Versailles (BBC2, 1 June) follows, over 10 weeks, the transformation of Louis XIV (George Blagden) from weak king in a troubled realm to one of history’s top despots and seventeenth-century style icon. The first episode sees Louis making the key decision to move France’s entire machinery of the government to his father’s old hunting lodge which he will have transformed into the eponymous château. It is a good clean trajectory for a TV series and few historians would argue with its broad outline.
The writers, Simon Mirren and (history graduate) David Wolstencroft, have the popular BBC series, Spooks, behind them but in this project they have taken on a strange hybrid. Versailles is a French/Canadian production (the BBC is not a partner) yet all the dialogue is not only written in English but performed in English by anglophone actors. Sometimes on the sound track I fancied I heard the sound of French teeth grinding.
It is a dark and stormy night when young Louis has a dream depicting both his inner anxieties and his destiny to build a new palace. The episode proceeds from there by means of broad brush strokes. As part of a relationship which is plainly going to be important to the plot, Louis shares the dream with brother Philippe (Alexander Vlahos). Brother Philippe is, with historical accuracy and unlike Louis, gay so what is the first thing we find him doing in another part of the palace? Yes, you guessed right. ‘I couldn’t eat another thing’, he quips as he rises from his knees. The action then passes through a man’s head being stove in with a hammer, nude bathing, straight sex, rape, flagellation, explicit autopsy, a hand being severed and a room decorated entirely with sheets stained with menstrual blood.
Now, it is not a crime to have a strong action plot, nor to outline character and situation through punchy scenes. These writers do that with aplomb and through credible dialogue, undisrupted by anachronism. The problem is that there is not quite enough message for the medium: those punchy scenes find themselves having to make the same point again and again. Louis, for example, makes a speech towards the end of the episode, telling his court about what the new château will mean to future generations but by then we have already been fed that idea so many times that what is plainly meant to be a set-piece, ‘field-of-dreams’ keynote exposition dies before our eyes.
There are inevitable changes made to history for the sake of drama. A couple of characters are made up and one is even un-invented in the shape of d’Artagnan, who was around at the time but is replaced by a fictional stand-in. Historia readers may find that sort of thing acceptable or not, depending on taste. What is harder to forgive is that, beyond costume and location (which are fine but don’t exactly yet reflect the reputed massive budget) there is very little attempt to create historical atmosphere. Louche sexual behaviour and extreme violence are, after all, timeless constants of humanity and our monarch’s inner demons as revealed in his dream life have a modern ring to them. When you take out the bold action the background is strangely staid: courtiers stand in groups, occasionally touching their fingers to their cheeks. Conversations are edited in a slightly awkward way leaving the actors, frequently shot in profile, declaiming their lines rather than interacting. The overall effect is often to make is look like a ‘foreign film’ of a few decades back.
So the cliff-hanger at the end of this episode has nothing to do with the surprise concerning the birth of the Queen Marie Therese’s (Elisa Lasowski) daughter in 1664. No spoilers, but historians will know what I am talking about. The real cliff-hanger is whether this series will teeter into a pit of drivel or whether it will it will survive its (notoriously problematic) first episode and go on to show interesting form. I shall be watching.