Monday, January 23, 2017

Victoria, episodes 1 through 3 (ITV/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had a rather nervous evening and spent most of it watching TV, including the first three hours of the quite good British TV miniseries about the life and reign of Queen Victoria, called simply Victoria, made in 2016 not by the BBC but by Britain’s commercial television company, ITV — though certainly in the style we’ve come to know from the British drawing-room dramas, concentrating on the relationships between the human characters instead of the sheer spectacle of the monarchy and its court. Victoria became Queen of England in 1837 following the death of the previous king, William IV, who himself had acceded to the throne after the 10-year reign of his older brother George IV. All these people were members of the House of Hanover, which had been imported from Germany in the 18th century after the fall of the Stuarts to make sure the United Kingdom stayed safely Protestant — indeed, until Victoria’s grandfather George III became king in 1760 the Hanover monarchs spoke German exclusively and carried out the court’s business in that language. Some of this is reflected on the program in the character of Victoria’s mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield, who in the show is constantly lapsing into German when addressing her daughter, who has to keep correcting her and reminding her that as the rulers of Britain they should speak only English.

The show stars Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria, and its main dramatic point is that she took the throne at 18 and a lot of people both in the royal court and in Parliament, bitterly divided between the “Whig” (Liberal) and “Tory” (Conservative) parties, thought she was too young and immature for the job and wanted there to be a regency led by her surviving uncle. Victoria is shown as fiercely independent, anxious to succeed, chafing at the limitations on the royal role imposed by the British constitution — she’s shocked to learn that slavery is still in effect on the island of Jamaica and is upset that she can’t just issue a royal proclamation abolishing it — and also as incredibly moralistic. In the first episode, “Doll 123” (named after an actual doll in her collection which at age 11 she literally crowned when she realized that one day she would quite likely be queen), she suspects an affair between Lady Flora Hastings (Alice Orr-Ewing) and another courtier with whom she shared a carriage ride. She orders two doctors to conduct an “examination” of Lady Flora — it’s not clear, but at least the implication is there that the doctors are really performing an abortion on the illicitly pregnant Flora, only the operation goes horribly wrong and Lady Flora contracts an infection and dies — though the official story is that she only appeared to be pregnant and really suffered from a tumor. It’s an interesting plot point that fits given that the word “Victorian” has entered the language as meaning a period of particularly intense sexual repression and judgmental “morality” imposed by government fiat.

But the main thrust of the first three episodes (as often seems to happen in shows like this, in order to start with a spectacular opening show the PBS telecast jammed the first two episodes into one two-hour “event” presentation) is Victoria’s relationship with her prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), whom she’s infatuated with even though he’s almost three times her age and he’s a widower. It’s previously established that he stayed loyal to his wife even when she ran off with Lord Byron (that Lord Byron?) and, though she’s long dead, in the film’s kinkiest scene he takes a lock of her hair from a keepsake box and practically makes love to it. (Ironically, according to historian Robert K. Massie, Victoria did something similar when her later husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha — who was also her first cousin — died; she had a cast made of his face and his hand and had them placed next to her bed so she could reach out, see his face and hold his hand just as she had when he was alive, and in Cabinet meetings she often asked aloud the WWAD question — “What would Albert do?”) The third episode, “Brocket Hall,” deals with Melbourne’s deteriorating political position — his Whig Party loses a vote of confidence in Parliament and the Tories select Robert Peel as the new prime minister; Victoria signals the only Tory she’s willing to accept as the head of government is the Duke of Wellington, who begs off on the ground that he’s too old; and eventually she forces a constitutional confrontation and insists that Melbourne stay on — and also the vexing question of just whom Victoria should marry: Prince Albert (pushed on her by yet another uncle, King Leopold of Belgium), the British Prince George (Nicholas Agnew), the Russian Grand Duke (Daniel Donskoy), or no one at all. (Victoria is shown casting several long gazes at the portrait of her illustrious predecessor, “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth. and wondering whether it would be best if she followed Elizabeth’s example.)

There are also sequences dealing with the Chartist rebellions that swept Britain in the 1840’s, whose platform, known as the People’s Charter, called for universal suffrage for all men 21 and over (and there were a few especially radical Chartists who advocated for votes for women as well), a secret ballot, elimination of the requirement that Members of Parliament be landowners, payment for M.P.’s so working-class people could afford to serve, redistricting to make legislative districts equal in population, and new elections every year. The Chartist movement was violently repressed by the authorities, and many of the movement’s leaders were deported to Australia (where some of them continued their activities) while others were put on trial for treason — though eventually, starting with the Second Reform Act of 1867 (sponsored by Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli under Victoria’s reign), some of the Chartists’ demands ultimately became law. There’s a spectacular scene of Victoria herself being confronted by Chartist demonstrators as she unveils a monument to her uncle the Earl of Kent — an interesting counterpoint to the fooforaw going on in Washington, D.C. right now as the Trump administration declares war on the media for daring to report that the crowds for his inauguration in 2017 were considerably smaller than for President Obama’s first inaugural in 2009.

It’s nice to see a “Royal porn” show that actually acknowledges the working-class movements of the time — indeed, in 1842 a Chartist named John Francis actually took a shot at Queen Victoria, and she rode along the same route the next day in hopes of provoking him into a second attempt so the authorities could arrest him. It’s also fascinating that Victoria goes into a hissy-fit when she’s told that she has to replace her ladies-in-waiting that were married to Whig politicians and install Tories’ wives instead — she thinks, not unreasonably, that just because one party lost an election that shouldn’t determine who gets to serve in her royal household. Victoria, judging from the first three (of eight) episodes, is a quite good bit of political TV, drenched in past-is-brown orthodoxies (explainable by the fact that when it occurred the palaces were still lit by candles; Victoria tries to have gas put in but one of the palace staff burns her hand trying to light the gas jet and Victoria’s mom peremptorily orders the conversion stopped, especially since the gas installation also disturbed the palace’s rats and they started migrating to the living quarters) but vividly acted in that marvelously understated way British actors have of vivifying their country’s history.