There’s being late to the party and then there’s panic watching eight hours of a series to be prepared for the sophomore season starting tonight. So first, apologies for not taking Victoria seriously when everyone was saying how great it was. I have only myself and Poldark to blame, since the Cornish BBC drama aired around the same time and made me choose every Sunday. Oh, and I’ll blame the production company Masterpiece too – they made both excellent television shows but still let them compete in a ratings battle. Never again, please.
I really have been pleasantly delighted by season one of Victoria though. It features some really touching moments, a fabulous cast and an unexpected touch of light-handed comedy in a skilful screenplay by series creator Daisy Goodwin. Its strengths come in its relatable portrayal of a young marriage, and of eschewing the more political aspects of the monarchy except when it’s at its most interesting.
Looking back over my notes, it’s easy to see where the series picks up steam. The first couple of episodes are particularly hampered by some scene cuts that are far too sharp, poor CGI – an unfortunately transparent sign of a low budget – and a lot of pining by Jenna Coleman’s Victoria over the weary Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell). It’s true to the young queen’s age and situation, as she tries to deal with her new circumstances, but it takes until episode three for some real drama to enter the picture. Namely, the tall drink of slightly emo water known as Tom Hughes’ Prince Albert.
Their relationship drives a lot of the rest of the series, as frustrations turn into genuine devotion. A waltz scene of episode four is peak romance and a real treat, but the fun arrives when the couple have to get to know each other in the sudden circumstances of marital attachments. They bicker, learn each others limits and start to see the best and worst in each other. It’s a loving and healthy relationship but it’s also realistic – no marriage is ever easy.
As the central character, Jenna Coleman has quite a performance to succeed in. Succeed she does though – not just because she wears the period costuming as if she were born in it, but because she perfectly captures the immature, stubborn and unrestrained humour of the monarch. Coleman was around 29 when she filmed this but she’s completely convincing playing someone in her late teens, not least due to her (almost historically accurate) small stature. Coleman is 5’2, while Victoria was a teeny 4’11, but the impression still stands.
That brings us to the unexpected humour of the series. Whether it’s short jokes, misguided ideas of what counts for birth control or Alex Jennings as King Leopold just being as perfectly ridiculous as ever, Victoria doesn’t get too bogged down in serious drama all the time. The humour isn’t always explicit either – sometimes it’s a wry wink at historical drama fans, such as Victoria running to hide her morning sickness with the brilliantly appropriate statement ‘I am bilious!’, or the hilariously gothic German house that in Prince Albert’s childhood home. Writer Goodwin is aware of the fun that you can have with the setting and she goes for it in in a way that is still never less than affectionate.
That said, sometimes the setting isn’t always reliable. As stated earlier, the CGI used in the earlier episodes is very poor and an instant distraction. As the series progresses, Masterpiece seem to deal with their limited budget by spending less time in grand stately homes and more time out in the English countryside. For viewers used to period dramas that rely heavily on interior shots, this willingness to spend a lot of time outside is actually really refreshing, and leads to some truly gorgeous scenes.
For example, in probably my favourite shot in the series, Victoria decides to follow Albert’s lead and try out an early form of the train for the first time. She sits in the open top carriage, gasping with exhilaration as it passes through the fields, whilst Albert runs at top speed along the train, shouting excitedly for her opinion. She leaves him behind as the train speeds up but he gets his happy answer, and they share an experience that is both a step for their marriage and a fitting tribute to the huge technological developments of the Victorian era. It’s no vintage passenger jet like in The Crown, but with a lot more simplicity, it still packs a strong emotional punch.
Finally, there’s one more notable feature of Victoria that other royal dramas like The Crown have completely missed. This series spend a fair chunk of time developing the characters that make up the household staff, giving them their own lives, disappointments and dreams. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could feel shoehorned in but instead it’s done gently enough that it still feels completely tied to the aristocracy upstairs. In particular, Nell Hudson as ladies’ maid Nancy Skerrett gives a fantastic performance as a girl who feels constantly torn between her old life and her new one. It’s easy to see the connection between her and the newly crowned Queen – while their experiences could not have been more different, they’re still both young women adjusting to something that is alien and challenging.
So yes, I am currently deservedly kicking myself for missing out on Victoria for so long. It’s a fantastic series that, despite a few early misfires, went from strength to strength. Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes do a great job in portraying the young couple and there’s enough swoon-worthy moments to keep romance fans happy. The willingness to stretch the perspectives in the palaces to the downstairs rooms has been done with real skill and at times its genuinely funny. Here’s hoping season two continues with those same virtues.