The sign at the entrance to a distinctly drab-looking regionalairport-slash-business-park reads “Leeds East Airport”. It’s an unpromising beginning for a visit to the court of Queen Victoria. As we drive between old aircraft hangars, my guide nods to an enormous dull grey structure. “That’s the one,” she says. “Buckingham Palace is in there.”
It’s certainly the least prepossessing palace I’ve ever seen, and my work as a historian of royalty and biographer of Queen Victoria has taken me into quite a few. But stepping over the threshold, into the gloomy interior where the new series of ITV’s Victoria is being filmed, is truly like stepping back in time.
Or perhaps, even more strangely, it’s like finding myself in a better, brighter version of the past. Inside are rooms that are recognisably Buckingham Palace: there’s the Gallery, the staircase, the Music Room. There are the same portraits of the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas hanging on the walls. The real Buckingham Palace, though, doesn’t contain these ladies gliding about in long satin skirts and looped hair, or stiff-necked gents in their high collars.
Everything looks slightly more beautiful than it should. I pass a rack of footmen’s coats that are almost absurdly scarlet in colour. I notice that the shafts of “sunlight” penetrating from the “windows” are more piercing, more vibrant than the real thing. The showmanship of it all gives me an insight into the smoke-and-mirrors magic of the monarchy itself.
Our appetite for stories about royalty in general, and Queen Victoria’s family in particular, shows no sign of diminishing. Whether it’s our avid consumption last year of the wedding of Victoria’s three-times-great-grandson to an American actress or the brand-new series of the ITV drama, it’s very nearly two whole centuries since Queen Victoria’s birth, yet we’re just as intrigued by her as ever
And here at “Buckingham Palace”, the cameras are rolling. In the Music Room this morning, a practitioner of the bizarre Victorian “science” of phrenology named George Combe is examining Victoria and Albert’s eldest son’s head with callipers. According to the shape of his cranium, Combe decrees, the little prince is subnormal in intelligence. “The lobes of combativeness, destructiveness and self-esteem are most prominent,” the doctor explains.
It sounds so darkly bizarre that it must be made up, yet I happen to know it isn’t. This really happened, people actually believed in phrenology, and those are the words of the real-life Combe, whose report I have read.
The atmosphere in the Music Room is icy as Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman) and Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) try to absorb this disappointing information about their son. I’m listening in on headphones when the spell is broken. “Sorry, mate,” cuts in a technician, “I was picking up Albert doing stuff, like sighs, and breathing.” The sound problem has to be sorted before the phrenologist can begin his explanation once again.
This palace has two queens. One is Jenna Coleman, the other is the writer and creator of the series, Daisy Goodwin. The latter now whisks me off for a tour of the Throne Room, with its decorative trophies of arms and armour. They’re made out of plastic kids’ swords from Poundland, sprayed with gold paint, while gilded walnuts mimic carved wood.
In the moody lighting it all looks wonderful, with what Coleman describes as a “photographic, romantic quality”. In a filming break, she and Goodwin reminisce about a research trip they made to the real Buckingham Palace, taking the tour alongside ordinary visitors. In one room they actually encountered a group of Victoria fans who talked enthusiastically about seeing the very same room on screen, but failed to recognise Coleman in everyday clothes.
The set is magical, but I question just how much of what I’ve seen is real. Over lunch, I challenge Goodwin with having romanticised not only the palace but the story itself. “We all romanticise the past,” she counters. “We can’t show it ‘as it really was’. It would be unacceptable.” She has a point. The grime, the violence, or even the sheer dullness of so much of human history might be “accurate”, but it wouldn’t make Sunday-night entertainment.
Goodwin wants her viewers to think but also to feel, to imagine for themselves what it must have been like for Victoria herself to be a powerful female in an age of patriarchy, when no one really wanted a woman on the throne. “I want people to be with Victoria,” she says, when I accuse her of airbrushing some of the queen’s less appealing features, such as her short temper, or her short-sightedness on social issues. “Victoria is not judged by the same standards as other monarchs, because ‘she’s a woman’, and part of me wants to redress that.”
Victoria’s mothering is an important theme in this third series. “She gets judged on her parent – ing skills,” Goodwin explains, “in a way that doesn’t happen with male monarchs: we don’t criticise Henry VIII for being a bad father, for example.” By this point, in the 1850s, Coleman has a lot of offspring to deal with. Seven of the nine are on set today, and I get a glimpse of what a handful they must have been in real life.
Historical research for the series has led Goodwin to dig out episodes that will speak to the sensibilities of modern audiences. Characters of colour like the Nigerian Sarah Forbes Bonetta, for example – who Victoria took under her wing, and who appeared in a Christmas special – have proved popular. The queen was perhaps less racist than many of her subjects. Her position was so elevated that she didn’t feel threatened by anyone else. “Her curiosity about people is one of her more endearing characteristics,” Goodwin says. “She didn’t judge people on class or colour.”
What appeals to Coleman, though, is her character’s pragmatism, and her sense of duty. Emerging from her trailer after lunch, she tells me she’s grown increasingly comfortable with playing Victoria. This is literally true: as the queen’s childbearing years progress, the costume department have been doing up her corset less tightly, and have chosen dresses with higher necks and more voluminous sleeves.
I’m delighted to discover that the costume designer, Rosalind Ebbutt, has put the female actors in two petticoats in episode five, but three apiece in episode six of the new series. This is because it takes place a year later, and a year closer to the advent of the steel crinoline, which will make all this petticoat-wearing unnecessary. It’s these subtle details that make the difference.
I ask Goodwin and Coleman if their work has given them an idea of what it must be like to be a real queen. Goodwin says she got an insight into royalty from growing up on film sets, in the company of her film-producer father: “I’ve been watching the stars all my life,” as she puts it.
And it does dawn on me that getting up close to the leading actors is rather like being in the presence of royalty. “Everything revolves around them,” Goodwin explains. “On set, they are the sun and the moon. They have their retinues, and their rituals. I have a sense of what it must be like to be looked at all the time, and always to be the centre of attention. The blurring of life and art has been fascinating in Victoria.” Coleman has a different perspective. “When people are on their walkie-talkies saying I’m coming through, what they’re really concerned about is that I don’t trip,” she suggests. They’re not necessarily interested in her, so long as she can continue to carry the burden of the day’s work
The shooting day when I visit is 12 hours long, and Coleman is in every scene. Getting permission for her to pose for a photograph required going through several layers of management. But I can see that she has to be protected like this, to be given a moment to think about her lines. I realise that this isn’t just a palace. I am in a court.
That sense of a closed world, where individuals constantly come up against “the rules”, or duty, or even just a hankering for a normal life, seems inherently dramatic. It runs right through Victoria, as it does through a series like The Crown or a film like The Favourite. But it also runs through the long-running soap opera that is the modern British monarchy.
Coleman tells me she particularly enjoys play – ing the scenes when the rules get broken. This series covers the 1848 revolution in France, when Victoria has to deal with rebellion in Britain, too, and the possibility of losing her position, her power, her identity as queen. It’s clearly an identity that Coleman has internalised. The stars have aligned, and we have been given three minutes for our picture. “Queenly” is the stage-direction for our pose, and I manage about three seconds before cracking up. But by my side Jenna Coleman is every stately inch of her a queen.
Victoria will return on Sunday 24th March 2019 at 9pm, with eight new episodes airing on Sunday nights.