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An old-fashioned misery memoir

A study of Victoria's melancholy youth puts clever women on our screens again


I once saw a picture of a Jersey Royal potato and a picture of Queen Victoria placed deliberately next to each other in a joke spot-the-difference competition. I forget where this gag appeared. I thought it might have been in Bert Fegg's Nasty Book for Boys and Girls, which Terry Jones and Michael Palin published in 1974, and which I used to read at least twice a year until I went to university, at which point I mislaid my sense of humour and preferred always to be seen carrying a copy of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. But I just checked, and it isn't. Anyway, for me, Victoria has always been a potato: a stern potato in full mourning dress, but a potato nonetheless. When Judi Dench played her in the film Mrs Brown, I thought she did a good job, but that she wasn't sufficiently potato-like for the role.

But before Victoria was a potato, she was, of course, a peach: a biddable peach, with an overdeveloped sense of duty and major hots for her cousin, but a peach all the same. Timewatch: Young Victoria (18 October, 8.10pm) told the story of how Princess Peachy came to the throne with great aplomb; and not only was it a relief not to have to endure too many badly acted reconstructions - the producers instead relied on talking eggheads and location shots - but there was a cherishable abundance of females on view.

Lately, one switches on the news and wonders where all the women have gone. Women have been written out of the credit crunch, it seems to me, which is pretty disgraceful, when you consider how many of them run their household budget. Here, however, a new and clever one came along every five minutes. I was particularly beguiled by Lucy Worsley, chief curator of historic royal palaces, who had an old-fashioned bob and rosy skin, like Anne in The Famous Five, but who made everything that Victoria did sound so very naughty. And when there wasn't a woman on view, there was dear old Roy Strong, diamond stud sparkling merrily in his ear. Delightful.

I was rather less keen on Kate Williams, the presenter, who had a distracting, pre-Raphaelite thing going on, and a tendency to use hyperbole - "her epic struggle to the throne . . . the most powerful little girl in the world . . . a bankrupt royal family redeemed . . ." - that was incredibly wearing.

But never mind. What a tale. Victoria called her childhood "melancholy", but we would call it miserable and publish it as a memoir called Please, Mummy, No. After the death of her father, the Duke of Kent, Victoria was at the mercy of her German mother, who was determined that her daughter should accede to the throne, thus making her, the duchess, rich and powerful.

Desperate to control her, she and her venal adviser, an Irishman called Sir John Conroy, devised a surveillance operation - the Kensington System - that would have put Jacqui Smith to shame: Victoria did not spend a night alone until, aged 18, she became queen and could at last ask for a bedroom of her own. Then there were her uncles, a dastardly lot. Special mention must go to the Duke of Cumberland, who would have been king of England had it not been for pesky Victoria, and who was rumoured both to have murdered his valet and to have had a son by his own sister.

Now revenge - like rice pudding - is a dish best served cold. Victoria bided her time. In the Kensington years, she learned to be patient and to be polite to people whom she disliked. Once queen, however, she despatched her mother with smooth efficiency. At her coronation, she kissed Queen Adelaide, the widow of William IV; her mother received only a handshake and soon afterwards was banished from the royal household. Ditto creepy old Conroy. All very satisfying.

Just one query, though. At the end of the film, Williams said: "If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this programme, please visit our website." Eh? If she was referring to historical issues, she should have made this plain. We are not Victorians, and such is our present emotional incontinence, that I fear there is a strong possibility some visitors will have posted messages along these lines: "My mother didn't love me, either."

Pick of the week

Little Dorrit
Starts 26 October, 8pm, BBC1
After the success of Bleak House, another Dickens adaptation.

Prescott: the Class System and MeStarts 27 October, 9pm, BBC2

The former deputy PM bigs up his working-class credentials.

Dead Set

Starts 27 October, 10pm, E4

Charlie Brooker imagines a zombie attack inside the Big Brother house.

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 first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism