A heavily pregnant Queen Victoria lay in bed, looking disheveledly pretty and decidedly grumpy. A deadpan Prince Albert read her a lame joke from a magazine to cheer her up. “We are not amused,” she muttered.
“That’s funny,” a production assistant said, looking at the TV monitors showing the actors Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes as they ran through this scene in the large studios here, in which bits of Buckingham Palace had been recreated.
“We are not amused” may be a familiar phrase. But ITV’s “Victoria,” which debuts on “Masterpiece” on PBS on Sunday, doesn’t show us the dumpy, dowdy black-clad widow associated with the expression. Instead, “Victoria” paints a picture of a pretty, willful, inexperienced and isolated teenager who wakes up one day to find herself queen of England, and who must find the inner strength to take on a male-dominated world.
There are clear similarities between this story and other costume dramas that are bread-and-butter “Masterpiece” fare (as well as with “The Crown,” the Netflix series that portrays the reign of the young Queen Elizabeth II). But Daisy Goodwin, the British television producer and writer of historical fiction, who created “Victoria,” said that there is at least one important difference.
“Although ‘Victoria’ has a romantic sensibility, at its heart it is about a concept so modern that it still frightens people: a young woman in power,” who had direction over her life that one doesn’t expect in a period drama, Goodwin said.
Goodwin, who studied history – with a focus on the Victorian – at Cambridge University, said that her vision of the adolescent, impetuous Victoria came in part from being a parent.
I had read her diaries and had a sort of epiphany about her friskiness as a young girl.
Daisy Goodwin, British television producer
“I have a 16-year-old daughter, and we had a row one day, and I thought, what if we woke up and she was the boss of me?” Goodwin said.
Initially, she planned to write a novel about Victoria.
“I had read her diaries and had a sort of epiphany about her friskiness as a young girl,” she said. “I began to work on it, but I’m not really equipped to be a novelist alone. I soon thought, why has no one done this as a TV series?”
An obstinate ruler
The production company Mammoth commissioned a script, and PBS committed to the production at an early stage. Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of “Masterpiece,” said that she and her colleagues were looking for a show that could reach a nontraditional audience of young women, as well as fill the large coronet-shaped hole left by “Downton Abbey.” She said that “Victoria” distinguished itself with its singular focus – both on and behind the camera.
“This is an opportunity for an arresting, truly memorable performance by an actress, as Glenda Jackson delivered with ‘Elizabeth R,’ or Helen Mirren in ‘Prime Suspect,’ ” Eaton said. “And Daisy Goodwin, not a roomful of writers, as the single creative force at the heart of the story is an opportunity for a very personal, deeply felt piece of work.”
Goodwin said she knew she would begin the series (and her novel, which she wrote simultaneously) with the day Victoria learned she was queen. (It was June 20, 1837.)
“When she got the power, she didn’t hang around,” Goodwin said. “She replaced the name she was known by, Alexandrina, with Victoria, a name that didn’t exist in England at the time. You have to think that this was self-determinism, victory over her childhood.”
That childhood was an unhappy and lonely one, dominated by her mother and Sir John Conroy, her mother’s manipulative adviser.
“Her resistance to that tells you a lot about her; this absolute, obstinate nature of hers was vital in getting her through her reign,” said Coleman, who played the companion to Doctor Who from 2012 to 2015.
Season 1’s eight episodes follow Victoria through her first three years as queen; years dominated by her infatuation with her prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), her growing confidence as ruler, and her eventual passion for her first cousin, the German Prince Albert (Hughes).
Positive reviews in Britain
In Britain, where the show aired in the fall, ratings were high and reviews mainly positive, but the show was also criticized for historical inaccuracy, notably its portrayal of Victoria’s obsession with Lord Melbourne, and the general unlikeliness of Sewell’s smolderingly handsome figure.
“I’m sure I’ve heightened it, but there is no doubt that Victoria was besotted with Melbourne,” Goodwin said. “He is on every page of her diaries.”
Sewell said that his research allayed any fears that Lord Melbourne had been too “souped up” for modern-day audiences.
“He was very attractive to women all his life; he was a proper Regency rake, and he really liked women.” But Sewell and Goodwin did decide to deviate from one part of the record: portraying Lord Melbourne in his historically correct late 50s. “It seemed a waste to lose my late 40s,” he said.
Eventually, Victoria falls for and marries Hughes’ brooding, perfectly German-accented Albert, and the series ends with the birth of their first child.
Goodwin, steeped in Victorian fiction, uses many of those tropes in the series: a bit of Emma, a bit of Mr. Knightley, a bit of Dickens.
“But in those works, women are mostly such passive agents,” she said. “Here you can subvert the normal marriage plot, because it’s Victoria who has the power and must propose to Albert.”
The next season, Goodwin said, will deviate from the usual period drama fare as well.
“It will be about the very modern dilemma of dealing with the job, children and a power struggle with your husband,” she said.
She added: “It’s about a woman who gets to call the shots in her life at a time when that was very difficult for women, and that’s a powerful thing. At the same time, it’s quite sprightly and funny and romantic, and I think that’s what is pretty much missing in the TV landscape now.”