Victoria and Albert: The Royal Wedding – BBC 1

Standard

This was so much more cheering than those miserable Christmas episodes of Coronation Street and EastEnders.  I don’t expect any better from EastEnders, but really, Corrie!  So now we know all about Prince Albert’s bowel troubles, Queen Victoria’s underwear, the problems of finding the toilets at Westminster Abbey and Lord Melbourne’s opinions on how to lose weight.  Seeing as the meat served at the wedding reception had been larded with bacon fat, it wasn’t really any wonder that advice on weight loss was required.  And I’d thought this was going to be all about white dresses!

This was a mish-mash of a programme – dressmaking and cake-making interspersed with historical discussion and singing.  And, being presented by Lucy Worsley, naturally it involved dressing up!  The historical discussion was interesting, although nothing that hadn’t been said a million times before – the Kensington Palace system, the Lady Flora Hastings affair, etc etc etc.  That wasn’t directly relevant to the wedding, but it was necessary in order to make the point that this needed to be a big PR success, to promote the popularity of the Royal Family.  Incidentally, Lucy really should have known better than to refer to the Duchess of Kent as “the Queen Mother”, which she wasn’t, and to say that the marriage was supposed to promote international peace and closer Anglo-German ties – er, no, that was the marriage of Victoria and Albert’s daughter Vicky to the Crown Prince of Prussia, a generation later!

We were informed that the initial meeting of bride and groom wasn’t a great success.  I’d always thought that this was because Albert was boring and not keen on dancing, but, according to this, Victoria thought he was too fat, and he was in a bad mood because he had diarrhoea.  A bit TMI there.  However, as we all know, the second meeting went better – although I’m not sure that I’d describe theirs as “the greatest royal love story of all time”.  I think the Queen and Prince Philip could well claim that, actually.  

Lord Melbourne was presented as the wedding planner.  Lucy insisted that he was in love with Queen Victoria.  A lot of people say that it was the other way round, and Victoria was in love with him.  Who knows?  Whatever the truth, they certainly had a very close relationship, and there was a poignant recreation of the scene in which he visited her after she’d changed into her going away outfit, and then off she went to start her new life with Albert.  It was pointed out that someone needed to make a good job of planning the wedding, because the Coronation hadn’t gone very well.  I’d heard the stories about the ring being shoved on the wrong finger and the elderly lord falling over umpteen times before, but I can’t say I knew that no-one had shown poor Victoria where the Westminster Abbey ladies’ loos were.  You learn something new every day.

Seriously, whilst it was all a bit muddled, there were some interesting points and nuggets of information in there.  It’s well-known that Queen Victoria set the fashion for wedding dresses to be white – although I don’t think the idea spread that widely across non-Anglophone countries until Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainier – but I’d never really thought that much about how much she must have stood out in pure white.  And it was genuinely lovely to hear about the importance of the commission to the British craftspeople who worked on the dress (not to mention the underwear), at a time of economic hardship.  Interesting in a different way was the tale of how they couldn’t find twelve aristocratic bridesmaids who met Prince Albert’s condition of coming from families untouched by scandal, so Albert got overruled on that one!

Not much was known about the other details, so they had to improvise.  Or guess!   But, as they said, the music would probably have been Handel, incredibly popular at the time.  Was there no order of service, giving the detail?  Evidently not!   And all that food!  Service a la francaise, which I hate!  Service a la russe is the way to go, if you’re an aristocrat – let someone serve you, rather than that incredibly annoying thing of having all the food on the table so that people keep mithering you to pass them this or that or the other.  A cake which was 9 feet in circumference, so full of sugar and fruit that the pieces never went off, and loads of smaller cakes being sent out to friends and relatives and embassies.

I thought it was rather mean to go on about Victoria putting on weight.  It presumably wasn’t a direct consequence of one meal, however lavish!  But I was intrigued by the idea of her asking Lord Melbourne for advice about it.  He apparently told her only to eat when she was hungry … and she said that she was always hungry.  I have deep sympathy with the Hanoverians over their tendency towards weight gain.  George IV apparently went through phases of not wanting to go out in case people laughed at him for being fat.  Been there, done that!  But the Queen asking the Prime Minister (or possibly the former Prime Minister, by then) for advice about weight issues?  That’s different!

And the gossip!  Who was invited to the wedding breakfast?  Who wasn’t?  Who got the best seats?  Who didn’t get on with whom?  Who’d fallen out?  Fast forward to 2018 and nothing’s really changed.  But it was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding that really popularised the idea of a Royal Wedding being a national event, or even an international event.  And it’s nice.  In many ways, it’s been, to quote Queen (Queen the group, not the Queen, obviously), “a long hard year”.  The two royal weddings, along with the World Cup, provided bright spots and a wonderful feelgood factor.  And Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding did that as well.

Advertisements

Albert: The Power Behind Victoria – Channel 5

Standard

This was very watchable, and impressively accurate by Channel 5’s standards. I don’t know why it claimed to be telling an “unknown story”, given that it didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said a zillion times before – although it’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone describe Prince Albert and Sir Robert Peel as having had a “bromance” (I love that idea!) – but it was still interesting.  What have Channel 5 got against Queen Victoria, though?  First, they showed that series which wildly exaggerated the tension between her and her children, and then, in this, they pretty much made out that she was hysterical and unstable.  Give the woman a break.   Be virtually imprisoned by your mother until you’re eighteen, and then produce seven children in nine and a half years (and another two later), and I think most people would be a little less than cool, calm and collected.

I think Queen Victoria must have been really worried about people thinking she was unstable. There are various theories about what caused George III’s problems, and I still go with the porphyria theory even though a lot of people don’t, but, at the time, it would just have been classed as “madness”.  Given the 18th and 19th century ideas about the “taint” of hereditary madness, any sort of irrational behaviour in his descendants – and Victoria was certainly temperamental, and prone to some extreme reactions – would have caused mutterings.  She’d have been so upset by this programme L .

I myself could well have done without all the comments about hysteria and instability and the suggestions that politicians preferred to deal with Albert because Victoria was “unstable”, not to mention the remarks about Victoria being entirely reliant on her husband. It sounded more like a run-through of some of the main arguments put forward against women’s suffrage than anything else.  OK, there was some element of truth in it, but it wasn’t half exaggerated – just as much of what was in Queen Victoria and her Tragic Family was exaggerated.

The stuff about Prince Albert, though, was fairly good – even if it was by no means “an untold story”. It was presented as a docu-drama, which seems to be the “in” format these days, and is more entertaining than the old-bloke-sat-behind-desk format.  I’m not sure why they had to give young Albert such a weird hat and haircut, though.  He looked more like Windy Miller from Camberwick Green than a handsome prince!  We got all the usual stuff about him initially being unpopular and seen as a scrounger, kicking out Baroness Lehzen, Osborne House, Balmoral, Christmas – as was pointed out, Albert didn’t actually introduce Christmas trees to Britain, but he probably can be credited with popularising the idea of the cosy family Christmas that we still know and love today! – and his closeness to his eldest daughter.  The presenters did seem determined to show Albert as an ideal father, in contrast to Victoria who was shown as being a rather cold mother, and jealous of Albert’s relationships with their children.  Victoria certainly wasn’t going to win any mother of the year awards, but I’m not sure that Albert would exactly have been up for father of the year either.  The Prince of Wales certainly wouldn’t have thought so.  The term “control freak” springs to mind!  But not according to Channel 5.

OK, the way they presented the personal stuff wasn’t great! Much better was what they said about Albert’s contribution to public life.  This was the great age of progress, reform, improvement … all those Victorian ideas.  Science and industry – not only the advances themselves, but the way people got on with them.  Contrast the way in which railways sprang up all over the country with today, when it takes the councils months just to fill in a pothole!   And the idea of civic duty – think Josephine Butler and her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, or  Elizabeth Fry and her campaign for prison reform, or all the girls’ schools (like the one I went to) founded in northern cities by local bigwigs, not as businesses but out of a sense of public duty.  Think the Co-operative Movement, and the friendly societies. Athenaeums.  Public libraries.  Victorians really got on with things!  All right, all right, none of those examples involved Prince Albert, but that was the sort of culture that he was involved in promoting.

Random thought. If Robert Peel hadn’t died in 1850, relatively young, might Albert’s work have been a bit less London-centric?   The programme went on about the Royal Albert Hall, the Science Museum, the V&A, etc – yes, all very nice, but all in That London.  OK, railways made it easier for people to travel to London from elsewhere in the country, but Albert doesn’t seem to’ve made too much effort to get involved with projects anywhere else.  Hmm.

On a more positive note, it was pointed out – and this was also shown in the ITV drama series Victoria – that he first made his mark, particularly impressing Sir Robert Peel, with a speech at an Anti-Slavery convention.  The history of abolitionism in Britain, the US and elsewhere is fascinating, and very important: it was probably the first big “cause”.  Incidentally, it should be remembered that Prince Albert arguably stopped Britain from being dragged into a war with the United States in 1861.  But, whilst it would have been a step too far for the Queen herself to have addressed the meeting,  it was considered quite appropriate for her husband to do so, and also for Robert Peel to be at the meeting – and this was at a time when, obviously, slavery was still legal in several places, notably the United States and Brazil.  Royals have their wings clipped now, and, to some extent, political leaders do too.  Be diplomatic.  Imagine a senior politician today making a speech like Gladstone’s “bag and baggage” one.  But Albert was able to speak out about the number one cause of the day.  And he did.

He got involved with so much else, as well – as a “support and patron”, as the programme said, but royal support and patronage does such a lot to boost any cause. And a lot of it was in really unfashionable areas.  Calling him “a champion of the working classes” was probably exaggerating, but his interest in improving public sanitation is well-known, and hardly the sort of thing people would have expected a prince to be getting involved with.  I think it was reasonably fair comment to say that he made some of these causes “mainstream” – although people like Edwin Chadwick (three cheers for the Mancunian!) and James Kay-Shuttleworth (from Rochdale) had been calling for improvements in living conditions for the working classes long before Prince Albert came along.  The programme didn’t mention them.

And the Great Exhibition was probably his greatest triumph. All the nastiness and sneering in the press, trying to knock something down before it’d even got going, saying it was going to be a waste of time and money – some things never change, do they?!    That was where the money for the museums came from.  Yes, it made a huge surplus – funny how that rarely seems to happen with big public projects these days!  Albert’s triumph.  Britain’s triumph.  The programme sadly, though, failed to mention one of the most important things about the Exhibition, that it had the world’s first modern pay toilets, for which you had to spend a penny, hence the expression.  Sorry, that’s really lowering the tone, isn’t it?!  It did mention that cheap tickets were available, so people from all classes were able to attend.  Albert’s triumph.  Britain’s triumph.

How much did Prince Albert influence the world we live in today? It’s very hard to say.  He was a part of something: he didn’t create the Victorian world.  But he certainly played a huge part in it.

And did he work himself into an early grave? We still don’t know how he died, and we probably never will.  Typhoid fever from bad drains, the original version?  Stomach cancer?  Crohn’s Disease, as suggested in this programme?  Coupled with obsessive overwork, weakening his health.  Very sad.

He was 42. His son-in-law, Emperor Frederick III of Germany, died at 56.  He had 14 years longer than Albert but, as his father lived to be 90, he only had 88 days as emperor, and he was too ill by then to do anything.  For all the good work Albert did in Britain, I think what he wanted even more was to see his daughter Vicky, who, as the programme said, was very like him, and her husband, bring about liberal reforms in Germany.  Well, Albert died ten years before German unification, but it was probably something he hoped would come.  That side of things never got a look-in in this programme.  Fair enough – the programme wasn’t meant to be about Germany.  But no-one questions the fact that Frederick was a great admirer of his father-in-law.  Had he (Frederick) lived longer, Germany would probably have developed very differently, and maybe there’d never have been a First World War, and then there’d never have been a Second World War.  Everything could have been so different.  And a lot of that would have been down to Prince Albert.

It wasn’t to be. But Albert certainly achieved a fair amount, and is well worthy of admiration and respect.  I just wish that the makers of this programme hadn’t found it necessary to knock Queen Victoria so much.  Channel 5 really does seem to have it in for her.  Thank goodness that ITV hasn’t!