Simon Hoggart

Top women

Queen Victoria's Men (Channel 4); Florence Nightingale (BBC1); How TV Changed Britain (Channel 4)

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.)

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