How Victoria wrote the show for us
The innermost thoughts Victoria recorded in her diaries give a rare glimpse into her nature. In a new book, Daisy Goodwin, the ITV show’s creator, and Sara Sheridan tell how they were brought to life
With their vast mountains and swirling mists, sprawling heather and long, heady summer evenings, it’s no wonder our present Queen believes the Scottish Highlands are the place for hibernating and truly being herself. ‘It’s the most beautiful place on earth. I think Granny is the most happy there,’ Princess Eugenie has said of Balmoral, the Queen’s Scottish retreat in Royal Deeside, where she and Prince Philip spend two months every year. ‘You just have room to breathe and run.’
But it was Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert who began this romantic tradition after first visiting the Highlands in 1842 and becoming so captivated they moved into Balmoral in 1848 – a property they hadn’t even seen. Thankfully it didn’t disappoint. A ‘paradise in the Highlands’ is how Queen Victoria described it in her diary on her arrival. ‘All seemed to breathe freedom and peace, and to make one forget the world and its sad turmoils.’
And no wonder – she was escaping from a very troubled England, as we’re seeing in the second series of the ITV drama Victoria. Not only had the shockwaves of the potato famine in Ireland reached the Queen, played by Jenna Coleman, as she battled with political unrest at home, but in tomorrow’s episode we also see how two attempts to assassinate the Queen led to such increased security at Buckingham Palace she began to feel trapped in a gilded cage.
One of the strange things about writing Victoria is that the real-life events are always harder to believe than anything you could imagine. Today we expect our rulers to be surrounded by a security detail, but access to Victoria was remarkably easy by today’s standards – during her reign there were seven attempts on her life.
On that occasion, on 29 May,
1842, Albert spotted a man levelling a gun at the Queen while the royal couple were on a short carriage ride from the palace to the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace. He didn’t fire but they both decided to ‘draw out’ this potential assassin the next day by taking the same route. And indeed, this time he did draw his flintlock and attempt to shoot her. The would-be assassin, 20-year- old John Francis, was apprehended by a police constable and eventually transported to Australia for his crime.
Victoria had always dreamed of visiting Scotland because she spent her childhood reading Sir Walter Scott novels and all those improbable stories of chivalry, about Rob Roy and Bonnie Prince Charlie, so it seemed to her an incredibly enchanting place. She’d also had her second baby and was suffering from postnatal depression. Albert (played by Tom Hughes) understood that entertainment was vital to keeping his young wife happy and dedicated himself to organising holidays to get her out of London. So they decided to go to Scotland and we filmed at Blair Castle – the home of the Duke of Atholl, played in our show by legendary Scottish actor Denis Lawson – where the real Victoria and Albert actually stayed. Usually, many of the extras on the set of Victoria are regulars, hired from local agencies. When it came to filming at Blair Castle, we were delighted as we were able to use the real Atholl Highlanders. These are a private Scottish ceremonial infantry regiment in the employ of the current Duke of Atholl and we used them, as they were originally, as bodyguards to the Queen during her stay. They look incredible in their kilts and tartans and add a fantastic authenticity to the episode. Blair Castle also offers the most stunning backdrops, including an entire wall of stags’ antlers like something out of the TV series Game Of Thrones. We didn’t have to do much set dressing there.
As soon as Victoria and Albert arrived, Scotland became a magical place for them where they found freedom from the etiquette and restraints of court. For the series the starting point is always Victoria’s diaries, not so much as a factual record but to get that unmistakable tone of voice – observant, emphatic, passionate. You can actually see her state of mind. Tomorrow night’s episode is based on a story found in her diary about Albert and Victoria getting lost in the Highlands after becoming detached from their party during a ride. They take refuge in a crofter’s cottage and it’s a lovely romantic episode, a chance for them to be man and wife, a normal couple. There must be something in the air in Scotland as William and Kate spent some of their most precious times at Balmoral in a cottage called Tam-na-Ghar during their breaks from
‘Scotland enabled them to recapture their romance’
St Andrews University. And Prince Charles turns to Balmoral for his most private getaways – he chose to honeymoon at the castle when he married Princess Diana, and again when he wed the Duchess of Cornwall.
In this way, Scotland played an important part for Victoria and Albert too, as it enabled them to recapture their romance. And this was a vital part of their relationship as we know they fought fiercely, with stand-up rows that raged all over the palace, then they made up with equal passion. This was a pair who couldn’t keep their hands off each other, as their nine children in 17 years testifies. Albert even came up with a special gadget which meant he could lock their door without getting out of bed, which was handy with a palace full of servants and children. The young couple treasured their privacy and Albert objected to the intrusions in the royal bedchamber by his wife’s childhood governess, Baroness Lehzen, and other staff.
In Scotland, they read to each other and generally enjoyed the round of formal dinners and Scottish country dancing and spending much-needed time alone. The Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch (who was Victoria’s Mistress of the Robes), who entertained the royal couple in Scotland, became firm friends. In the series Charlotte, the Duchess, is portrayed by actress Dame Diana Rigg as a much older, curmudgeonly character, However, Victoria and the real Charlotte were contemporaries and there is no suggestion that the Duchess was anything other than lighthearted and supportive in her relationship with the Queen. Diana agrees.
‘My Duchess is fictional. Buccleuch is stuck in her ways – very proper, conscious of protocol and standards.’
It was on this trip that Victoria first tried ‘brose’, or whisky and honey mixed together, which may have sparked her lifelong love of whisky.
While much of the country was starving, Victoria had a hearty appetite and relished mealtimes, becoming upset if there wasn’t a sufficient spread. She even once complained in her diary that it was a ‘miserable day – no pudding’.
Albert, on the other hand, ate solely for fuel and did not relish the lavish spreads prepared by the palace’s 45 kitchen staff and refused to dally ‘with the chaps’ over port once the ladies had retired at the end of the meal. But Victoria loved to drink and had a particular fondness for wine and whisky.
In her childhood, Victoria’s food had been rationed and the young Queen cut a slim figure, but when she took over her own household that swiftly changed and she steadily put on weight. She also ate very quickly, cramming food into her mouth. It was said Victoria could polish off seven or eight courses in as little as half an hour. One French visitor watched open-mouthed as she demolished three large platefuls of soup.
While production designer Michael Howells’s team make sure that every prop on set looks perfect, nothing requires more attention to detail than the food for Victoria’s special occasions. And one thing’s for sure: not everything is at it seems. The platters of oysters served at the lavish ball in episode three were made out of lychees. ‘We need to accommodate actors’ allergies and food preferences,’ Michael explains. His team also worked with taxidermists to create the glorious display of poultry dishes which included peacocks, swans and geese. There are also modern-day laws to consider – it’s now illegal to eat the tiny birds served by the King of France when Victoria and Albert visited him in 1843, so Howells’s team had 200 tiny marzipan birds created for episode five, each one painted individually by hand.
The trip to Scotland restored the
Queen, who came back to Buckingham Palace to shoulder her duties as Queen, wife and mother once more. By the end of series two, Victoria has three children so the team has a set of prosthetic bumps to cover all stages of pregnancy. In reality she had five children by then but we didn’t want it to be a case of Call The Midwife so we kept it under control! This series features several children of different ages. The baby who played Princess Victoria at six months old is actually Jenna Cole-
man’s goddaughter, but many of the children chosen are twins, so that if one child is finding a scene difficult, the other can step in. For the royal nursery scenes, youngsters who look like Victoria’s own sketches of her children are usually chosen, much to the children’s delight when they spot themselves in pictures around the set!
When shooting crowd scenes, it’s common for up to 80 supporting artists to be required on set or location. Anything larger and the CGI team are
brought in to create the illusion of more people. Individual extras are shot from different angles against a green screen and then ‘dropped’ into the background, their image altered slightly in each incarnation.
Special effects in historical dramas are about re-creating history. As visual effects producer Louise Hastings explains, ‘The effects need to be invisible to transport the audience back to the Victorian era.’ It all has to look authentic. For sweeping scenes of old London, for example, the CGI team used maps and old paintings for reference, then added in horses, carriages and chimney smoke, as well as crowds, to re-create the capital as it was then.
The results can be cunningly deceptive. The scenes in France for episode five were actually shot in Hartlepool where a ‘French quay’ was set up with an old paddle boat representing the royal yacht, Victoria And Albert. In real life it wasn’t seaworthy!
The period covered in the second series – 1841 to 1846 – is particularly significant because it marks the end of Victoria’s childhood. By the final episode she’s lost her beloved Lord Melbourne, her adored dog Dash and her relationship with her close confidante Baroness Lehzen is increasingly under threat.
Together, Victoria and Alber t had begun to change the public persona of British royalty. Generations of their predecessors had been mired in infidelity and scandal, so as a royal couple they were almost unique in their loyalty to each other.
It’s unlikely any other constitutional monarch has had as much influence on the lives of her people as Victoria did. Many of Victoria and Albert’s traditions are still in use too, from Albert’s innovation of the engagement ring to the Christmas tree. Overall, the monarchy today, with its emphasis on ordinary family life, philanthropy, duty and stability – with a good dose of ceremony thrown in – owes a great deal to the model she created.
It was a fascinating period of history, so no wonder a third series is being written right now.
Adapted by Lisa Sewards from Victoria & Albert: A Royal Love Affair, by Daisy Goodwin and Sara Sheridan, published by HarperCollins, price £20. To order a copy for £16, p&p free, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. Offer valid until 21 October 2017. Victoria, tomorrow, 9pm, ITV.
‘Victoria had a fondness for wine and whisky’
Victoria (Jenna Coleman) and Albert (Tom Hughes) on a visit to France and (inset) the Queen enjoying new-found freedom in Scotland