torsdag 19 april 2018

Victoria series two: I can readily believe it's not Downton

I don't know why I'm quite so dissatisfied with the second series of Victoria as I am, given that it's one of the few programmes that openly try to emulate Downton Abbey. Otherwise, even TV dramas clearly pitched at the Downton audience like The Halcyon tend to have a slightly sniffy attitude towards the show that put the costume drama genre back in fashion. It's as if they wanted to say: "Oh yes, I suppose we're a bit like Downton... only much better". Which makes it all the worse when they fail to measure up.

Now Victoria, on the other hand, wears its debt to Downton proudly on its sleeve. Downstairs storylines? Let's have that. Sensible housekeeper figure under pressure? By all means. Decent maid with a romantic interest in one of the other servants? Check. Cynical manservant? There he is. Dowager Countess quips? Let's age up one of Victoria's ladies a bit and make her a formidable battle-axe. And wait, didn't that gay storyline go down a treat? Let's try that too.

So I suppose I should be more grateful to Victoria for trying to find that magic Downton formula. The problem is, so far - after having seen six episodes out of eight in the second series - I really don't think they're making a very good job of it. The downstairs characters in Victoria are sketchy, and it's hard to care for any of them. I'm assuming that with a few exceptions, like Lehzen, these are made-up characters who have been tacked on to the main historic storyline in order to make it more Downton-y. But here's the thing: Downton took time over and invested in its downstairs characters. Thomas's unhappy crush on Jimmy was such a strong storyline because it mattered. He got his heart broken. It would still have been touching if he'd been pining for a girl, but the gay aspect made his situation all the more hopeless and thus added poignancy (and an element of danger: that idiot Alfred almost had him nicked). Having two fetching but personality-free guys look deep into each others' eyes every time they meet is not the same thing at all. And remember the Bateses? Bates was by far my least favourite main Downton character and annoying to the last degree with his villain-baiting, but his love story with Anna (Joanne Froggatt melted even my Bates-sceptic heart in their scenes together) felt like the real thing, unlike the lacklustre on-off almost-romance between Miss/Mrs Skerrett and Mr Francatelli in Victoria. The only "I can't believe it's not Downton" part of the plot that works OK in Victoria is the Dowager Countess surrogate the Duchess of Buccleugh as played by Diana Rigg. She is fun.

What of the main focus of the series, then, the private life - and occasionally the public duties - of Queen Victoria herself? The good news is that the series does take some time to flesh out the characters of Victoria and Albert. The bad news is, as with The Crown, this isn't exactly the most thrilling of reigns. Jenna Coleman is great as Victoria, and Tom Hughes does his best (and certainly looks the part) as handsome, humourless Albert. However, this can't disguise the fact that very little of interest happens. Also, the series plays fast and loose with history to such a degree that every time something does happen which seems a little extraordinary, my - perhaps unfair - reaction was "Oh, I'm sure they made that up". I'm not usually that strict when it comes to the historic veracity of costume dramas, seeing as I realise what a chore it is to read up on a subject. When the main character is an important historic personage like Victoria, though, it does become a drawback when you don't trust any part of the plot to be true.

The first series was so much taken up with the unfolding love story between Victoria and Albert that I didn't mind the plotlessness so much, although even back then I failed to become engaged in the downstairs storylines. By now, however, it bothers me. It's not as if the political questions the series touches on are handled with any great subtlety. For a royal not known for her strong involvement in government concerns, Queen Victoria does a lot of slapping down of foolish politicans in a way that seems fashioned to appeal to 21th-century viewers. The latest episode I watched, about the Irish Potato Famine, should have been affecting but was hampered by its many clichés. When a saintly clergyman, who wants to help the peasantry (unlike the monstrous English lord who rules the neighbourhood), visits a home where the mother has died of starvation, you can - true enough - hear coughing and a baby crying in the background, as in nine out of ten "privileged well-meaning person is faced with the harsh reality of the poor" scenes. In the end, the haunting Irish song about emigration which was played at the end was more moving than anything that had gone before it.

This is a well-acted, sumptuously produced series, but to be honest, I can't help finding it a bit... boring. What's more, I'm not sure I'm that much better acquainted with the personality of Queen Victoria now than I was before. I do like Robert Peel, though.