Looking Back At VICTORIA - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At VICTORIA

Tony feels the power of pageantry.
Throughout the 20th and 21st century, there has always been a preferred go-to image of Queen Victoria. Shaped like a dour and decorative bread roll, dressed in black, disapproving of most things, we’ve tended to think of her as only really existing in her later years, her mourning years for her husband, Prince Albert.

Those were years when she seemed to flit in and out of the public consciousness, sometimes content to be hidden from view and growing colder and more alone, occasionally enlivened by people very different from herself, such as John Brown, the Scottish ghillie who sparked in her a love of Scotland and the Scottish that has become almost a genetic predisposition in our modern royals. She was also sparked into a love of Indian thought (despite never setting foot in the land of which Prime Minister Disraeli was pleased to make her empress), by Abdul Karim (known as the Munshi).

But these are all snapshots of a woman in later life. It’s a thing we do to women much more than to men. Look at the standard image in our heads of the first Queen Elizabeth – the white face, the orange wig, the power of solitary majesty. If there’s a single king to which we do the same thing, it’s Henry VIII, who we think of usually as he’s seen in his most famous Holbein portrait – older, chunky, and dripping with wealth.

Each of these royals though obviously had a younger, more vibrant life, and in recent decades, TV and movies have mined these earlier lives to show us the young people who grew into those images we have. Jonathan Rhys Meyers gave us a young and shining Henry in The Tudors. Cate Blanchett breathed life into the young Elizabeth in two movies. And Jenna Coleman, fresh in the public consciousness as Doctor Who companion Clara Oswald, was the young queen in three series of Victoria from 2017-2019.

Created and mostly written by Daisy Goodwin, whose novel on the young Victoria became the initial basis for the show, Victoria tackled many of the problems facing a young queen in the 19th century.

From the cast iron pressure from her mother and relatives to behave a certain way, in contradiction to her wishes, to an uncertainty of her right to a view or to take action, in the first series, we saw Victoria learn to use her power as queen, and the advice of her various prime ministers. It also showed the initial resistance to her choice of husband, Prince Albert, and her determination to have her man and the country both, in spite of that resistance.

In the second series, the focus was on a more established Victoria, and her battles to be both queen of England and – as she believed she should be – a loyal and supportive wife to her husband. The dynamic of a queen determined to rule, but also wishing to be (and expected to be – at least by her husband) a traditional ‘helpmeet’ was echoed the same year in the first series of the more modern royal drama, The Crown, with Prince Albert (Tom Hughes), and Prince Philip (Matt Smith) facing similar journeys of macho pride in the respective shows, and each seeming to find their own accommodation with their position.

In Victoria, Albert’s accommodation with parliament’s refusal to put him on an equal footing with his wife was the spur to the third series, when Albert determines to be an ACTIVE prince, guiding some of the engineering powerhouses of the age and dedicating himself as much to the work he set himself as to the work of being Victoria’s husband and consort.

If anywhere, it’s in this third series that we see Jenna Coleman’s Victoria at her most subtle, delivering performances that match the queen’s self-interest with her compassion, a somewhat ‘proper’ appreciation of how mothers should behave to their children with a somewhat dismissive attitude to people with whom she is not yet able to have an interesting conversation. It’s nuanced performance, and Coleman delivers a hypnotic central presence all the way down the line.

In fact, across the three series, Coleman and Hughes together take us through the gamut of emotions, from flirtation, through honest appraisal, to a genuine care for each other in the rarefied atmosphere of their palaces and positions.

But then, the relationships Victoria has with various characters are what give us the show’s insights into the character of the girl who became a queen, and how she learned to assert herself – sometimes for the good, and other times, it must be acknowledged, in the absence of any authority who could ultimately check her, for ill.

Albert is perhaps the strongest guide and influence on her as a person once she escapes the thrall of her relations and learns to stand up to them, but as a queen, the series shows her under the influence of various ministers, prime ministers, and even aspiring politicians. Her first and arguably greatest relationship is with Lord Melbourne, or “Lord M” as she affectionately calls him (ably and restrainedly played by Rufus Sewell). There is such a bond between them in fact that scandalmongers whisper about them (something that, to be fair, Victoria rarely managed to escape - in later life, her favouring of her ghillie had her labelled “Mrs Brown” in witty tabloid rags). While there is a great chemistry between them, it’s to the credit of the show that Sewell’s character seeks always to keep the relationship that of a subject to his sovereign, advising her even against his own interests on occasion.

Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay), when his time comes, seeks to influence the queen more by power of reason than by personality, and – through the good offices of Prince Albert – he persuades her of his good sense, despite an initial lack of chemistry between them.

The Duke of Wellington (played, in a moment of genius casting, by Peter Bowles), is stiff, gruff, and unsentimental, but delivers a soldierly loyalty even when he thinks the queen is a damn fool. The point, for him, is that she’s a damn fool to whom he owes allegiance, and will give it.

And Lord Palmerston, who dominates the third series, reignites a flame in Victoria, not of love, because by series 3, she is in her thirties and has had six children with her husband, but of fun, of a kind of opportunistic wit with a sting in its tail. Laurence Fox, who has since earned himself the opprobrium of thinking people everywhere, is nevertheless excellent as the relentless chancer who seeks to use his relationship with the queen to his own advantage, and let the rumours come to damage her as they may.

Quite apart from Victoria’s own development through the three series, the show is absolutely studded with stars, and the worlds around Victoria get almost as much attention as she does herself. While never entirely succeeding as an ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ show, there is one particular ‘Downstairs’ relationship in which we have no choice but to invest – that between Mr Francatelli, the queen’s chef and baker, played by Ferdinand Kingsley, and her maid, Nancy Skerrett, played by Nell Hudson.

In an era when fraternisation between staff was significantly frowned upon – not least in most cases by the queen herself – this is a relationship that grips us both in terms of its romance and its potential danger, and as it moves towards its series 3 conclusion, it makes us both cheer and then, suddenly, awfully, cry.

Other below-stairs staff get less of an arc, despite initially seeming like they might be destined for advancement. Tommy Knight’s Archibald Brodie rather plateaus in character development halfway through the first series, and even Eve Myles, brought in to play Mrs Jenkins, is more useful as a one-shot plot driver when the Chartist movement is on the rise than as a vital long-term member of staff.

But then, like all successful shows – and Victoria certainly was successful, being sold to 150 territories – it attracted fantastic actors to be a part of its mesmeric magic. Along with the plethora of impressive prime ministerial acting, the likes of Dame Diana Rigg, John Sessions, Dennis Lawson, Nicola McAuliffe, and David Bamber came in to join the cast, whether for small roles, or larger, recurring parts.

Victoria, combining strong, challenging central roles for Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes, a roll call of some of the best and brightest stars in the British acting profession, and some impressive younger talent too, was always hypnotic to watch. The sets and costumes always made the feeling of majesty a believable thing. And the whole thing was constructed both to let audiences learn something about Victoria before she became the stereotype we have of her (if in fact, she ever did), and to feed the needs of drama-fiends everywhere for their fix of ‘lifestyles of the rich and royal.’ It delivered pageantry, glamour, drama and occasionally connivance in the story of the woman who wore the crown and changed the world beyond all recognition in the 19th century.

Yes, sometimes the writing leant a little too heavily on ‘inspiration by real events’ rather than necessarily ‘portraying real events’ to make the young queen more sympathetic and indeed more helpful than she actually was to popular causes – both the Chartist and the Irish Potato Famine storylines feel skewed towards positive coverage for Victoria. But the writing always went beyond simply ‘printing the legend,’ and Jenna Coleman always served both the memory of the real Victoria, and her own loyal audience, with thoughtful and insightful performances across the three series.

That meant Victoria was a show that fed your dramatic needs, but also made you feel like you knew and understood more about the queen once you’d watched it than you ever had before. For that, as much as for the 19th century glitz and glamour, it’s a show that will repay rewatching for a century or more.

Watch Victoria today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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