Is Victoria the new Downton Abbey? Give it time

Queen Victoria is given the bodice-ripping treatment in ITV's new drama, but it's not as fluffy as Downton yet.

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And so, here we are at last, deep inside ITV’s much-trailed Victoria (Sundays, 9pm). We were, I think, promised sex, and lots of it. But because Prince Albert hasn’t yet arrived from Saxony, trailing testosterone and the faint scent of pickled cabbage, we must make do in the meantime with Lord Melbourne (played by Rufus Sewell), who is quite the most enticing British prime minister I have ever seen: cheekbones like geometry, eyes like sin, and a voice that resembles – in a good way – an emery board being drawn veeeery slowly across a woman’s thigh.

This being history, or at least a version of it, it seems unlikely that he will do the right thing and educate the young queen in the secrets of the bedchamber any time soon. But we live in hope. Blimey. How I’d love to see him setting about Victoria’s doubtless highly complicated underwear, lit only by the newfangled gaslight her bossy-pants German governess has encouraged her household to instal. No need for any matches there!

But I digress. Everyone is calling Victoria the new Downton, though it’s not much like it so far. Apart from anything else, its central female star (Jenna Coleman) can actually act, something it’s possible to notice in those rare moments when one is not completely distracted by her Kate Middleton eyebrows (how much more affecting her performance would be if she were barefaced rather than dolled up in modern make-up). Plus, she is surrounded by some pretty major theatrical talent in the form of Peter Firth (the Duke of Cumberland), Paul Rhys (Sir John Conroy) and Peter Bowles (the Duke of Wellington).

Where Maggie Smith, in the face of Downton’s increasingly dire script, eventually went the full Hinge & Bracket, this trio prefer an altogether quieter from of camp. They hiss and they mutter and they plot, but somehow they hang on to their actorly dignity. Which is more, I fear, than can be said for Nichola McAuliffe, who plays the Duchess of Cumberland, a comedy German so over the top – feel free to insert your own naughty frankfurter joke here – she might have come straight out of ’Allo ’Allo.

Victoria was written and “created” by Daisy Goodwin, and although her dialogue offends me less than Julian Fellowes’s, there is still something irritatingly wishful about the way she has organised her narrative: servants who do no hard labour; queens who have vaguely feminist impulses; prime ministers who open up about the wives who abandoned them. Moreover, the sense that one is watching a fairy tale isn’t helped by the series’ computer-generated imagery, which makes Victorian London look so very Disney, and Buckingham Palace as if it were constructed from sugar cubes and a couple of loo rolls.

Oh, I understand the impulse to rewrite Victoria’s life, all right; historians (and film-makers) have been pointing out for some time now that our shorthand for the monarch’s sensibility – lace around piano legs; utter bewilderment at the concept of lesbianism – obscures both the woman and her times. But you can go too far the other way, throwing out the deep and fascinating weirdness of her court and family life, and replacing it with a spiritedness – a regal girlishness – that owes almost everything to the 21st century, an age whose incontinent gushing and preening would appal our Victorian forebears. When Melbourne and Victoria, in separate rooms, each contemplated their own face sombrely in a mirror, absorbing the magnitude of the task ahead – an 18-year-old girl perched, like a cake decoration, atop a vast empire! – the gesture seemed to me to owe more to the selfie than to their sense of duty, their need for just a moment of (guilty) introspection.

Still, we must wait and see. Victoria’s unfathomable marriage, and her frequently horrid attitude to her children, is vastly more intriguing than all this stuff about Peel and Wellington and Melbourne (the second, special episode on bank holiday Monday, devoted largely to the crisis of the bedchamber, rather lagged, I thought – though at least we got to see Rufus with his jacket off and his shirt loose about his neck). Come series two (surely it’s inevitable), will Goodwin have the pluck to dramatise Victoria’s deep disgust with pregnancy and babies? Or is such distaste and seeming cold-heartedness too insufficiently 21st-century to pass muster with crowd-pleasing ITV commissioning editors? When – if – the queen coos and tickles her firstborn under the chin: that’s when we’ll know this really is the new Downton.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 01 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war