'Victoria' Set Visit: The Ambitious Royal Drama Aiming to Claim the 'Downton' Crown

Des Willie/ITV/PA Wire
Jenna Colman as Queen Victoria

THR tours the fake Buckingham Palace built for the new ITV/PBS series chronicling the early years of the British monarch.

The set for Victoria is so vast it even has its own resident owl.

In an enormous former aircraft hangar in the north of England (rural Yorkshire, to be exact), an estimated 43 miles of wood have been used to recreate the interior of Buckingham Palace, or how it would have looked in the 1830s. Gigantic ballrooms, ornately decorated hallways and numerous plush regal rooms are all interlinked to create one of the grandest – and certainly most visually stunning – TV sets ever constructed in the U.K.

Since it emerged last year that the doors of Downton Abbey would be shutting for good (which they finally did on Christmas Day), there has been much talk of a suitable ratings smashing period successor. Indeed, the term the "next Downton" has become one of the most overused phrases in British television writing. But among the countless shows to have been labeled with the tag, Victoria easily stands out as the most likely to inherit the crown.

Not only does it take Downton’s silver spoon-fed aristocratic stock and turn it up a few gilded notches (it’s about the teenage Queen Victoria, after all), but it’s another co-production between ITV and PBS, which found itself with an unexpected Emmy-amassing hit on its hands when it first picked up the story of the Crawleys. And in perhaps the biggest indicator of Downton-esque expectation, it’s being given the very same coveted Sunday night slot when it airs (August 28 in the U.K., with the U.S. having to wait until January).

While Downton had the long-established and Academy-recognized hand of Julian Fellowes holding the quill, Victoria comes from a lesser known name, TV producer Daisy Goodwin. Having studied Queen Victoria as a special subject in university, decades later she would transform the royal’s published diaries – vividly detailing how an 18-year-old of just 4 foot 11 inches tall was suddenly thrust into the position of most powerful woman on the planet – into a screenplay.

“Most people think of her as an old boot in a bonnet,” Goodwin tells THR, underlining the image many have of the dour, frumpish Queen Victoria towards the end of her more than 63-year reign on the British throne. “But she was actually one of the youngest ever monarchs. One minute she’s being bossed around by her mother and almost being kept under house arrest, and then literally her uncle dies and she becomes queen, and that’s quite a trip if you’re a teenage girl.”

Victoria’s diaries were published as early as 1907, but few still understand her early years; her battles with her mother who had hoped to have a controlling hand in her rule, her decision to move from the family house of Kensington Palace – where she had slept in her mother’s room every night until she became queen – to Buckingham Palace, her battles with a society where the monarchy wasn’t treated with the same deference as today, her relationship with the prime minister Lord Melbourne, an ally who several suggested become much more, and her eventual marriage to the dashing, but penniless, German prince Albert “the handsomest prince in Christendom.”

“There are some hilarious lines in the diaries, like at age 19 when she writes ‘just seen my dearest Albert, wearing the tight white cashmere breaches, with nothing on underneath,” says Goodwin. “I guess I must have been the same age when I first read it as she was when she wrote it. It’s not quite what you’d expect from a queen.”

Playing the young Queen and fan of cashmere breaches fan is Jenna Colman, better known as Clara, the companion of Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who across three seasons.

“The point about Victoria is that not only is she small, but she’s mighty,” says Goodwin. “She’s this tiny woman in charge in a forest of old men with beards. And that was central to my vision of Victoria. Jenna is 5 foot 2 inches. And she embodies Victoria incredibly well, she’s got this dignity but also has the humor. Jenna was the one person who got that voice… sympathetic, entitled, funny.”

Goodwin’s vision of Victoria was realized by Mammoth Screen, the ITV-owned production house behind Poldark, who had been interested in dramatizing the life of the young queen for a while.

“We had approached writers over the years, it just seem irresistible, but never found the right fit,” says Mammoth’s joint-md Damien Timmer. “When Daisy came to us with it we received it with open arms. For a first-time screenwriter, it’s a mark of just how much she understands the material and the ambition shown.”

But while Carnival Films had the real-life Highclere Castle to play with for Downton, Mammoth weren’t in a position to borrow Buckingham Palace from Queen Elizabeth (it’s unlikely they even asked). Hence having to build the enormous set in an aircraft hangar, where production started in the fall of 2015 (and wrapped in May).

Behind the construction is production designer Michael Howells, whose approach to fill his sets might appear unorthodox for such a regal feel.

Alongside furniture, most of which is specially made in-house (including a throne, of course), and four and a half tons of crystal used to make the chandeliers, Howells and his team also picked up decorations from car boot sales, auctions and discount stores,

“We’ve been to two or three car boot sales or auctions a week,” he tells THR, pointing to an impressive-looking swords and shields on the wall. “Those are actually plastic, we bought them from a £1 shop, and painted them gold.”

As for the columns that line the hallway, used for numerous scenes, they’re not quite marble, but cardboard. “And we printed the carpets on linoleum,” Howells says.

But there’s no scrimping when it comes to candles, somewhat necessary given that gas-powered lighting was still in its infancy during Victoria’s early years.

“For the ball scenes we use 900 [candles] a day. And they’re all handmade and hand-dipped. But when they’re all lit it looks incredible.”

Although the first season only covers five years, from the night of Victoria’s accession to the throne to the birth of her first daughter, the costume department had to plot a dramatic transformation in her wardrobe.

“While she was with her mother, she was kept in doll dresses with her little dog,” says costume designer Rosaline Ebbutt. “And then suddenly she’s queen, so she’s got all these extreme, extravagant dresses, but then she starts to get series and take more of an interest in politics, so we’re darkening the color.”

Victoria is credited with being the first to wear a lighter-colored wedding dress (“a lot of the bridezill’s of today are following in her footsteps,” says Goodwin), and for having sparked the trend for tartan.

“She wrote a lot about how she wanted to look for her wedding,” says Ebbutt. “The tradition was for it to almost be a state occasion, all in gold, and she said ‘I don’t want to get married like that, I want to get married like a normal woman to a husband I love.”

Hairstyles, too, took a few dramatic turns during Victoria’s first years, with the young queen pushing the trends.

“We start with those Apollo knots, those really big eccentric hairdos,” says Nic Collins, who won an Emmy in 2015 for her work on Downton Abbey.

“And then you went to Victoria taking the throne, and being very simple, very beautiful, just a classic middle-parting, and then simply plaits or twists, into a nice high bun in the beginning and then as we go through the period the buns get lower. So it’s a real movement. The Victorian movement in general is a beautiful movement from start to finish.”

Going from start to finish might take a considerable number of seasons (13 at the rate of one equaling five years), but it’s clear there’s definitely an appetite for Victoria to run and run.

“There’s no shortage of plot or incident or event,” says Goodwin, who admits she’s already started writing scripts for season two, should it be commissioned. “We’ve got some real characters.”

One of the – albeit minor – characters is Goodwin herself, who admits she wrote herself a small part.

“I’ve got a small cameo in episode six,” she says. “I had some serious tiara envy so had to find myself a role where I could where a tiara.”

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