TV Review: Victoria (ITV) series 2 part 4 – Hellos and goodbyes

After another attempt on Victoria’s life and keen to get away from the pressures of life in the capital, the Queen decides to holiday in Scotland, a place that has captured her imagination since she was a young girl learning about Scottish history and loved to read the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Together with selected members of their household, Victoria and Albert visit Blair Castle as the guests of the Duke of Atholl (Dennis Lawson), where they are treated to a welcome by the Duke and the Atholl Highlanders.

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Over the next few days, Victoria and Albert explore the countryside and like what they see – the forests remind Albert of his native Coburg, while Victoria is reminded of the Walter Scott’s novels as she surveys the sweeping vistas of the Highlands. Elsewhere, the holiday becomes an excuse for the rest of their entourage to let their hair down, have fun and rekindle relationships; while Mrs Skerrett and Miss Cleary explore the joys of Scottish dancing, Duke Ernst sees the visit as an opportunity to renew his affections for Harriet Duchess of Sutherland who has returned to court as a lady-in-waiting following the death of her husband in a hunting accident. However, Ernst is hiding a secret as while in Paris, he “enjoyed himself a little too much” and is now seeking treatment for venereal disease. The doctors have prescribed inhaling mercury vapours and it seems that the treatment is working.

Following a fishing expedition, Victoria and Albert decide to ride back to the castle but take a wrong turn and find themselves lost. Finally they spot a cottage and Albert knocks at the door to ask directions back to Blair Castle but the residents of the cottage, an old crofter and his wife, reply that the couple had better spend the night with them and make their way home the next day. Not recognising who their visitors are, the crofter and his wife treat the royal couple like ordinary passers-by who happen to have got lost and need a place to stay for the night. We see Victoria and Albert help around the house, share a simple meal with their hosts and the crofter’s wife teaches Victoria how to darn a sock. Later Victoria confides to Albert that she doesn’t want to be found just yet: but alas the search party sent by the Duke of Atholl manages to find them the next day and that all too brief taste of freedom comes to an end.

Perhaps what’s not surprising is that Lord Alfred Paget (Jordan Waller) and Edward Drummond (Leo Suter) have finally acted on their feelings for each other after previous episodes have dropped heavy hints about a mutual attraction between both men. However as always there are complications as Drummond is engaged to be married and is being groomed for a political career: and the question is will both men carry on where they left off upon their return to London?

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The final episode focuses on two main storylines – Sir Robert Peel’s battle to repeal the Corn Laws and Victoria and Albert’s row over the Princess Royal’s illness. Following the devastating effects of the Irish Potato Famine, Sir Robert is more than ever convinced that a repeal of the Corn Laws is the only way to ensure that there will be no repeat of the famine in the future, and for food to be more affordable to the poor and the working class. The majority of his fellow Tory party MPs and those in the Lords are opposed to such measures but with the encouragement of the Duke of Wellington (Peter Bowles), Peel battles on. He also has the support of the Queen and Prince Albert, and the latter makes an ill-advised visit to the Palace of Westminster to watch the debate. Upon seeing the Prince, one of the anti-repeal MPs makes a jibe in Peel’s direction about the presence of his royal nursemaid. Realising what he has done, Albert beats a hasty retreat and later apologises to Peel.

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In developments in the nursery, Victoria and Albert notice that the Princess Royal isn’t feeling well but Baroness Lehzen assures the anxious parents that all the young princess needs is her usual routine and lots of fresh air. Albert is doubtful about this especially as the windows in the nursery are kept wide open, and even he notices that the room is cold and draughty. He tells Victoria that perhaps they should close the windows to keep the draught out, and she replies that the windows in the nursery at Kensington Palace were always wide open and they never did her any harm. Albert isn’t convinced but decides not to press the point.

Matters finally come to a head for both Peel and Victoria – the former now facing the prospect of a possible defeat in Parliament while for the latter her daughter’s condition has developed into a full blown fever that is potentially fatal. Albert remonstrates with Victoria, telling her that Lehzen is not fit to look after their children and the doctor confirms Albert’s suspicion all along that the cold and draught in the nursery did contribute to the little princess’s illness. After months of heated debate, the repeal bill is finally passed 327 yes against 229 no. As for the little Princess Royal, the fever is broken and she’s out of danger but unfortunately following Albert’s earlier ultimatum, Baroness Lehzen has to go and she departs back to Germany with a pension. Peel also hands his resignation, as despite his victory with the repeal of the Corn Laws he knows that his days as Prime Minister are numbered. Victoria reluctantly accepts, says she will miss him and has come to appreciate his support and counsel. A far cry from in the beginning when the new queen clung to Lord Melbourne and refused to accept Sir Robert as the new prime minister.

The last episode also tied up a few loose ends and gave us a foreshadowing of what is to come for a putative series 3. There is no happy ending for Drummond and Paget as the former is shot dead by a disgruntled farmer who was aiming his pistol at Peel; while Ernst who was initially optimistic that he was on the way to recovery learns that the syphilis has returned and that leaves his future with the Duchess of Sutherland in doubt. Romance is also back on the cards for Francatelli and Skerrett.

So all in all, what do I think of this series? Overall, it is an improvement from series 1, there is more emphasis on the history especially with episodes 5, 6 and 8. The soap opera and romance elements never go away which is perhaps understandable as this is Sunday night drama but they didn’t really dominate series 2 in a way it did in series 1. Mercifully as well, we were spared any over the top flummery especially with the Drummond-Paget story arc; however it’s hard to care with these peripheral romances as I think they distract from the actual story which is Victoria and Albert.

As of this writing, ITV has yet to announce if a series 3 is planned but in the meantime, Victoria will return on Christmas Day which is fitting as the way we celebrate Christmas does owe a lot to the Victorian era.

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TV Review: Victoria (ITV) series 2 part 3 – Pomp and desolation

Still reeling from the revelation that his father might not be his actual father at all, Albert is out of sorts even when the issue of the proposed Franco-Spanish alliance through a marriage between Queen Isabella II of Spain and Prince Antoine, Duke of Montpensier (one of the sons of King Louis Philippe of France) is raised. Sir Robert Peel informs Victoria and Albert that such a match will upset the balance of power because it could lead to a union of two crowns under one eventual ruler. He also reminds Victoria and Albert that their uncle Leopold is hoping that their cousin Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha will marry the Spanish queen. Victoria initially proposes to write a letter to dissuade the French king from pursing such an alliance then decides to pay him a visit in person.

The visit takes place in the Chateau d’Eu in Normandy where Victoria and Albert are received by Louis-Philippe (Bruno Wolkovich) and his family with pomp and ceremony. While Victoria is enchanted by what she sees and the hospitality laid out in her honour, various members of her entourage aren’t as impressed – the Duchess of Buccleuch views the French court as like Sodom and Gomorrah while Albert is dismayed at what he sees as the loose morals of the French and the women wearing make-up. Some of these feelings are reciprocated, for instance the ladies of the French court find Victoria’s dress sense wanting; especially upon her arrival where she is carrying a handbag embroidered with the image of a dog.

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While in France, Albert finally reveals to Victoria what has been troubling him and she sweetly reassures him that any niggles about his parentage do not matter to her, what is important is the life they’re building together and his support for her role as monarch. Once reassured, Albert and Victoria set about trying to persuade Louis Philippe to abandon the proposed marriage and it seemed like the royal couple succeed – until they later learn that they didn’t. The episode ends on a happy note when Victoria tells Albert that she’s expecting again.

In contrast, episode 6 deals with the Irish Potato Famine and Victoria, who is concerned about its effects on the populace, runs into indifference from Sir Robert Peel – who seems to be more concerned with keeping his party united – and Albert who is preoccupied with modernising the drains and sanitation at Buckingham Palace. Frustrated, she comes across a series of letters written by a Dr Traill (Martin Compston) published in the papers, which describe the scenes of devastation and desolation that he encounters and Victoria invites him to Buckingham Palace (which did not happen in real life) to enlighten her on what is really happening in Ireland. Following the visit, she implores Sir Robert to act on his conscience (knowing well that he is opposed to the Corn Laws) showing him her new born daughter Princess Alice and reminding him of the reports of mothers dying because they are unable to feed their children. The famine too has hit close to home, when assistant dresser Miss Cleary (Tilly Steele) having already sent all her savings to help her family, is aided by Francatelli who gives her his watch, tells her to sell it and not to accept any amount below £50. Unfortunately, the money she raises from selling the watch proved to be too late as her family is evicted and they decide to move to America.

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Episodes 5 and 6 are a departure from the usual fluff, romance and soap opera fare that have  characterised Victoria, with emphasis on the actual history (with some liberties taken, of course). The state visit to France demonstrates Victoria and Albert’s interest in foreign affairs and foreshadows the “family diplomacy” that Victoria would deploy later in her reign especially in her dealings with her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II; and the attempts by Dr Traill to alleviate the Irish famine and the government’s inaction over the crisis demonstrates that disasters of national proportions are too big for one man and pave the way for greater government action during the late 19th century and especially into the 20th and 21st centuries.

Although the purpose of the visit was with regards to the proposed Franco-Spanish royal wedding, the marriage in question was actually NOT between Queen Isabella and Prince Antoine but rather her younger sister the Infanta Luisa Fernanda and Prince Antoine. Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was never really seen as a possible consort to the Spanish queen; instead he ended up marrying Queen Maria II of Portugal. In addition, the episode ignored the close ties that already existed between the House of Bourbon-Orleans and the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – Louis Philippe’s daughter Louise was Queen of the Belgians while one of his sons Prince Louis, Duke of Nemours was married to Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and another daughter Clementine married Prince August of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The relationship between the two monarchs was close and cordial enough for Louis-Philippe and his queen Marie-Amelie to undertake a state visit to Britain in 1844 and Victoria and Albert to take on another visit to France in 1845. When the Revolution of 1848 forced the French royal family to flee, Victoria offered them asylum in Britain where Louis-Philippe and his family took up residence at Claremont House in Surrey.

Both episodes were excellent in terms of providing the sharp contrast between royal pomp and the desolation in Ireland. The depiction of Victoria and Albert’s arrival on French soil and the crowds and guard of honour that greeted the royal couple at the Chateau d’Eu was well done and its seemed to me that production took great pains to study contemporary records of the event such as this painting by Eugene Louis Lami  and recreate it to the best of their ability. The same is true with the scenes of the lavish dinners and garden parties laid out by the French court in honour of their British guests.

Contrasting with the sunny skies of France was the bleak desolation of Ireland. The Irish Potato Famine is still a fairly controversial and contentious topic and episode 6 handled it in a delicate and sensitive way. The scenes where Dr Traill encounters a group of children whose mother has died was poignant, as is those of farmers continuing to till their land only to find that the potatoes they have planted are useless and can’t be eaten much less sold. One aspect that this episode gets right is the prevailing prejudice demonstrated against Catholics by all classes high and low – from Sir Charles Trevelyan (Edward Bennett) who doesn’t believe that the government should do anything to help, asserting that the Irish should learn to live within their means and that the famine was simply a way of checking population growth,  to the Church of Ireland bishops who only favour helping if the Catholics agree to convert to the Anglican faith and refusing to receive a Roman Catholic priest that Dr Trail has been working with to alleviate the effects of the famine; down to Penge refusing Miss Cleary’s request that she be paid earlier so that she can send it to her family in Ireland.

Another was with regards to Victoria’s lack of prejudice. Although episode 6 depicts her as someone very concerned about the effects of the famine, the real life Victoria really didn’t share the same concern as her reel counterpart although she did give roughly £2,000 out of her own funds to the famine relief, which was a very huge sum at that time. The scene where Miss Cleary approaches the Queen to thank her for sending for Dr Traill and revealing that she is a Roman Catholic shows Victoria’s lack of prejudice and social snobbery – a trait that would manifest itself with regards to the Munshi, approving of Princess Helene of Orleans as a bride for her grandson the Duke of Clarence and her dealings with the more status conscious royals from the continent.

These two episodes show the heights of what Victoria could achieve without the soapy storylines and the emphasis on romance and the shenanigans downstairs. It’s a shame that it wasn’t like this from the very beginning.

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) Series 2 (Part 2) – Life, death, trust

Bloggers’ note: We would like to apologise for the delay as real life has intruded and meant that there is a delay with publication of our reviews

 

In the last episode, Victoria learns that she’s pregnant again and unsurprisingly she’s not happy as it is very soon after the birth of the Princess Royal. She is soon distracted, however, by a visit from a silk weaver from Spitalfields, seeking her help against competition from imported silk, especially from France. When Victoria raises the issue with her Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, he advises her that it would be unwise to introduce tariffs against imported silk and in the end the Queen decides to hold a ball where all the costumes should be made of Spitalfields silk. By buying and wearing clothes designed and made in Britain it is reasoned that the Queen and the court will set an example for the rest to follow, hence stimulate demand for the silk and lead to greater employment. Sir Robert isn’t sure it’s a good idea as he reminds Victoria that a ball might not be appropriate given the economic situation, and Albert agrees.

Despite any objections, plans for the ball get underway with the theme being a medieval one. Albert and Victoria preside over the ball dressed as King Edward III and his consort Philippa of Hainault and their costumes based on the tomb effigies in Westminster Abbey. Members of the household and guests are to come in medieval costumes made out of Spitafields silk and there is optimism that the ball will stimulate an industry that is in the doldrums.

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The ball also gives Victoria the opportunity to see Lord Melbourne again. He has been hiding the fact that he is gravely ill from her and has refused to reply to the Queen’s letters or allow her to visit him at Brocket Hall. He decides to attend the ball and despite his enforced cheerfulness it’s clear he’s not very well and after the ball she pays him a visit with a gift – a mechanical singing bird.

Just as Sir Robert fears, there is public criticism over the ball and on the night itself, an angry crowd marches to the palace to make their displeasure felt. Upset that her good intentions for hosting the ball have not been seen by the public, Victoria has the leftover food distributed to the poor but there is a small ray of light following the event, as a weaver reports that he has been inundated with orders following reports of the ball and description of what the royal couple and guests were wearing.

The next episode sees the birth of a Prince of Wales, the first since 1762, and just like with the birth of the Princess Royal, Victoria succumbs to post-natal depression. She is unable to bond with her infant son and does not understand why Albert is so besotted with babies: she thinks they look like frogs. Her condition is further worsened by the news that her father-in-law and uncle the Duke of Coburg has died and Albert is adamant that he should attend the funeral alone. Victoria insists on going with him but Albert tells her to rest, try to recover and bond with their two children.

Meanwhile, news of the “Boy Jones” incident has made its way to the papers which infuriates the royal couple and Baroness Lehzen is given the task of finding out who in the household has informed the press of the incident. Amidst all this and with Albert having gone to Coburg, Victoria falls deeper into depression. Her mother the Duchess of Kent and the Duchess of Buccleuch try to rally her especially with the latter assuring her that she isn’t the first woman to find herself in “low spirits” and being “out of sorts” (euphemisms for post-natal depression in the 19th century) while Sir Robert asks her to open a new tunnel designed and built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Victoria refuses to attend citing her nerves, and this is a foreshadowing of her reluctance to take on her public duties following Albert’s death in 1861.

Albert’s homecoming gives him an opportunity to reminisce with his brother Ernst about their father and uncle Leopold. The latter is still meddling with his remaining nephews, plotting to marry off their cousin Prince Ferdinand to the Queen of Spain and engineering a marriage between Ernst (who has now succeeded his father as Duke of Coburg) to a German princess Alda, who is invited to the ducal palace to meet with her prospective future husband and his family. The meeting is not a success and it’s clear that Ernst is still harbouring feelings for the Duchess of Sutherland who he last met at the ball in the previous episode.

Meanwhile, still on the trail to find out who leaked the “Boy Jones” incident to the papers, suspicion falls on Francatelli who has been sporting an expensive new watch and new clothes. Mrs Skerrett confesses to Victoria and the Baroness that it was her cousin who leaked the information and that it was she who had told her of the incident. She also mentions that her cousin who sold the story was the real Nancy Skerrett but had fallen pregnant out of wedlock and she had taken her cousin’s place.  The episode ends with Victoria agreeing to attend the opening of Brunel’s new tunnel and Mrs Skerrett isn’t dismissed after all – impressed by her honesty and believing that people do deserve a second chance, she is asked by Albert to stay on as Her Majesty’s dresser.

Overall episodes 3 and 4 do present a few key aspects of the early 1840s such as the overall poor state of agriculture: not just in Britain but in Europe (one of the triggers for the revolutions of 1848) and the continuing technical innovations happening in Britain at this point in time (series 1 saw the railways, now it’s advances in engineering).  A corollary to this was also a revival in the interest in the architecture, art and culture of the medieval era as exemplified by the ball in episode 3 (the costumes were almost accurate replicas of the original as depicted in Sir Edwin Landseer’s portrait recording the event) however the real Albert was enthusiastic about the ball and was heavily involved in its preparation. The ball was, in the words of Ian Hunter, one way of using medieval motifs in order to bolster the position of Prince Albert and demonstrate the historical continuity of the monarchy from the Anglo-Saxon period onwards, as well as encouraging the revival of the ideals of chivalry in an era that was witnessing unprecedented change.

The attitudes depicted towards Victoria’s post natal depression was more or less accurate: while women then were aware that not every mother would bond with her baby and the possibility of feeling low after the birth, PND as a medical condition was not fully understood until the late 20th century –  although I wish that there had been a more thorough exploration of this rather than simply skating over the condition and showing Victoria as “cured” through receiving a gift of a new puppy. The death of Dash and Lord M’s exit from the programme was tastefully done and restrained: mercifully we were spared the hammy dialogue and OTT acting over character and animal deaths that certain programmes have indulged in. Ditto with Leopold’s revelation that he might be Albert’s father. While this could be construed as a classic soap opera plot point, at least it did not degenerate into the whole “Luke, I am your father” spiel.

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However, the whole downstairs storyline was the one glaring weak spot here. While it’s true that confidentiality and security are recurring issues with regards to the royal family and those who serve them, the way Mrs Skerrett has been written is pure soap. As mentioned in an review last series, the real Mrs Skerrett was part of a family that had been in royal service for at least two generations, she was well educated and was not only Victoria’s principal dresser but also liaised with tradesmen, suppliers and even artists such as Sir Edwin Landseer on behalf of the Queen and was in charge of the junior dressers under her. The way Skerrett has been depicted in Victoria shows a striking similarity to Miss Baxter from Downton Abbey, the competent and kind-hearted lady’s maid with a mysterious and shady if not criminal past. The time spent on this clichéd and frankly unbelievable story line would have been better spent on focusing on Victoria’s PND and how it affected her and those around her. It would have been a good way to explore further how attitudes towards female illnesses and childbirth then were different from now but alas, it was not to be.

TV Review: Victoria (ITV) series 2 – A serpent in Paradise

Compared to the happy ending of the first series, the second series began on a sombre note – the first episode opens with a shot of the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan then shifts to Buckingham Palace where a few months have passed since the birth of the Princess Royal. It’s clear that her mother is bored, unhappy at the length of her confinement and being treated like an invalid. Finally she loses patience when being towed about in a bath chair: footmen were summoned to carry the chair down and she snaps that she’s more than capable of walking.

In Victoria’s absence, Albert has been deputising on her behalf on top of his own duties and upon receiving the news of the difficulties encountered by the army in Afghanistan resolves to hide it from his wife for fear of “distressing her”. Unaware of this turn of events, Victoria declares that she wishes to return to her duties and take up outdoor activities again which she does after grudgingly having to submit to the ritual of “churching“.

Her eagerness to resume her active life is compounded by her inability to bond with her daughter which is in contrast to Albert’s joy and optimism. Complicating matters is the meddling of her Uncle Leopold (Alex Jennings) and her father-in-law (and uncle) the Duke of Coburg (Andrew Bicknell) with the former already plotting to marry off the infant princess to a Prussian Prince while the latter is expecting that the next child will be a Prince of Wales. The constant pressure of bearing another child grates on Victoria and most likely on the viewer as well. If we are not being beaten over the head with the Queen’s Doctor McCoy-like pronouncement that she is a “queen not a brood mare” there’s also the constant reference to her supposed weak constitution following childbirth when it’s clear that she’s as fit as a fiddle and doesn’t need to be wrapped in cotton wool.

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Meanwhile Afghanistan is fast becoming a disaster and the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay) believes that Britain has no business being in that area in the first place, something that many people today would agree with in the light of current events. Albert sees this military disaster as an impetus to reform the army from recruitment to promotion and even to the design of the uniforms. In the end, Victoria and the public learns of the disastrous military campaign after the remaining troops are massacred, save for Dr Brydon who managed to escape and return to Britain. Incensed that Albert has kept this information from her all this time, Victoria lashes out, also accusing him of undermining her authority and position as Sovereign.

This tension between monarch, wife, mother and woman recurs in the second episode when Albert expresses his keenness for more children: declaring his aspiration for their offspring to “shine like a beacon of domestic bliss”, a sentiment echoed by King Leopold who seconds the Duke of Coburg’s wish that the next child should be a Prince of Wales. Much like with “Operation Albert”, Leopold’s Wile E Coyote like dedication is now centred on “Operation Coburg” – he hopes that Victoria and Albert’s future children will marry into the various royal families of Europe, thus ensuring that there will be a Coburg on every throne in the continent.

Again Victoria digs her heels in. Apart from the fact that she finds being pregnant, the process of childbirth and child rearing distasteful, she is finding it hard to come to terms with being a mother and finds herself resenting the baby for changing the dynamics of her relationship with her husband. Always intellectually curious and with his interest in science and technology, Albert is invited to a lecture-demonstration by the Royal Society of Mathematics where he’s introduced to Charles Babbage (Jo Stone-Fewings) and the Countess of Lovelace (Emerald Fennell) who have worked together on a computing machine which impresses Albert, who proclaims that such devices could do the work of men in the future. Mr Babbage and Lady Lovelace are subsequently invited to a reception at Buckingham Palace honouring those in the arts and sciences. Victoria also invites Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell) to the event and her delight at his presence is very obvious – much to the alarm of uncle Leopold and Albert – while Victoria feels pangs of jealousy over the rapport her husband establishes with Lady Lovelace.

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Episode 2 concludes with Victoria discovering that she’s pregnant for the second time much to her dismay and she turns to Lord Melbourne for advice. She admits that she finds it difficult to come to terms with being both a queen and a wife and mother and he advises her to look to her husband for support. Albert learns of the news and is happy that he will be a father again but it’s clear that Victoria is not pleased with a pregnancy so soon after her first child, seeing it as another form of prison: much like her childhood.

Certainly a theme is emerging from the first two episodes where Albert notices a change in Victoria especially with regards to their marriage. While it remains as passionate as ever, he bears the brunt of her anger which as his brother Ernst (David Oakes) perceptively points out is directed towards any attempt to control her, and that she guards her royal prerogatives fiercely and resents anything that encroaches on them. Other things this series more or less gets right is Victoria’s inability to bond with her child and her dislike of pregnancy, as well as attitudes towards childbirth and the latent anti-Catholicism prevalent in Britain during that time (as exemplified by the bigotry demonstrated by Mr Penge against Miss Cleary the new assistant dresser). Another bit that the first episode got right was the change in the Mistress of the Robes following the fall of the Whigs from power and Victoria selecting the elderly Duchess of Buccleuch (Diana Rigg) from a list provided by Sir Robert Peel to replace the Duchess of Sutherland. (Nevertheless the real life Duchess of Buccleuch was in her late twenties where she was personally selected by the Prime Minister to assume the post. Victoria thought that she was “an agreeable, sensible, clever little person” who was of great help when it came to helping organise royal tours of Scotland. The duchess’s eldest daughter was named in honour of the Queen who also agreed to stand as one of the godmothers).

However, the romance and soap opera elements never really go away and this is most acute in episode 2 where Victoria and Albert’s mutual jealousy over Lord Melbourne and Lady Lovelace are very much contrived and does not make any sense at all. If the whole point was to show how the dynamics of their marriage would change further with another pregnancy as Victoria feared, there was no need to resort to that well-worn and clichéd plot device of stirring up jealousy. Ironically, the opening episode of Edward the Seventh (1975) presented Victoria and Albert’s opposing attitudes to parenthood and the prospect of a new addition to the royal nursery much better.

Compared to series 1, series 2 so far has shown some improvement. There is far less of the shenanigans downstairs which in my opinion is as it should be because it detracts from the main narrative and further muddles it. Perhaps Daisy Goodwin should do well to remember the cardinal rule of K.I.S.S – Keep it Straight and Simple because somewhere in here is a decent drama that doesn’t need to be padded out with contrived story lines and that bane of historical drama, the importation of 21st century attitudes.

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.