We Are Not: Victoria

As a rule, I avoid reading the press notes TV companies issue with their programmes helpfully detailing what’s going on and how good it all is, at least until after I’ve watched the show itself. Sometimes, this can lead to misunderstandings, and so it was as the first episode of Victoria unfurled its perfumed mysteries. Eventually, I had to admit defeat, hit pause and dig out the instruction manual after all, to try and work out what was supposed to be happening. Twenty-five minutes had passed, and there was still no sign of Scary, Sporty, Baby or Ginger, and, unless he had started dressing as a horse – admittedly, not outwith the bounds of plausibility – David Beckham was nowhere in sight.

It turns out that, despite appearances, rather than a dramatic eight-and-a-half-hour reconstruction of the irresistible rise of Posh Spice, this series is actually about History’s second-most-famous Victoria, the old Queen, gawd bless her. You can perhaps forgive my confusion. I was raised to believe that, in any given circumstance, Queen Victoria tended to resemble Alfred Hitchcock in a frock, which is not intended as a sleight on either of them. Actually, however, it seems she was a scintillating sci-fi heartbreaker, there mere sight of whom drove Grand Duke Alexander Of Russia to such erotic frenzy during her Coronation Ball that he risked an international incident by advancing upon the border of her bustle.

In this telling, Wee Vic is played by Jenna Coleman, formerly of Doctor Who, and the casting represents only the first step in the Whoification of royal drama. In November, Netflix will unveil The Crown, a 10-part series on our current queen, with ex-Doctor Matt Smith as Prince Philip. The calculation seems clear: Americans like classy-looking British productions about what a deep, dutiful, suffering drag it is to be very rich and posh; and they like Doctor Who; so, let’s shove them together. Historians might despair, but it means new hope for a project I’ve been trying to pitch to the BBC for 20 years: Tom Baker as Princess Margaret.

Victoria sets out to blow the dust off our abiding image of the unamused old figurehead of Empire, and reveal the vivacious young woman inside, determined to battle the male hierarchy her family had benefitted from for generations, and divinely destined for greatness.

We open in 1837, when she was 18 and much of Britain’s architecture and vast swathes of its population were still made from CGI. During this period, it appears, being heir to the throne meant being forced to wear weird blue contact lenses that gave one the slight look of a haywire alien robot. Nonetheless, Coleman comes across as the most convincing human around, as, to underline how beastly and plotting her family were, everyone else acts as though trapped in a live-action Disney movie from the late-1960s. Pick of the bunch is Peter Firth, whose striking performance as Evil Uncle Duke Of Cumberland suggests a pumpkin carved into the exact shape of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, then filled with villainous wind.

And yet, add longing looks, forbidden love and brooding courtesy of Rufus Sewell as Victoria’s tragic mentor Lord Melbourne, and, somehow, it manages to come together as an enjoyable swishing fairy tale. The romance will only deepen in weeks to come, when Victoria claps her weird eyes on the studly britches of her hot cousin, Prince Albert By Name Prince Albert By Nature. But, by then, of course, Poldark will be back on the other side at the same time, and she has no chance.

Published in The Sunday Herald, August 28 2016