It is every teenager’s dream. At the age of 18 you break free of the Muggles who have been controlling your life since childhood and at the same time you are granted a miraculous power, which means that everybody has to do what you say. Even Harry Potter didn’t manage the last part but in 1837, on the death of her uncle William IV, Princess Alexandrina Victoria did.
Victoria (ITV, 28 August, Episode 1/8) begins with the new queen (Jenna Coleman) receiving the news of her accession from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain in her nightdress, crucially alone, having dismissed all offers of accompaniment including that of her mother the Duchess of Kent (Catherine Flemming). The Duchess together with her friend and advisor, Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys), are the Muggles whom Victoria loses no time in ditching. To make the point that they are villains, make-up have equipped Catherine Flemming with what resembles a rather fine pantomime dame wig. The air of cinematic villainy is compounded by her speaking mit ze komedy German accent. But that cannot be helped, the Duchess, aka Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, actually did speak like that.
The series title sequence gets Jenna Coleman as Victoria off to a bad start. A succession of stills show her looking into the lens in progressively regal attire. We are probably meant to imagine her contemplating her destiny but what we see, egged on by sadly anachronistic music, is a perky young woman of the early twenty-first century. Once she is freed from the graphics department, however, Ms Coleman does put together a credible young Victoria. We meet a woman who is ‘passionate’ in her own words (of which there are many) and headstrong and prone to outbursts of temper at the judgement of those around her. As the episode progresses she learns to fluff herself up and put on an emotionless face in preparation for difficult encounters and through this we get an insight into why it is that Britain’s ‘passionate’ monarch appears in almost every portrait ever made of her with an expression of stoned insouciance on her face.
We get to know Victoria’s character through a series of confrontations with family and staff, in which she is unwaveringly feisty. The principal is good but the problem is that the conversations, although apparently different, all carry an identical message. Eventually you find yourself shouting, ‘yes, yes, I get it’ at the screen. The same could be said of scenes involving the relationship between the Queen and Lord Melbourne, her first Prime Minister (convincingly played by Rufus Sewell). This is, quite rightly, a key element in the episode: Victoria’s reliance on Melbourne as an advisor and, very soon, friend was both a vital part in her training and the cause of later conflict.
The script toys with the usual suspicions about the nature of a relationship between the 57-year-old man with a past and the eighteen-year-old queen. This has been much discussed and the current consensus seems to be to downplay the sexual component. Undeterred, however, the programme wades in with a scene in which the young queen gets a bit tiddly on champagne at a ball and dances a little too much with a Russian prince to the annoyance of Melbourne who takes her outside for a chat during which the young monarch comes within an hair’s breadth of coming on to him. There is no evidence whatsoever for this unlikely excursion into the genre of the high school movie and its presence in the film strikes me as a sign of laziness. The ball itself is nicely shot, though.
It is, as we know, an immutable law of ITV drama that for every upstairs there must be an equal and opposite downstairs and, sure enough, we are treated to some action in the kitchens. Principals below stairs are Adrian Schiller as Penge and Eve Myles as Mrs Jenkins (great character names). They are each watchable in their own way but even they fail to elevate the servants’ antics above the predictable.
The tragic incident of Lady Flora Hastings (Alice Orr-Ewing) with which the episode ends does bring a little moral complexity into the Victoria story but it does nothing to dispel the enclosed, palace-bound feel of the narrative over all. We have been given no inkling, for example, that in 1837 the monarchy was unpopular in a way that is hard to imagine nowadays. Nor do we have any sense of the sheer weirdness of belonging to a family that included nearly every European head of state for centuries. Much less are we given a hint of issues such as a famine in Ireland, attempts to abolish slavery in the Caribbean, insurrection in Canada and war in Afghanistan, all of which happened in the period covered and with some of which we know that Victoria engaged directly.
The point about Queen Victoria is that this particular feisty teenager went on to stamp her personality on the nineteenth century. In doing so she helped consolidate the global predominance of Western culture that persists to this day (and, it must be said, inculcated deep into the British soul a belief that they can turn their back on foreigners and live in prosperous isolation forever). If her story is trimmed to the extent that it could pass for a tale of palace intrigue in old Ruritania then a great disservice is done to real people of the past and, which is worse, we get a much less engaging drama out of it.
Victoria screens on ITV on Sundays, 9pm and is available on the ITV Hub.