Which is your favourite Blackadder series? The Elizabethan one where Miranda Richardson redefines the Virgin Queen for all time? The Regency one? Or perhaps Blackadder Goes Forth, the WWI series with its final ascent into poignant seriousness. They are all good but I bet not one of you gave a thought to Series One. You know, the one set in 1485. It’s about Richard III and all that. You might not have seen it: broadcast in 1983, the critics hated it and it has never been repeated. But someone must have felt that it had potential because the BBC took the radical step not of scrapping the series but just giving it less money. With smaller sets, no exteriors and (let’s be honest) Ben Elton as co-writer the result was great comedy.
Similarly, the first series of Versailles lacked dramatic impact at almost every level. Some episodes seemed to lose their way to such an extent that they were impossible to follow. The producers’ cunning plan of gingering up the plot with regular doses of gratuitous sex and violence didn’t really work either. Yet, in preparation for its first appearance, it had been vaunted by the BBC as ‘the new blockbuster’ (had anyone actually watched it?). Such was the Corporation’s confidence that they commissioned a whole ancillary series in which pundits commented on the history of the ‘real Versailles’. The spectacle of well-qualified, intelligent people flapping desperately on the slab, gasping for content was truly pitiful.
Now, the question for those of us approaching the second round of Versailles (Episode 1, BBC 2, Friday 21 April) is: do we have another Blackadder here? Not that it is a comedy, obviously I didn’t mean that. But rather, has some unseen hand moved miraculously to improve it? Well, it is obvious from the start that, unlike Blackadder, the budget has not been reduced. In fact the CGI Château de Versailles is coming along apace: it now has wings and apartments that all tourists will recognise.
We find Louis at a point where, having established his court at Versailles, he has to put up with a lot of intrigue, conspiracy and poisoning. On the European political stage he is now a powerful and belligerent leader on the point of leading his country into a costly war with Holland. One would have thought there might be a bit of grist for the writers there. But we do not see a strong leader guiding his superpower on the world stage. What we mostly see is a man walking from room to room talking to courtiers or mistresses or both.
In fact when you take out the regular doses of what, in a different medium, would be called click bait – a heap of naked young men here, a pair of pert breasts there, plus a horrific, yet blindingly predictable, scene involving sunlight and a lens – Versailles is about rooms. Typically some extras line up in one and wait until the king flounces in and delivers some rather ordinary lines. In one scene the direction was so bizarre that the swooping camera covered a conversation by showing us the back of the head of each actor who was speaking. In the hands of Jean-Luc Godard this might once have been brilliantly subversive but here it just looks like what it is: a mistake. The upshot of this and other errors is that it is very hard to care about the characters and therefore to care about the story.
For what it’s worth, I think the problem may not be a failure of execution so much as a mismatch of cultures. The series is the offspring of, on the one hand, French cinematic traditions (the directors are mostly French) and, on the other, the tradition of historical drama from what they would call le monde anglo-saxon. Unfortunately the resulting child has inherited only the unattractive qualities of each of its parents.
A creditable mention should go to Pip Torrens who portrays Cassel, the dissolute gambler soon to be minister of justice. He somehow manages to use his skill and judgement to flesh out his character until we really begin to care about him. Unfortunately this does not help the production overall. It is like buying a new sofa: its presence merely serves to highlight the dowdiness of the other objects on the room.
Versailles is not formally unwatchable, it is just dull. Its tragedy is that it lacks any credible historical atmosphere and shows no comprehension of that balance of similar and different through which we understand distant ages. Although (or is that because?) a third series has apparently already been commissioned, I doubt that Canal+, the production company, will venture into the world of historical drama for a while. And that would be a shame because there are still great things to be done in this genre.
Versailles Series 2 begins on Friday 21st April at 9.30pm on BBC Two.
All photos © Tibo & Anouchka, Capa Drama, ZodiakFiction & Docs, Incendo, Canal+