Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II have a lot in common, beyond being blood relations: The early years of their respective reigns are remarkably similar, judging by two high-profile TV series — last year’s The Crown, on Elizabeth, and the forthcoming Victoria, a “Masterpiece” series premiering Sunday on PBS.
Victoria is a lesser offering, but not without its charms, and is certainly entertaining enough. Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who) plays the young woman who, at 18 and still playing with dolls, becomes the queen of England.
Victoria is both girlish and headstrong at this point in her long tenure on the throne, but it’s the latter attribute that she will use as the raw material to build the foundation of her reign. Her real challenge will be learning to leverage her power wisely and politically.
She has more than enough people around her ready to offer her advice, if not outright control. Her mother, the duchess of Kent (Catherine H. Flemming, The Young Casanova), is both insecure and under the sway of Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys, Borgia), who sees Victoria as a stepping stone to his own power.
Also looking to exercise influence over the young queen is King Leopold I of Belgium (Alex Jennings, Churchill’s Secret), who is her uncle as well as the uncle of young German Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg and Gotha (Tom Hughes, Dancing on the Edge). Leopold would like nothing more than for Victoria and Albert to marry as a way of solidifying the dynastic hold in Europe. Victoria only recalls Albert from a childhood visit and wasn’t impressed. She’s also determined to make her own choice for a husband and isn’t about to have others make the decision for their own aggrandizement.
The one person Victoria trusts is the prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell, The Man in the High Castle), but he won’t always be prime minister and how will she fare with a new PM?
The series was written by Daisy Goodwin (The Fortune Hunter), seemingly with DVDs of Downton Abbey within easy reach, since Victoria goes out of its way to resurrect the whole Upstairs, Downstairs domestic bicameralism that Julian Fellowes employed in both the film Gosford Park and Downton. At least Goodwin is a better writer, but the appropriation rings more willfully convenient than dramatically integral in Victoria.
Many parallels in The Crown and Victoria are unavoidable. Like Philip Mountbatten in the next century, Prince Albert bristled at his secondary status as Victoria’s consort. In her way, Victoria was more forward-thinking than her great-great-granddaughter, not only challenging traditions such as who escorts her into dinner, but taking advantage of Albert’s knowledge and opinions to assist her in making important decisions.
Although “Victorian” eventually came to suggest rigor and rectitude, Victoria and Albert can’t keep their hands off each other, and given how many servants seem to be running in and out of their bedroom, it’s a wonder they find all that time for royal romping, which resulted in nine children.
Sewell, Coleman and Hughes deliver superior performances. Goodwin has crafted Sewell’s Melbourne as an exceptional character, a man of great political skill, but a man who feels an emotional void that a young monarch partially fills, for a while.
Hughes has done fine work in a number of series but has yet to gain the international status and recognition he deserves. Put another way, the dude is both a heartthrob and a terrific actor. Coleman is every bit his equal. As Victoria goes from impetuous teenager to politically aware, if not yet politically astute, Coleman seems to physically reflect her character’s growth.
Victoria, which has already been renewed for a second season, is meant to be the new Downton, and is a worthy candidate. It’s familiar ground, of course — not just because you may have already binge-watched The Crown, but because British period drama tends to recycle familiar recipes.
Well, for some, British cuisine may be an acquired taste, but if toad in the hole or bubble and squeak is your thing, you probably can’t have too much of it.
- 8 p.m. Sunday
- KERA/Channel 13