This weekend, by chance, brought us television biographies of the two most famous British women of the 19th century. They were very different programmes, for good reason. Queen Victoria’s Men on Monday was made for Channel 4, so of course it had to be in that channel’s long iconoclastic tradition: General Custer, a great tactician; Captain Bligh, fine navigator and leader of men; the Few, a bunch of snivelling cowards. So, of course, the woman who gave her name to the very notion of propriety, decorum and discretion — ‘a byword for sexual and emotional repression’, as the script put it — had to be nookie-crazed. Or, at least, a great enthusiast.
This is not, to be fair, a recent view, invented the other day over a three-bottle lunch in Soho. Victoria’s love of the marital bed is well recounted in her diaries and even letters. She came close to describing events on her wedding night in a letter to Lord Melbourne, her first prime minister. (Not close enough, perhaps, but the boys and girls at C4 were able to provide us with vivid images of princely fingers unlacing tight corsets…) There are serious historians who suspect she secretly married John Brown, the gillie, so that she could have her way without offending her own Victorian values.
It was a curious programme. Sometimes it seemed deeply serious, and at others went in for single entendres. They speculated that the 19-year-old queen was in love with Melbourne, who shared her love of horses: ‘I have had some delicious rides with him,’ she wrote. Ooh, missus! I hadn’t realised how political she was. Enraged at Melbourne’s forced resignation, she barred Tories from her wedding. (Now the only people banned from royal weddings are photographers who aren’t on Hello!’s books.)
The problem faced by these shows is the absence of contemporary footage. We had actors, three of them, playing Victoria herself, but long periods had to be filled with stock shots of the sun setting, or possibly rising, or the royal standard fluttering on top of a palace. And the oddest device of all was to recreate events as if filmed on old movie cameras, circa 1960. ‘This is what a family holiday would have looked like if they’d had colour home movies then…’ Now that idea does sound like the result of a three-bottle lunch, with a half of Oloroso to follow, back to the office at 4.55.
The fourth Victoria, played by Zoe Street-Howe, popped up in Florence Nightingale (BBC1, Sunday). If Channel 4 had got its hands on the lady with the lamp, it would have turned her into a slovenly slattern, who raised money for gin by selling her body to officers. This was the precise opposite. She really was as wonderful and selfless and brave and determined as we’ve always been told. She even converted the Queen to her cause, though Victoria was at first unwilling to listen to the gory details of life and death in the Crimea — possibly because she was desperate to get away for a shag. (This was not a point made in the BBC film.)
Much stress was placed on the fact that she felt her work in the Crimea had been ordained by God. Her father was sceptical. He believed in her mission, but not in its divine providence. We were encouraged to take her side. I was puzzled why this cropped up so often — until the very end, when we learnt that the show had been made by a company called ‘Faith and Values’ and sponsored by the BBC’s religious affairs unit. In other words, it was less a biography than a Sunday school parable. I felt cheated — we were being fed a religious lecture disguised as a documentary. Members of ‘the faith community’ (BBC talk for anyone with any religion at all, whether Christianity, Islam or worship of the Duke of Edinburgh) are always complaining that they barely get a look-in these days. In fact they have a service on Radio Four every day, Thought for the Day, its equivalent on Radio Two, Songs of Praise and Sunday Life. I think they do quite well. Far more people watch or listen to BBC religious programmes than go to church. And they get this dramatised homily as well.
How TV Changed Britain (Channel 4, Sunday) is a promising new series. This was about police shows, and charted how we loved our coppers when they appeared as twinkle-eyed friends (Dixon of Dock Green, The Bill), or iconoclasts on our side (The Sweeney, Morse), and disliked them when they were rough, tough and corrupt (Z-Cars, Law and Order). As a political correspondent by trade, I know that reality is never a substitute for what we see on television.