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If PBS and Masterpiece were looking for that elusive post-Downton Abbey hit — and you can believe they were, feverishly — they might have found it with the thoroughly enjoyable and addictive Victoria, starting Sunday.
Created and written by Daisy Goodwin, who draws the bulk of the material from Queen Victoria’s own extensive diaries (and is able to embellish, but not egregiously so, for dramatic effect, since large chunks of the diaries were removed after the queen’s death), Victoria delivers precisely on two of the most essential elements of making historical fiction work: Is the cast — and particularly the lead — a group you want to spend hours with, and does the plot move at a brisk, entertaining clip?
AIR DATE Jan 15, 2017
That’s an emphatic “yes” to both, as Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who) as Victoria, Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle) as Lord Melbourne, Tom Hughes (The Game) as Prince Albert, Paul Rhys as Sir John Conroy, Peter Firth as the Duke of Cumberland and a vast supporting cast set the hook on Victoria from the start. Whether this myriad bunch will eventually worm their way into the zeitgeist like the Downton Abbey characters remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a promising start, with Coleman and Sewell in particular doing the heaviest lifting, and with the most magnetism, in the early going.
If you are a historical purist prone to irritation over casting, accuracy and what the real-life figures might or might not have said as they stared into mirrors at night or whispered to each other over lavish dinners, Victoria may give you comparably little ammo (A.N. Wilson was a historical adviser on the series). Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne is the one that got most British critics in a tizzy. While, historically, Melbourne is considered mostly a father figure and key adviser, Victoria plays their relationship — she was 18 when she took the throne, and he was 40 years older — as tinged with unrequited love that most would agree wasn’t actually there (that anyone knew of). And yet this is precisely how dramatic stories get dramatic, and if no license is given, you might as well read a history book.
In Victoria, we’re to assume that the characters played by the younger and better-looking (compared to the real Melbourne) Sewell and the older and better-looking Coleman (compared to the real Victoria) might legitimately have had an attraction, given the state of royal affairs facing Victoria at the time and Melbourne’s own tragic story (his wife had left him for Lord Byron). In terms of dramatic intensity, the attraction certainly propels the two-hour premiere on Sunday (subsequent episodes are one hour).
In fairly short order, Prince Albert — formerly thought a bit of an oaf by cousin Victoria when they were preteens — will make his arrival, and when he does, the work that Goodwin, Coleman and Sewell have put into the Victoria/Melbourne “relationship” pays wonderful dividends; Sewell is a master at conveying chivalry and duty to country as Melbourne while letting out, with real nuance, hints of longing and hurt as history plays out. It’s a superb performance.
So, too, is Coleman’s as she manages to make Victoria both at sea regarding her new queen status, but also fiercely confident and outspoken. It’s what made Victoria the kind of queen people loved to read about and, in turn, makes for such triumphant historical fiction — you don’t become queen at 18 without sharks all around you, and Victoria’s nature, to resist tradition and expectations and to be defiantly herself, is exactly what makes Victoria a series that has so much to work with, hopefully over the course of many seasons.
In every bit of royal storytelling television has produced, there seems to be something to nag about (accuracy, having beautiful actors play less beautiful real people, etc.), and no doubt Victoria will have its share of naysayers, and the series no doubt will be compared to Downton Abbey. Those are some big shoes to fill, given the overall legacy of the latter — thanks mostly to the first couple of seasons — but we might ultimately find that Victoria can hold its own in the long run (and let’s not forget that Downton got soapier by the minute as it went on).
There is a “downstairs help” storyline to Victoria, and, frankly, it would be weird not to have it, not just because the structure was there in Downton Abbey, but because the formal division clearly existed historically and was an inevitable part of a working house (or palace, in this instance). It’s not like Victoria is stealing; it’s simply being accurate. On the other hand, the help was always the best part of Downton Abbey, and in Victoria, those characters are, at least in the early going, less developed than the royals they serve. So don’t be too quick to judge until Victoria gets some time to start telling the downstairs stories with as much vigor and confidence as the upstairs stories (which were, as history suggests in the case of Queen Victoria, likely vastly more dramatic and intriguing anyway).
The bigger point is this: Victoria is worth your time, whether you adored Downton Abbey or not, and through the very hard work and dedication of Britain’s ITV has delivered PBS another gem to which you might devote your Sundays.
Cast: Jenna Coleman, Rufus Sewell, Tom Hughes, Paul Rhys, Peter Firth
Creator: Daisy Goodwin
Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on PBS.
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