Back for a second series after last year’s eight-episode run took audiences from accession to the birth of an heir, Jenna Coleman’s young and opinionated Queen Victoria is faced with more political shenanigans, servants who just can’t keep their personal lives on the straight and narrow, and the enduring question of exactly what Prince Albert uses to make his quiff so mesmerising. There is a certain recipe to successful Sunday night historical drama – elaborate sets, eye-catching costumes, high production values, tasteful but totally salacious antics, inexplicably good-looking lead actors alongside a handful of older establishment supporting stars, a completely interchangeable array of minor characters – and Victoria has pretty much nailed it.
The sumptuous sets and luminous cinematography are more prominent than ever, so one suspects that the budget, too, is bigger than ever: this first episode alone had the plush candlelit fabrics of new and returning parts of the palace contrasting with the green freedoms of the forest and the magnitude of a regimental display. While it subtly probes at Victoria’s early experiences of motherhood, the plot of this opener mainly revolves around the retreat of Victoria’s army at the Khyber Pass, and specifically the attempts of those around her (ahem, Albert) to keep from her the travails of mid-nineteenth century military tactics, which, of course, incurs her wrath.
As for that secondary cast, they’ve only gone and added Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg). Her role, as far as one can tell, is just to to deliver cut-downs in what is clearly a cross between the Game of Thrones’ Queen of Thorns and Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey. Most modern Victorian pieces tend to insist on making Lord Melbourne (a swarthy Rufus Sewell) a forbidden love interest (he was actually forty years older than Victoria) but there’s no sign of him yet this series. Lavishly waist-coated agony aunt and sparring partner Prince Ernest (David Oakes) is already back, which means it’s only a matter of time before some extramarital giggles go down. Elsewhere, the Duke of Wellington (Peter Bowles) is still knocking about, as is the fantastically-titled King of the Belgians, Leopold (Alex Jennings). Though it would be cool if they could all stop embarrassingly discussing Victoria and Albert’s sex life right in front of them (“I am the queen, not a brood mare,” remarks Victoria, who is going to be super pissed when she finds out she’ll be having nine children).
Almost all of the characters in Victoria are based on historical figures, with a healthy dose of creative embellishment (except for Victoria’s boringly spiteful mother and, increasingly, Baroness Lehzen, who should be given some kind of plot or written out just to save time), but downstairs, they’ve had free rein to fill the kitchens with whatever riff-raff they like – which makes the rather limp character offerings a bit unsatisfactory. Eve Myles’ Mrs Jenkins is gone, while the subplot between Miss Skerrett (Nell Hudson) and Mr Francatelli (Ferdinand Kingsley) has been revived, though not exactly reignited, since it had about half a gram of chemistry in the first place. The servants’ quarter sequences are introduced more seamlessly this time, but the characters just aren’t memorable.
For all the trivialities and side characters it tries to throw in, everyone – the audience, the writers, the directors, the people who light Tom Hughes’ hair – knows that Victoria is at its core a love story. It would be about as appealing to period drama audiences as a rain-soaked Junior B semi-final without the sturdy anchoring of a well-acted romance. Coleman is caught up in a predetermined character arc but Hughes returns as an awkward, occasionally prickly and yet exceedingly endearing Prince Albert. Sideburns are not sexy, and the makers of Victoria know this, so they have to come up with other ways of convincing the audience that the inevitable season-premiere-bang is worth waiting an hour for. The stand-out moments of this episode are not merely in its final reconciliation, but in some of its tempestuous build up, too. An opener which sets up a prospective series focused on teasing out the most luxurious elements of that Sunday night historical drama recipe, it’s sure to please fans.