesting enough. There’s no need to pad it out with downstairs narratives or other flummery; this drama has the potential to present to us those early years of Victoria’s life and reign that have been overshadowed by the Widow of Windsor.

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) Part 3 – It’s not easy being German

Kermit the Frog used to sing “It’s not easy being green” and hopefully I can be forgiven for thinking that Prince Albert would sing something similar about being German.  Once Queen Victoria has declared her intention of marrying her German cousin her meddling uncle King Leopold demands for Albert an annual allowance of £50,000 a year (the same amount he received when he married Princess Charlotte), while goading Albert to petition for a British title and a seat in the House of Lords, telling him that he should use his status as the Queen’s husband to “establish your position”. Parliament digs its heels in, only agrees to £20,000 with the title and a seat in the Lords? Out of the question!

When Victoria finds out the reason why Parliament is only prepared to offer Albert £20,000 and it has something to do with Leopold, she begins to learn things about her family (even her father) that she didn’t know about. And yet again this is another excuse to beat the viewers over the head with constant references to mistresses and marital infidelity which to me is deeply anachronistic. Marital infidelity in those days was not so much a big deal among royalty and the aristocracy, provided that the rules and a certain decorum was observed, (and of course we are looking at an era that was at the tail end of the Regency, a period known for its moral laxness. Victoria’s immediate predecessor had ten illegitimate children with an actress and her own father lived happily for a couple of decades with a mistress, only dumping her unceremoniously when he had to marry). The objection to Albert receiving the same amount as Leopold was because Leopold was still drawing an allowance from Britain twenty-three years after Charlotte’s death and accepting the Belgian throne: not that he was spending it on mistresses. The bigger objections (which at least this series gets right) were Albert’s German roots and Leopold converting to Roman Catholicism in order to become King of the Belgians and marry Princess Louise of France. I found it rather disappointing that rather than explore further the prevalent attitudes of xenophobia and anti-Catholicism of the early 1840s, the constant references instead to the possibility of Albert taking a mistress both rather tedious and tiresome. But of course, sex – that’s what the ITV watchers want, innit? Not that history business.

After a few more tiffs, Albert explains to Victoria why the allowance and having a title are very important to him – that it will give him the freedom to be his own person and allow him to achieve things on his own merit, not because he will be the Queen’s husband. Victoria doesn’t understand this: which is a bit odd considering how she finally broke free of her mother’s control and the hothouse that was the Kensington System. He is also unhappy that he will not be allowed to bring someone from his native Coburg as his private secretary. Victoria raises all these with Lord Melbourne who counsels her that “Parliament needs to be coaxed rather than commanded,” a reference that the royal couple will have to be prepared to be good team players and to compromise.

By the end of episode 5, the couple are finally married and Victoria uses her wedding to signal yet again a break with the past. Instead of wearing the robe of state and a diadem to signify her status as Queen, she decides to wear a white gown of silk and Honiton lace and a wreath of orange blossom atop her head. And much to the surprise of her ministers and courtiers, she decides to retain the word “obey” in the wedding vows.

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In the following episode we see the newly married couple return to London after only a honeymoon of two days, and which despite its shortness is notable for the accounts left by the woman herself that survive at the Royal Archives at Windsor. Deeply in love they may be but Albert is frustrated and unhappy at the lack of proper role for him and his inferior rank in court protocol where he is outranked by the Duke of Sussex (David Bamber). He wants to share in Victoria’s work and help affect positive change in British society but is stymied by his wife’s reluctance to involve him in doing the boxes (the documents sent to her in red dispatch boxes) and the continued references to his nationality in the press and sections of society. The opportunity for Albert to carve out a role for himself is presented by a delegation of abolitionists who hope that the Queen’s presence at an international conference they are organising will give the event a wider coverage and draw the public attention to the continued existence of slavery in other countries, particularly the United States.  Victoria (and Albert) wholeheartedly support the cause of abolition but she has to decline the invitation owing to the fact that as Sovereign she cannot be seen to be partial (which again made me laugh considering that Victoria throughout her reign could be considered one of the least impartial British monarchs in modern times). Albert suggests that he can attend and even give a speech, as having no formal role he is not bound by the same restraints imposed on the Queen. With the help of Anson (Robert MacPherson), his private secretary, he drafts a speech and practises it all the while being briefed about the abolitionist movement in Britain being supported by several members of the political establishment among them Sir Robert Peel and Lord Palmerston. Albert realises that going to the conference will also allow him to get to know better the people who matter and who could possibly become government ministers, even Prime Minister.

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Episode 6 also underlines Victoria and Albert’s differences about their expectations of marriage with Albert wanting to be a father and confident that they will be better parents than their own parents ever were. Victoria on the other hand wants to wait: apart from enjoying the pleasures of married life she dreads the possibility of being with child especially with the spectre of her cousin Charlotte’s tragic end looming over her.

One of the things I noticed with Victoria is that it’s the supporting actors who tend to steal the show with standout performances. In the earlier episodes, it was Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne but with episodes 5 and 6 it was David Bamber as the Duke of Sussex who stood out. The scene where “Uncle Sussex” is invited to tea with his niece the Queen was touching, especially after he recognises that he has a kindred spirit in her with his own wife not received at Court since he married her in defiance of the Royal Marriages Act. Uncle and niece both muse that their respective spouses’ happiness is paramount to them and this realisation paves the way to finding a solution to Albert’s status and the Duke’s wife Lady Cecilia finally being received at Court.

Another standout performance is that of David Oakes as Prince Ernst. As mentioned in part 2, Ernst is the antithesis of Albert and the following two episodes clearly demonstrate this. He takes Albert to a high class brothel to help him with his marital duties, and is smitten with the married Duchess of Sutherland (Harriet Clunie). Despite the two brothers being like chalk and cheese, the bond between them is poignant and serves as a vehicle to tell the audience their background and unhappy childhood. Although a romance between Ernst and the Duchess would not have happened, it’s a convenient tool for Albert to assert himself and impose a more moral tone at Court.

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Another thing that frustrates me about this drama is how certain storylines are introduced then fizzle out. This is especially true with the servants, last time it was Miss Jenkins and her nephew -this time it’s Mr Penge and the maid from Coburg. It’s obvious they had a history together but why that’s included is baffling especially as it adds nothing to the narrative over all. The only consistent downstairs story line is that of Skerrett and Francatelli where a slow burning romance seems to be on the cards. I’ve said this previously and I’ll say it again – the downstairs storylines are unnecessary and only distract from the actual narrative, which is a shame.

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) Part 2 – Enter Prince Albert

As mentioned in part 1, I have resigned myself to having low expectations about Victoria and the next two episodes didn’t disappoint. Having ditched the idea of a regency, attention has now shifted to the question of who the Queen should marry. Her Uncle Leopold (Alex Jennings), King of the Belgians arrives to foist his nephew Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Tom Hughes) on her while her other uncle (the Duke of Cumberland) believes that she should marry Prince George of Cambridge (Nicholas Agnew). Of course there is a lot at stake here as everyone knows that a marriage to a foreign prince will be unpopular but the union between the British queen and a British prince would be well received by the public.39

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Queen Victoria declares that she has “no intention of marrying” and Daisy Goodwin, again echoing Julian Fellowes, can’t resist beating the viewers over the head. It seems that every five minutes there’s always someone mentioning marriage along the lines of “a husband and children will steady her” or variations thereof. As if the constant refrain of marriage needed to be made any clearer, there were obvious and constant references to Elizabeth I with Victoria even costumed as the Virgin Queen during a ball held in honour of her uncle Leopold.

Once Prince George has removed himself from contention, King Leopold launches Operation Albert with the same dedication and cunning as Wile E Coyote attempting to catch the Road Runner: and unsurprisingly Victoria digs her heels in which doesn’t surprise. Having spent years under the control of her mother and Conroy, she resents other people telling her what she can and can’t do. There’s also another reason for her reluctance and it’s to do with Lord Melbourne and this is where my boo-boo radar started to overheat due to its glaring historical anachronism given that the real Victoria and Melbourne’s relationship was more of a father-daughter or teacher and student.

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As we move on to episode four, the series veers into romance novel territory where the Victoria and Albert scenes fall into the standard predictable fare that we see not only with romance novels but even with chick lit and romantic comedies. Man meets woman, they take an instant dislike to each other, they dance at a ball and realise that they are falling for each other followed by a scene running and laughing along a forest with a little obstacle in the form of a little tiff and finally when she proposes marriage, he accepts. So far so good, all boxes ticked.

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Generally I have no problems with the characterisation with Prince Albert here. He’s depicted as someone who could be stiff and awkward in contrast to his older brother Ernst (David Oakes) who is charming and not at all shy. The Albert we see here is someone who is artistic, cultured, strongly interested in the potential of new technology and new ways of doing things. Crucially and in contrast to Lord Melbourne, he has a strong social conscience and is concerned about the conditions of the poor.

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Having reached halfway through this drama, it’s clear that the downstairs side of the narrative is the weakest and yet again Goodwin seems to plunder Downton Abbey for storylines. There’s Mrs Jenkins’s nephew who is involved in the Chartist movement and would have been hanged if it not for some timely intervention. There’s also Miss Skerrett’s private life which is veering more and more into soap opera territory when the real Marianne Skerrett was one of the few servants who was with Victoria from the very beginning until her death in 1887.  She came from a family who had been in royal service since the days of King George III and was not only Victoria’s principal dresser and lady’s maid but was also in charge of the more junior dressers and was responsible for liaising between the Queen and tradespeople, suppliers, artists and engravers. In short, she was a highly valued and trusted servant whose role went beyond that of a lady’s maid.

And lastly there’s Albert and Ernst’s valet who constantly complains to Lehzen in German about British food and the way things are done at Buckingham Palace until he is finally put in his place by Mr Penge who answers back at him in his mother tongue. Yet again one wonders why all this padding is needed when there’s more than enough to fill out the main narrative.

My two main issues with these two episodes was first the absence of Baron Stockmar which to me is a major omission. He was Ernst and Albert’s tutor and together with King Leopold was the architect in bringing together Victoria and Albert. He stayed on as adviser to the royal couple and was instrumental in helping Prince Albert develop his ideas about kingship and the role of the royal family in a changing society. The second one is with regards to Victoria and Lord Melbourne which read straight from the Fellowes book of How to Write a Historical Drama. Of course a lot of people are now going to think she wanted to marry Melbourne and proposed to him, when in reality she was quite keen on the idea of Albert especially after meeting him again where she confided in her diary that he was “beautiful”.

Perhaps the only good scene was in episode 3 when after Victoria berates her uncle Leopold for his meddling, she coolly reminds him that whilst that she’s from a long line of monarchs stretching back to a thousand years, he’s king of a country that is barely a decade old. He retorts that while that as much is true, the political and social realities of the present means that not even the British Crown is secure and one false move could render it vulnerable. Leopold should know with his adopted country being forged out of the Revolution of 1830 which saw one king deposed (Charles X of France) and others forced into making concessions with their subjects to keep their thrones.

With the threat of revolution hanging in the air and Britain in late 1830s being on the cusp of social change, it baffles me why the need for the narrative to be “spiced up” with unnecessary bits and pieces. It’s like a stew where the cook can’t resist adding more and more ingredients to the point where it becomes unrecognisable. And this I believe is Victoria’s main weakness. Goodwin seems to have absorbed the Fellowes philosophy that the viewer is too stupid to appreciate real history and wants the narrative in ninety second bursts rather than something sustained yet entertaining without detracting from the main narrative.

 

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) Part 1 – Aiming low to avoid disappointment

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Photos:

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:

http://www.utpjournals.press/doi/pdf/10.3138/cjh.22.1.19

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)

Victoria: Long Live the Queen

Victoria: Ladies in Waiting

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/aug/29/victoria-review-jenna-coleman-goes-back-in-time-to-become-a-future-queen#comment-82152628

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3763135/Panto-villain-dukes-crafty-maids-PROPER-costume-drama-acting-better-mannequins-Versailles-CHRISTOPHER-STEVENS-reviews-night-s-TV.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/event/article-3770757/DEBORAH-ROSS-Yes-Victoria-s-hot-hasn-t-got-pilchards.html

 

Back in the Dolls House Part 2: Lady Edith’s Pyrrhic victory

WARNING: Contains spoilers for those who have not yet watched the series 6 Christmas Special

In a blog post of the same title, I have pointed out how the historical reality facing millions of women of all classes after the First World War meant that Lady Mary’s story line since series 4 which culminated in a second marriage was anachronistic, poorly handled and illustrated how bankrupt Downton’s narrative has become since Matthew’s death.

This year’s Christmas special which signals the end of this programme after six series in my opinion was highly unsatisfactory and contrived. However since Downton has barely lived up to its hype then perhaps I was expecting too much but as the Christmas special dragged on with nothing happening and transmogrifying into an episode of the popular 1990s programme Blind Date, all that was missing was an appearance from Cilla Black who fronted the programme in order to liven up what was essentially a lifeless, lacklustre and laboured two hours.

One by one, characters were being paired up and happy endings clunked into place, with even Isobel Crawley finally tying the knot with Lord Merton after some skulduggery from her and the Dowager Countess to rescue him from his odious son and daughter-in-law, and a hint that Mrs Patmore and Mr Mason will get their happily ever after. The piece de la resistance however was the marriage of Lady Edith to Bertie Pelham (now the Marquess of Hexham after the sudden death of the incumbent who happened to a distant cousin – shades of Matthew Crawley here). If one recalls what happened in series 6, it was Edith’s inability to disclose the true identity of her daughter Marigold that scuppered her chances of marriage to Pelham and it is only after the usual convoluted twists and turns that the Christmas special ended in marriage between the two.

It might just be me but I found myself unmoved by the wedding and thought it was a cop out especially in light of the fact that Edith is also in her thirties which by the standards of the 1920s is middle aged, already has a daughter and crucially has the resources to make the most of the greater opportunities afforded to women during this period.

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One aspect that made Edith different from her sister Mary apart from the clichéd “unlucky in life and love” is that midway in series 3 she starts a career in writing after a letter she writes to a newspaper is noticed by a magazine editor, Michael Gregson, who offers her a job in his magazine. This being Downton Abbey where everyone’s right to an emotional relationship is paramount, she begins a relationship with Gregson which is essentially a rebound after being jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony Strallan. To cut a long story short, he is married but gets her pregnant then disappears to Germany in order to obtain citizenship which will enable him to divorce his mentally disabled wife and marry Edith. Later he turns up dead and she is left with a daughter whose existence she contrives to keep a secret from her own immediate family.

As a result of Gregson’s death, she is left his estate which includes his home in London and ownership of his magazine. Yet again however, any potential for this to show viewers that women such as Edith have more options than marriage and motherhood after the war is shunted aside in favour of her disastrous love life which casts her as either Downton’s answer to Job from the Bible or the Strictly Come Dancing professional Anton du Beke: forever lumbered with disasters and duds. In an interview, Julian Fellowes claimed that certain people are doomed to be forever unlucky which to me betrays a lack of understanding of human nature and the idea that people are the architects of their own destiny and that luck only plays a small part in a person’s fate.

While no doubt that Edith and Bertie’s wedding pleased the fans, I thought this was again another sign of Fellowes not wanting to be more original and that historical accuracy which he claims is important to him rings hollow. The wedding shows his obsession with marriage and the emotional life that he has imposed pretty much on every character with since the end of series 2 in the absence of a coherent narrative. While there was much crowing that Edith would become a marchioness and chatelaine of a large castle (conveniently forgetting that Bertie’s predecessor was essentially bankrupt) as demonstrated by her parents’ embarrassing behaviour in acting like Mr and Mrs Crawley from Pinner whose daughter has landed a jackpot on the marriage market, in reality this wedding is a Pyrrhic victory. The determination of her new mother-in-law to make her a chatelaine and her son into an exemplary moral landlord shows a denial of the reality that this this way of life is dying – so in effect Edith has essentially been shackled to the past she was making every attempt to leave behind.

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Having Edith also get married also shows how Fellowes just like with Mary ignores the alternatives that are open to a woman like her. Given that Edith (like Mary) is also in her thirties and hence considered middle aged, she would have been overlooked by men who had several seasons worth of debutantes to choose from. And the fact that Pelham is now a marquess, in real life someone like him would be more inclined to choose a younger woman who could bear children (preferably sons) in order for Pelham to pass on the title and what’s left of the estate: not a woman in her thirties whose family does not have a reputation for fertility.

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I may be in the minority but I think it would have been better had Edith not married Bertie and instead moved permanently to London, taking Marigold with her and focus on building her career as a writer and magazine owner. Apart from reflecting more the historical reality of the period, Edith with her thriving career would demonstrate that beginning in the 1920s, women were becoming aware that there were alternatives to simply being wives and mothers. People were also increasingly looking to self-made personalities not aristocrats as role models and this signals another shift as the aristocracy are further pushed to the margins and into the realms of irrelevance.

Just like with Edith, Daisy Mason the assistant cook is another one who has been given short shrift by Fellowes. Apart from spending the full run of Downton Abbey whining and despite the education she has been given by several Good Samaritans, in the end the education and passing her examinations has been meaningless as she’s paired with Andy the footman who has taken on a position with her father-in-law. For all the bellowing about “CHAAAAANNNNGGEEEE!” nothing has changed. Mrs Hughes is going to give up a job that gives her status, independence and respect to be nurse to a man who is crotchety and picky when he’s well, never mind sick and has moreover had to hand over his cherished job and family to a hated rival – and you could see from the barely concealed smirk on Thomas’s face how much he enjoyed that. Cora on the other hand, far from “spreading her wings” and becoming more independent has finally discovered after 35 years of idleness what she should have been doing as countess in the first place. It seems to me that what Fellowes is saying here, despite his admiration for strong women is that they shouldn’t bother to exert their strength in improving themselves, carving out careers and making the world better. Instead they should simply get married and exert that strength by manipulating their husbands.

Going back to Edith; despite the bad choices, the tiresome squabbling with Mary and the appalling way she has used and abused the family who cared for Marigold, I always thought that she had the most potential to break away from the past and establish herself as her own person with a thriving business and career just as many real life women did in the 1920s. It seems here that what Fellowes is saying is that Edith has had a taste of freedom and independence with the magazine but just in case she gets too much of a taste for that and being her own woman she’s been hauled back to do what women like her are supposed to do, which is marry, support her husband and prop up a way of life that’s in its death throes. She says to Mary when she finds out her sister’s role in bringing about the engagement that she, Edith, has her life back, but in reality she’s had it taken away from her. She’s swapped Cora and the Dowager for mother-in-law and just like she doesn’t stand up to them I don’t see her standing up to her mother-in-law; the circumstances in which Bertie broke up with her in the first place could return to haunt her at the first sign of trouble; and no doubt she’ll be “encouraged” to give up the magazine as it doesn’t fit with being a marchioness and a chatelaine. So far from a happy ending, Edith continues her run of disaster of Biblical proportions. Which is a tragedy of epic proportions really.

TV Review: Million Dollar American Princesses (ITV3) Part 2

In a previous blog, I reviewed the first episode of Million Dollar American Princesses and was disappointed by the wasted potential of this documentary. Sadly the second and third episodes are no better.

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LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Actress Elizabeth McGovern attends The Downton Abbey Ball at The Savoy Hotel on April 30, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Episode 2 entitled “The Wedding of the Century” focused more on the doomed marriage between Consuelo Vanderbilt and the 9th Duke of Marlborough. While much has been written and said about the Marlboroughs and the circumstances that led to the marriage and its inevitable demise, I take issue with the assertion that she would lose her money and title if she divorced her husband. This is patently not the case as William K. Vanderbilt made sure that Consuelo had her own money separate from the dowry which was for her to use as she saw fit and became her lifeline when the marriage collapsed. Another was the statement that after the divorce she lost her title which isn’t the case as divorced and widowed peeresses keep their titles until they remarry, they don’t lose it just because the marriage is over (as Sarah Duchess of York has).

Another example of ignoring inconvenient facts is that of Mary Leiter’s marriage to George Curzon (later Lord Curzon). There was also yet again another ham fisted shoehorning in of Downton Abbey when it was claimed that the Curzon marriage was the inspiration for the fictional Granthams. While indeed there is a similarity between the two, what the programme fails to mention is the main reason why the Curzon marriage was happy was because Curzon expected his wife to subordinate herself to him and his political career. Mary learned early on that her husband’s needs and career would come first, second and last: although to his credit, Curzon did acknowledge her support and encouragement.

The final episode entitled “Movers and Shakers” was the weakest of the three. The great era of the trans-Atlantic marriages ended around 1910 with the ascension of a new King, George V who had a xenophobic suspicion of anything foreign and this meant that American born peeresses were pushed to the margins. By this point as well, the supply of heiresses was thinning and not even the money the heiresses brought to their marriages could stem the tide of the aristocracy having to sell up, retrench and in many cases lose their homes and estates altogether.

What made the final episode the weakest was apart from the persistent errors in the usage of titles were yet again the inaccurate hyperbole and the clumsy shoehorning of Downton Abbey. The assertion that Emerald Lady Cunard (nee Maud Burke) wielded power and influence is a misnomer as David Cannadine observed that “exclusive, aristocratic society had been transformed so fundamentally that it was no longer clear that it existed in its traditional sense……[i]nstead of being an adjunct to political life, patrician society was increasingly being detached from it. And even functioning as a marriage market, it was by no means as exclusive as it had been thirty years before. As one of the most important institutions through which the traditional elite has exercised power as a class, London society was effectively dead by 1914.” By the 1920s, it simply became “society for society’s sake” echoing the words of the American-born MP Sir “Chips” Channon who once described himself, “In society I am a power. In Westminster I am a non-entity.” The same could be said of Lady Cunard, her entertaining might have brought together politicians, aristocrats, businessmen, journalists, artists, composers and authors but they were a far cry from the gatherings that Consuelo Manchester helped organised with her mother-in-law the famed “Double Duchess” where house parties and dinners were as important as cabinet meetings.

Another inconvenient fact that the programme skates over is that by this time the few Americans who married into the peerage were not heiresses but upper middle class women who were a far cry from the so-called Dollar Princesses at the turn of the 20th century. The likes of Catherine Wendell (later Countess of Carnarvon) and Nancy Langhorne (later Viscountess Astor) only brought modest sums with them upon their marriages. One is struck at the irony of Elizabeth McGovern narrating what happened to the aristocracy after the First World War with the increase in income tax and death duties when Downton Abbey shows the Crawleys in complete denial about the whole financial situation facing their class and the economic and political situation outside the Abbey gates might as well not be happening.

The biggest disappointment however was concluding the documentary with Wallis Simpson and the Abdication crisis. If the whole point of the documentary was about wealthy American heiresses then Wallis Simpson certainly does not fit the bill. I suspect she was included as another way to shoehorn how another American interloper made her way into the British Royal Family (a previous episode mentioned that Frances Work was an ancestor of the Duke of Cambridge and his son). In my opinion, the documentary should have ended with a woman who I believe to be the ultimate Million Dollar American Princess – Kathleen Kennedy, one of the daughters of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy and sister of a future President of the United States. Like Consuelo Vanderbilt and Mary Leiter, she was part of a nouveau riche family and snubbed by the American elite – a snub which was compounded by their religion. However she succeeded where the likes of the Dollar Princesses failed – to bag the heir of a first rank peer and unlike the Marlborough or Curzon marriage, Kathleen’s marriage to the Marquess of Hartington was clearly a love match in the face of some opposition owing to their different faiths.

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Crucially ending the episode with the Kennedy-Hartington marriage would have brought the documentary full circle. If the first episode was all about the financial decline of the British aristocracy then Kathleen’s wedding which took place during the Second World War and its tragic twist foreshadowed the fall of the aristocracy after 1945. Instead, what we have is a documentary that, much like Downton Abbey itself, ignored its material and the ability and potential to tell the viewer anything new or informative in favour of saccharine recounting of transatlantic “romances.”