Yes! Another fab English costume drama to savor over the long winter nights. Fans of “Downton Abbey” will relish the seven episodes of “Victoria,” with its captivating story, appealing historic personalities, excellent performances and first-rate production values. Who doesn’t love the gorgeous get-ups and resplendent castle settings? “It’s basically true,” says creator/writer/ executive producer Daisy Goodwin of the series, who extensively used the Queen’s own voluminous diaries when writing “Victoria.” And if some of the historic details are a bit off, remember, it’s just TV.
Jenna Coleman (“Doctor Who”) glimmers as the very young Queen Victoria at the beginning of her long reign (1837-1901). During the series, the Queen matures from sheltered 18-year old who unexpectedly accedes to the throne of the British Empire in 1837, to a more adult married woman and ruler, pregnant with her first child in 1840.
The two-hour first episode starts with the death of the last of Victoria’s uncles, King William IV. Victoria’s father, Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, died shortly after her birth, leaving her as his heir. Little Princess Victoria skipped to the head of the line of succession only because her three uncles who would have normally taken the crown ahead of her — George IV, Frederick Duke of York, and William IV — all died without any surviving legitimate children. Victoria’s rise to top royal is quite the fairy tale.
I wish that the early episodes had provided more background about Victoria’s troubled and isolated childhood. Her only ally was her adored German governess, Baroness Lehzen (Daniela Holtz). Victoria was under the thumb of her scheming mother (Catherine Flemming) and her mother’s power-hungry companion, Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys). This background would have made her separation from her mother’s influence and her dependency on Baroness Lehzen much more comprehensible.
More emphasis on her lonely and sequestered childhood would have also clarified why Victoria became so dependent on Lord Melbourne, her first Prime Minister (excellent Rufus Sewell, “The Man in the High Castle”) from whom the Queen gained a hasty and thorny education in the art of British royal power and politics. Although the series presents the Queen as besotted with Lord Melbourne, I found no historical evidence to prove that their relationship was an intimate one and that Melbourne was more than a father figure, teacher and friend. And in real life, he was much older and far less physically appealing than Rufus Sewell.
When, after a rocky start to the relationship, Victoria finds love with her handsome, brilliant and awkward Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (appealing Tom Hughes, “Dancing on the Edge”), Lord Melbourne’s influence wanes, and Prince Albert’s rises. Both men taught the Queen much about how to be a ruler in a constitutional monarchy, where the monarch had very few powers but could wield much influence.
British political life was given short shrift in the four hours of programming that I watched, although that is the most interesting aspect of the series to me. Lady Flora Hastings’ scandal and the bedchamber crisis are largely true, although the Queen never apologized to Lady Flora for forcing a gynecological examination on the sick virgin.
Daisy Goodwin’s literate script (she’s the author of historical romances “My Last Duchess” and “The Fortune Hunter”) mostly stays on the right side of melodrama, until the narrative descends downstairs.
The machinations 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) have no historical relevance and little purpose, other than to follow the path downstairs taken by “Downton Abbey.” Penge and Jenkins are this season’s O’Brien and Thomas. But rats on the birthday cake? Really?
Jenna Coleman believably portrays the disparate aspects of Victoria’s personality — the young lonely innocent, the imperious ruler, the passionate young woman — and back again. Yet, at the start of the episodes, her portrayal is a bit wooden, but perhaps, so was the actual Queen. Tom Hughes performed well the role of the enigmatic Prince Albert. Hughes had a nuanced and complex role to play, just as Prince Albert’s role in Victoria’s life was nuanced and complex. But the real star is Rufus Sewell, who brings complexity and gravitas to the lonely and aging Lord Melbourne.
The castle settings, filmed in a studio and in various Yorkshire locations, look fabulous, as do the costumes and jewelry. Who cares if the tiaras and court uniforms aren’t all absolutely historically accurate? The computer graphics shots of 19th century London and Windsor Castle look surprisingly fake. But it was fascinating to see how Buckingham Palace originally looked with the Marble Arch in front of it.
For aficionados of English history and royalty, “Victoria,” with all its pomp and circumstance, is an extra special treat. Hers is a timeless tale of a young woman who resisted all those who wished to manipulate or mock her, overcame her fears and found independence and love. What could be better?
Two new books about Queen Victoria may be of interest, “Victoria” by Daisy Goodwin, author of the series (St. Martin’s Press) and “Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire” by Julia Baird (Random House). I also recommend the amusing but accurate podcast, “Rex Factor,” which reviews the royals of England and Scotland.
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved.