'Victoria was quite childlike, yet savvy and wise'
Already lamenting the impending end of summer? Let ITV's lavish new costume drama soften the blow. Kate Whiting reveals why Victoria is set to reign on the small screen.
A new season of telly is about to explode onto our screens - and the most sparkly jewel in the crown is ITV's sumptuous eight-part costume drama, Victoria. Starring Doctor Who's Jenna Coleman in her first lead role since jumping out of the Tardis, it's an instantly engaging coming-of-age tale, revealing the passionate, strong-willed teenager who became Britain's longest-reigning monarch (until the current Queen, Elizabeth II, claimed the record as of last year, of course).
Victoria, whose first name was really Alexandrina, became Queen in 1837, when her uncle, King William IV, died. Having grown up largely in isolation in Kensington Palace, sleeping in the same room as her mother and not even walking downstairs unaccompanied, her life changed overnight.
"We are going to really see her grow into the Victoria that everyone knows," says Lancashire-born Coleman, whose youthful looks (she turned 30 in April) and diminutive stature (two inches taller than the 5ft Queen) made her perfect for the part.
All good costume dramas have those moments when shivers deliciously tingle along your arms and up your spine - Mr Darcy's wade into the lake in Pride And Prejudice set the bar high in 1995 - and Victoria has them in spades: when the young Queen steps out onto the balcony at Kensington Palace to wave to her subjects for the first time; the fairytale moment when she meets the dashing Grand Duke at the coronation ball, and he kneels to kiss her hand and then sweeps her off to dance, and, later in the series, when she falls for Prince Albert.
Having been pretty much confined to one house, albeit a palace, all her life, Victoria is like a child in a sweet shop when she moves her household to Buckingham Palace - and runs girlishly from room to room, declaring: "This will do quite well!" The CGI recreation of the exterior as it would have been in the early 1800s, surrounded by greenery, is breathtaking, and the majestic interiors were built in a former RAF hangar in Yorkshire.
Chandeliers were made in the Czech Republic, furniture in Malaysia, and some 12,000 candles were burned during filming. Some 3,500 square feet of gold leaf was required too.
Filming also took place at Harewood House, Castle Howard and Raby Castle.
The dashing Rufus Sewell plays Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria's first Prime Minister, who she sees as a father figure and who becomes a trusted advisor to the monarch. They become so close, she's soon referring to him as Lord M, while the gossip-mongers call her "Mrs Melbourne".
He's equally enthralled by her impulsiveness. "I never knew anything about her relationship with Lord M," says Coleman. "They had this incredibly unique relationship, and that's a lot of what we explore in the first series. It became incredibly blurred and also obsessive."
While Lord M may be Victoria's first love, her true love is Albert, who she meets in episode four. They bond over a shared passion for music, which meant Coleman and Tom Hughes, who plays Albert, had to learn to play Beethoven. "When Victoria and Albert play together, they are able to communicate in that moment because their reticence is put to one side, and it is from that shared rhythm and vulnerability that their love can grow," says Chester-born Hughes (30). Albert wrote music for Victoria, too.
Coleman also had to learn to ride for the role, which sees Victoria "ride out" with Lord M most mornings. There are horses pulling carriages, fairytale style, and then there's "Dash" - Queen Victoria's gorgeous spaniel, who was a constant companion.
He sleeps in her bed, is there for a cuddle when she learns her uncle has died, and she even gives the beloved pooch a bath after her coronation. Dash was played by Tori, who also appeared in the 2009 film, The Young Victoria.
"If I require advice, I will ask for it," Victoria tells her mother's domineering advisor, Sir John Conroy, in the first episode, as he's trying to wangle the job of private secretary. She's just been given the keys to the kingdom and won't let anyone take them away from her.
"She was quite childlike in lots of ways, yet very wise and savvy and unbelievably strong, which is the thing that struck me most about her," says Coleman, who read Queen Victoria's diaries and sketchbook in preparation for the part. "She defied her mother, defied everybody. She was inexperienced in lots of ways, yet fiercely knew her own mind - it's extraordinary."
And it's not only upstairs where political jostling for position is rife. One of Victoria's first acts is to appoint her life-long governess, Lehzen, as head of the house, who appoints a mysterious assistant dresser, Skerrett, which annoys the Queen's senior dresser, Mrs Jenkins, played by Torchwood's Eve Myles.
"Upstairs, she's part of the furniture, her eyes and ears are always open, but downstairs she's like a firework; she's two different characters," says Welsh actress Myles (38). "She rubs people up the wrong way all the time because it's entertaining. She's a spinster and she's got her limits."
A spine-tingler all of its own, the coronation was filmed in Beverley Minster, and although it's almost a blink-and-you'll-miss-it part of the first episode, the vision of Coleman in a wobbly crown with her long ermine cloak is striking, and perfectly captures the vulnerability and power of the young Victoria.
- Victoria, ITV, tomorrow, 9pm