Admit it: you’ve never put Jenna Coleman down as a Queen Victoria-type before. Well, at least not the ‘one is not amused’ queen-cum-goth Victoria posing stoically in Britain’s national consciousness for over a century.
You might need to reconsider: Coleman is the alien young and impulsive royal headlining ITV’s lavish eight-part historical drama hoping to reign long as a weekend ratings winner.
And, on paper, the first episode ‘Doll’ is irresistible to the audience that lost Downton Abbey last year: the story of the teenage Victoria in 1837, a girl thrust into a monarchy in crisis, fighting off the schemes of her uncle John (Paul Rhys) and winning the heart of the nation with her iron-will alongside advice from her closet aide, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell). The pitch is half King’s Speech, half Downton: total winner.
However, the Victoria seen in episode one makes for an unconvincing queen of Sunday night TV. Britain’s young ruler was a muddled monarch throughout the lengthy hour-and-a-half outing, pulled through the episode like the eponymous doll with plot strings solely weaved by a meddling family. Despite the show’s name, Victoria had very little impact on, well, anything.
Since love-interest Albert will only step off the ship from Germany in episode three (!), the first instalment should have been about one thing: Victoria – her motivations, her often-celebrated inner-strength, her steep learning curve into the cut-throat world of politics. Yet, when the end credits rolled she was still just a stranger wearing those radioactive blue contact lenses.
Yes, Victoria served up teaser tastes of the most powerful leader in the world and the stroppy 18-year-old that can’t handle her champagne, but there wasn’t a convincing conflict between both sides of the character. Coleman flitted between the two throughout every other scene without leaving a strong flavour of either.
Most frustratingly, it was difficult to gauge how heavy the weight of newfound power fell on Victoria, her emotions so hidden behind Coleman’s deliberately reserved portrayal – speaking at the premiere of the show, the former Doctor Who assistant said she was advised not to project her voice, that it’s “everyone around you that has to behave like you’re queen.”
Its effect was an absent acting style that put pressure, a heck of a lot of pressure, on the rest of the cast – Rufus Sewell’s Lord Melbourne most of all. And you know what? The man more than takes it. Melbourne is a joy to watch, bringing warmth, depth and complexity to a prime minister you wish could vote for yourself. I repeat: Rufus Sewell, the man who played one of screen’s most ruthless Nazis in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, is at the centre of the warm beating heart of Victoria. The man’s a national treasure.
And he’s only one of the show’s crown jewels. Victoria’s dressers and the other token “downstairs” characters, headed by Torchwood’s Eve Myles, inject a healthy dose of humour and humility in between the portentous family plotting. They’re not just comic relief, either. By the end of episode one, each have established their stories (more so than Victoria herself) that will leave you clicking on series link.
As will the overarching story itself. Writer Daisy Goodwin has done her homework (well, a university dissertation) on Victoria’s personal diaries and has plucked the most surprising episodes from the Queen’s life for the show. Episode one blows a few bombshells about Victoria’s romantic life that, unless you’re a royal correspondent, you’re not going to know.
It’s a shame the audience has to paint a portrait of Victoria using these broad plot points from her diary rather than the finer characterisation that Coleman doesn’t quite bring to the role, but the show still unpacks a colourful story leaving you wanting more.