Throaty giggles flow from Daisy Goodwin as she points at a magnificent portrait of a well-endowed Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn and father of Queen Victoria. “Sorry,” she says, “it’s not just the trouser bulge. He’s posing with a cannon. He’s keen to show his, erm, potency.” We’re on the set of Victoria, ITV’s eight-part drama about the British monarch, and writer and executive producer Goodwin is in chatelaine mode. “We use this for ceremonial events,” she says, sweeping through a gallery hot with candle-light and gilded to within an inch of its life.
The production is lavish; a full-size replica of Victoria’s state and private apartments in Buckingham Palace has been erected on an airfield in Yorkshire, and, by the looks of things, this queen was not of the Tupperware persuasion. “Actually,” says Goodwin, “what you see here had a lot to do with George IV’s taste. Buckingham Palace had been in the royal family since the 18th century, but George IV, the biggest, blingiest monarch of all time, was the one who really went for it.”
There’s not much Goodwin doesn’t know about her subject. She’s the dynamo producer behind shows such as Home Front, Grand Designs and How Clean Is Your House? and presenter of a clutch of poetry-related programmes, but history is her first love. She wrote a dissertation at Cambridge University on Victoria’s relationship with the media and is the author of bestsellers set in the 19th century. Her screenwriting debut covers the early years of Victoria’s reign.
Daisy Goodwin at a Victoria press event
“I’ve been thinking about this project pretty much since I was a student. History is basically storytelling, and the monarchy is an integral part of the story we tell ourselves as a nation – we project ourselves onto the royals. And Victoria is just such a fantastic subject. I think most people think of her as Judi Dench – this old, stern widow – but her early life is astonishing. It’s very nice to spend some time with this young, effervescent, enthusiastic girl before she morphs into the Mother of Empire.
“When Victoria comes to the throne, she’s just 18 and people are so relieved to have this lovely girl after all these ghastly, corpulent Hanoverian men with their mistresses and their scandals. But you have to remember that Victoria was the first queen in living memory. ‘God Save the Queen’ would have felt as odd to people then as ‘God Save the King’ will feel when our own queen dies. And, as we know, any time a woman does anything controversial, she’s called irrational or hysterical. George III had gone mad, so there was a lot of debate, every time Victoria did something people didn’t like, about whether she’d got ‘the hereditary taint’. Either way, it felt like a new world, a new regime, new everything.”
A scatter of dolls in the Queen’s bedroom brings home Goodwin’s point (“Victoria was a lonely child; these dolls were imaginary friends”), as does the diminutive throne in the audience chamber. “One thing that helped me get into her character is that she was so small – 4ft 11, tiny, even for those days. She had to have a special throne made. Just imagine what it was like to be this tiny teenager surrounded by a forest of old men telling her what to do. I have a teenage daughter, a bit younger than Victoria but also small. I had this vision of what it would be like if the nation was being ruled by my daughter – all those hormones in that tiny package! – and from that point, Victoria sprang into my head.”
Victoria and Albert
As if on cue, the young queen, played by the exquisitely dainty Jenna Coleman paces out a scene on the arm of Tom Hughes (an implausibly handsome Albert). Coleman, 30, who bowed out as Clara in Doctor Who last year, turns in a nuanced performance that flickers with humour and blazes into royal indignity when her will is crossed. “One of the things I love about Victoria is
how open, impulsive and vivid she is,” says Coleman. “She’s
so un-precious and
so funny. But if she hadn’t had this will of iron, there’s a possibility that she wouldn’t have been queen.”
Reading Victoria’s exceptionally detailed diaries was, says Coleman, a fantastic resource. Preparing for the coronation scene, the actress was able to access an hour-by-hour account of the day, “Even though she’s the centre of this massive event, she’s always attentive to what’s going on around her. On the morning of her coronation, she was awake at 4am, listening to the voices outside the palace. She talks a lot about the people and how proud she felt to be queen of such a nation. That inner strength and pride are what I’ve been trying to get at.”
If Victoria catches on (Goodwin is raring to go on a sequel), this could be a long-term commitment for Coleman. “I’ve only gone into the diaries up to where we are in the story now,” she says, diplomatically. “It keeps things fresher.” Even so, she’s already emotionally and physically immersed: “It’s helped so much having this amazing permanent set – not just the scale of it, but the fact that you can go, in one shot, between the grand public rooms and Victoria and Albert’s private quarters, where there is all this personal stuff – her water-colours, his books. It feels like our home.”
Jenna Coleman as Victoria
Not all the decoration on set is as authentic as it appears. Neo-classical wall decorations bristling with swords and shields feature gold-painted toy armour from a Pound Shop, while a rococo revival frieze was manufactured from beach-scavenged scallop shells.
“Our production designer, Michael Howells, is a genius,” says Goodwin. “He brought in students from a local art school and taught them how to do proper gilding, so we’ve had all these Yorkshire teenagers gilding shells to make Buckingham Palace!”
One detail faithfully observed is the mechanism devised by Albert to lock the bedroom door with a button next to the bed. “That way they could ensure their privacy from courtiers and children, without having to get out of bed and break the moment,” says Goodwin. “They were a very sexy couple. One of the most hilarious entries in Victoria’s diaries, which, amazingly, got past her youngest daughter who censored her journals, is a passage where Victoria says something like ‘Seeing Albert in his skin-tight britches – it’s magnificent! And he’s got nothing on underneath!’ Then, after the birth of her ninth child – I think she had a prolapsed uterus – the doctor says, ‘Really, ma’am, I don’t think you should have any more children.’ And she says, ‘Ooh doctor, no more fun in bed?’
Coleman and Hughes as Victoria and Albert
“In a way, Victoria is the first woman to ‘have it all’ – husband, nine children and she’s the most important woman in the world, so there’s more here for a modern audience than you might think. How does she keep Albert happy while he’s always one step behind? He’s one of the cleverest men of his time but, initially, very unpopular because he’s German and people don’t think he’s grand enough – it’s almost like the Queen’s marrying a Kardashian.
“It was quite handy Victoria was pregnant all the time; it meant there were periods when Albert could take the reins, but there was a lot of arguing. They had big, stand-up rows and she would throw glasses of wine over him. She really wanted to give him his place as her husband, but she was not a ‘surrendered wife’ by any means.”
For all Victoria’s devotion to Albert, he was not her first love. Victoria spells out explicitly the often-fudged nature of her relationship with her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (played, with devastating charm, by Rufus Sewell).
Victoria and Lord Melbourne
“Melbourne is a worldly, funny, elegant aristocrat in his 50s with a tragic, romantic past. Victoria was besotted,” says Goodwin. “Diarists said at the time, ‘The Queen is clearly in love with her Prime Minister and her feelings for him are sexual, although she doesn’t know it yet.’ There was as much scandal and rumour then as there would be now, and I’ve fed all that into the story. I’ve tried to look at events through the prism of what people felt at the time, as if they’d been reading the Daily Mail.”
With her gift for “seeing past the tiara to the person”, would Goodwin fancy a crack at dramatising our own royal family? “Ooh. The most interesting thing would be writing about Carole Middleton – the coal miner’s daughter who becomes mother of the future queen? It’s a great story and makes us think there’s social mobility somewhere in this country.”
For now she has her own scene to play, a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo as the gloriously named Lady Cecilia Buggins. It’s time, she groans, to get into her corset. “We’re so lucky to be women today. It’s very easy to watch period drama and think, ‘Oh, I’d like a bonnet.’ Then you spend ten minutes in a corset and think, ‘Actually, I’ll take the Spanx any day.’”