There’s just something about Dame Diana Rigg. With just a nod of her head or a single word she can steal a scene and make a show.
That’s precisely what she does with a classy curtsy when she makes her Victoria series two debut, imbuing the tale with that essence of period drama perfection that can only be achieved by the presence of such a well-respected star of the British screen.
Rigg joins Daisy Goodwin’s tale of Britain’s diminutive 19th century monarch in the first episode of series two, which picks up about a month after series one left off. Jenna Coleman’s Victoria is struggling to cope with her confinement following the birth of her first child, and the young mother is increasingly frustrated by husband Albert’s (Tom Hughes) attempts to keep word of military troubles in Afghanistan to himself for fear of causing her distress.
Four thousand of Victoria’s troops are about to embark on an ill-fated retreat through the Khyber Pass in winter, and new Prime Minister Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay) thinks it best that what happens on tour stays on tour – or at least remains a secret between himself and his new bromantic life-partner, Albert.
Victoria spends much of her first hour back on our TV feeling frustrated with the men who would keep her cosseted, and Coleman channels her fury with delightfully dry wit. One scene sees her struggling to understand why she needs to be ‘churched’ before she can show her face in public, and enduring the ordeal with utterly relatable disdain.
She says what many 21st century women will surely be thinking and it’s as though she’s raising a perfectly sculpted 19th century eyebrow alongside us.
For Victoria is, in her own words, “a soldier’s daughter”, and ready to step up the plate if her country needs her. And woe betide Uncle Leopold (the excellent Alex Jennings, whose King of the Belgians sidles in with a wink and a nudge), her meddling mama, or anyone else who suggests she might prioritise the procreation of a Prince of Wales over affairs of State.
Indeed one of her only allies appears to be brother-in-law Ernest (David Oakes), who swings in to offer Albert some advice about respecting his missus while simultaneously nursing his own broken heart.
The young queen’s struggles to fall in love with motherhood and her first baby are handled with care in the series opener. Goodwin depicts Victoria’s concerns about her lack of instant love for her child and her struggle to balance motherhood and monarchy, steering clear of the baby-hating narrative many associate with HRH.
“I think there is a misconception that she wasn’t very tender and motherly towards [her children]” says Coleman. “It was just that being pregnant was a great, great misery for her, and frankly deeply resented.”
Especially when her maternity cover, Albert, is riling her up by working closely with Sir Robert Peel. Her husband’s mini power grab is the source of high drama and inspires some fantastic domestic spats between Coleman and Hughes.
There’s an especially delightful series of exchanges about his errr, ‘helmets’, that’s positively oozing with glorious Great British Bake Off-style innuendo.
While the coupled-up cousins are at war upstairs, life moves on in the servants quarters. A new regime is causing ructions while an old friend is called upon to return to the palace in a series of storylines which now seem to flow seamlessly alongside Victoria and Albert’s saga.
In series one a jaunt below stairs would sometimes jar, but this time around Goodwin has the recipe just right. If only Victoria’s new chef could do the same.
His failings do set Dame Diana Rigg up for some of her finest one-liners, though. And it’s her delightful Downton Abbey Dowager Countess-style dialogue that cuts through the personal and political tension to strike a superb balance of light and shade with some belly-aching belters.
What is a weekend… if not the perfect time to indulge in a period drama? Victoria series two is shaping up to be the perfect companion with which to spend those rapidly shortening Sunday nights.
And with Rufus Sewell’s Lord Melbourne due to return later in the series, we’re sure we’ll carry on camping out on the sofa for many a weekend evening to come.
Victoria returns to ITV on Sunday August 27 th at 9:05pm