A legendary English queen sheds prudish stereotypes in PBS Masterpiece's Victoria (Jan. 15, 9 ET/PT, check local listings).
“As soon as I started working on it, people would say, ‘She’s old and dour and stern and wears black.’ The image people have couldn’t be further from who she was,” says Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who), who plays the long-reigning 19th-century monarch in the eight-hour drama.
“She was vibrant, vivid, passionate, tempestuous — and often wrong,” Coleman says. “I find her quite amazing.”
Victoria, which inherits the time slot of another British period piece, Downton Abbey, covers the first three years of the queen's 63-year reign, from when the diminutive 18-year-old inherited the throne in 1837 until she and her husband, Prince Albert (Tom Hughes), become parents to the first of their nine children.
The series marks a departure from the clichéd portrayal of haughty Victorian Age-manners, which then reflected an effort by social climbers to distinguish themselves from the lower classes, writer Daisy Goodwin says. Victoria was hardly a prude, she adds, as evidenced by the teenage queen’s diaries.
“She’s just met Albert and writes, ‘Albert’s so divine. He’s wearing white, cashmere britches, with nothing on underneath.’ I was about the same age as Victoria and I thought, ‘Wow! She’s a real woman. She’s a girl like me.' … I wondered what it would be like if all that adolescent tumult and passion were translated into the most powerful woman at the time.”
Victoria's mood was always on display, a sharp contrast with the inexpressive public face of the current reigning monarch, her great-great granddaughter Elizabeth II. "Victoria was like the weather. You knew instantly whether she was happy, sad or cross,” Goodwin says.
Victoria’s behavior reflects her passion, Coleman says. “From all accounts, she gobbled her food down. When she laughed, it was hearty, her mouth wide open. She got drunk. She loved dances. She was never contained.”
Despite her strengths, Victoria faced many challenges, including her power-hungry mother and her mother’s suitor. She had no help from others, including Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), the British prime minister who became a friend and father figure who was described at the time as a half-lover, Coleman says.
The queen’s reign also is intertwined with Albert, her German-born first cousin. Both their families wanted them to marry; he was 19 and she had just become queen when he came to England so she could propose to him, as required by protocol. .
“In terms of personalities, they’re very different. Albert is quite cerebral, almost mathematical. There’s a sensitivity to him that gives him a quiet strength,” Hughes says, while Victoria’s “like a pressure cooker. She needs to be rooted somehow for her to express herself. I feel like Albert provides that. For him, she provides the vitality of emotion that would draw him out of his shell. So, the two are a perfect complement for each other.”
Victoria needed a strong spirit to surmount her youth, sex and size, but those traits helped soften hostile attitudes toward the monarchy, Goodwin says.
"You had a lot of old men coming to the throne, having led scandalous lives. They were extravagant. People hated them,” she says. “Victoria was the new, young thing. Because she was a woman, I think it changed people’s perceptions toward the monarchy.They could feel protective toward her. The Brits love their queens.”