Did you know that Queen Victoria might never have married Prince Albert had it not been for an amazing stroke of luck on a woodland walk in Windsor Great Park, involving the queen’s beloved spaniel Dash.
Dash, as good fortune would have it, managed to break his leg on a handy knife that someone had left lying around. And the hitherto remote and stuffy German princeling, carelessly ripping yet another of his shirts (the second in about a week) to create a makeshift bandage, splinted Dash’s leg with such tender care that flighty Emma knew at once that cold, disapproving Mr Knightley was the man for her.
And that, I’m afraid, is why I’m not going to be watching another minute of this silly, facile, irresponsible series. Yes, of course I see why Victoria (ITV, Sunday) continues to do so well in the ratings, pulling in a very respectable 5.2 million viewers. Jenna Coleman looks gorgeous (more so than the dumpy Victoria ever did); Rufus Sewell smoulders so tastefully as Lord M he makes Cap’n Poldark look like a dirty old tramp; and, lawks a mercy, what characters they all are below stairs. But the problem is, it’s all made up bollocks, isn’t it?
Making stuff up seems perfectly reasonable when it’s fiction: Poldark can do whatever he likes within the vague realm of plausibility, because he never existed. But when you’re dealing with the life of an historical character, especially one as relatively recent and well documented as Queen Victoria, I think you owe it to your audience to cleave as close as you reasonably can to the known biographical facts.
Rats, for example. There was almost certainly never a moment in young Queen Victoria’s life when she was frightened into hysteria by vermin suddenly materialising on a giant cake, thus causing onlookers to speculate that she might have inherited the Madness of George III. Nor, I don’t think, was there an occasion where her favourite maidservant stole jewellery in order to satisfy the needs of an audience which still hasn’t quite got over the demise of Downton Abbey.
There are a lot of viewers, I’m sure, who appreciate this fluffy escapism and who would not enjoy Lord Melbourne nearly so much if he were shown as he really was — a portly gent in his late fifties, 40 years Victoria’s senior; very much a father figure — rather than, as Sewell portrays him, twinkling with but barely sublimated desire.
But was it really necessary for Daisy Goodwin’s sexed-up version to push things quite so far — even to the point of introducing a truly cringeworthy scene where Lord M watches his protégée flirting with Prince Albert and his mouth twitches at the corners to show us how bereft he feels? Taking the odd liberty is one thing but doing so with such brazen shamelessness feels to me like one giant upraised middle finger to all those of us — we’re a minority but we do exist — who value history and who want to be informed at least as much as we want to be entertained.
As it is, with Victoria you never know quite what to believe. Prince Albert, for example: was he really the earnest proto- Social Justice Warrior he’s portrayed as here, anxious to make his future partner care about the plight of the poor just as much as he does? Or is this just another invention — like Victoria’s sympathy for the Chartists last week — designed to make the main characters feel more accessible and modern and relevant?
I blame the ongoing feminisation of our culture. This may be grossly unfair on all those women out there — the Fawn, for example — who find this MillsandBoonification of history just as irritating as I do. But I suspect it’s probably true that boys, being of a more trainspotterish disposition, more jealous of their facts and their period detail, are more likely to be resistant to Victoria’s ersatz charms than girls.
What with Poldark on one side and Victoria on the other, maybe we chaps just aren’t needed in front of the TV on Sunday nights any more. Maybe that’s why — as we learned from that fascinating Spectator article last week — so many married men use their Sundays to go cavorting with rent boys instead.