As a historian, juggling the challenge of being the consultant on a TV historical drama series where the original story often has had to be tailored to the need for dramatic effect, my bottom line is this: does it arouse the viewers’ interest in the real story? It became apparent very early on during the UK transmission of ITV’s (PBS in the U.S.) Victoria, which premiered in the U.S. in January 2017 starring Jenna Coleman, that this series, of the many historical dramas we have had and enjoyed — from The Tudors to Downton Abbey to Wolf Hall — had really struck a nerve. What was striking, however, was that it had done so, not so much with the mature and better read and an older audience, but with the young teenage viewers who were new to the story of Queen Victoria.
Daisy Goodwin‘s shrewd decision in the TV version, Victoria (of which the novel, Victoria, was later based on), to focus on the very young queen in the first three difficult and character-forming years of her reign, paid off in the incredible response of the young TV audience. Although Victoria’s story came to them 170 years later, they instantly responded to her impetuous, teenage nature; to the problems she had with her mother; to the hero worship of an older man — her prime minister Lord Melbourne. And most of all, when Albert came on the scene, they understood all the pangs of that first heart-stopping teenage love. It was fascinating to watch Twitter, Facebook and other online media during the transmission of the series and see the degree to which the audience — at all levels — were totally sucked into the story of Victoria’s close and adoring relationship with her first prime minister, whom she affectionately called Lord M. Twitter was a positive firestorm of tweets about #Vicbourne. This contraction of the names Victoria and Melbourne ruled the ether during the episodes in which the Queen’s hopeless crush and her prime minister’s very firm but gentle rebuff was depicted. Young viewers were even openly wishing that Daisy Goodwin had re-written history and allowed the wonderful Lord M (so seductively and subtly played by a brilliant Rufus Sewell) to actually marry Victoria. It wasn’t fair; history had cheated the fans.
It seemed for a while they would never get over Lord M’s disappearance from the script with the arrival of Prince Albert at the end of episode four. But the equally winning and charming Tom Hughes soon had the teenage fans swooning. Like Victoria, they were swept off their feet. By the time the season ended, having only taken Victoria’s story to the birth of her first child at the end of 1840, and with another season promised, Victorian history on TV had captured a huge, new young audience that I do not think has ever been achieved by another historical drama. Who knows how many more seasons there will be. But it is certain that the queen’s long and fascinating reign is set to enlighten a whole generation of young viewers who otherwise might not pick up a history book. And that, for me as a historian, is the true bench mark of popular history. To enlighten, entertain, ask questions and make people want to know more. The book I have written as a companion piece to the series, Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen (January 31, 2017, Harper Design), tells the true story in a way in which I hope will appeal to the legions of young readers, and people new to the story, who now want to know more.
Main image via PBS
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Helen Rappaport is a historian and internationally bestselling author of fourteen books specializing in the Victorian period in England and revolutionary Russia, including Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge and A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the British Monarchy. She is a frequent contributor to television documentaries, most recently “Queen Victoria’s Children” and “Russia’s Lost Princesses,” both for BBC Two, as well as programs about Queen Victoria’s love of the Highlands, Mary Seacole, Rasputin, and the Romanovs. She lives in West Dorset, England.