Victoria’s Palace – ITV 1

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Queen Victoria could eat a nine-course meal in half an hour. That’s pretty impressive. Prince Albert insisted that all leftovers from the Buckingham Palace kitchens had to be given to the poor. That’s even more impressive. Hopefully, none of this was until after the Palace kitchens had been tarted up to stop them getting flooded with sewage from the River Tyburn.  Parts of this programme felt like a genuine historical documentary, about the transformation of Buckingham Palace into both a centre of state occasions and formal entertainment and a working family home, and about Queen Victoria’s life in general.  Other parts of it made me wonder if I’d accidentally switched over to either a cookery programme or the ITV drama “Victoria” (how many clips from that did they show?!).  But it was all very watchable.  Hey, talking about food is always interesting!  And the presenters were very understanding about Queen Victoria’s struggles following the death of Prince Albert.

It started off covering what it said on the tin – the history of the Palace during the reign of Queen Victoria. We heard about how unhappy Queen Victoria was during her childhood at Kensington Palace, and how Buckingham Palace seemed like a glorious escape from all that. Then about how she and Prince Albert thought that Buckingham Palace was too small for their family (at a time when similar-sized families were all living in one or two rooms!!) and wanted a new wing built, but, to avoid putting too much of a strain on public finances, Brighton Pavilion was sold to fund the building work.

I’m not actually convinced that that’s right: I thought the money from the sale of the Pavilion was spent on the purchase of Osborne House. It was interesting to hear about how much stuff was brought from Brighton to Buckingham Palace, though, notably for the new Chinese drawing room, and even more interesting to hear about how this very lavish room was used on a day-to-day basis by the royals. You see these very ornate rooms in stately homes and wonder what it was like actually to live in them, especially with young kids, but I suppose it’s just what people are used to.

We also heard about the construction of the famous balcony, and saw a picture of Victoria, Albert and a load of others standing on it to welcome troops back from the Crimean War. I’m not sure whose idea the balcony was, but it was a stroke of genius! It’s been such a focal point on so many occasions, from royal weddings to VE Day. And it’s something that only the Royal Family can do. Would hordes of people turn up to see politicians stood on a balcony? I don’t think so.

However, after that, we were told that “food became the centre of Victoria’s life”, and the programme then wandered off into Mary Berry territory.  It was fascinating to hear about the conditions in the kitchens, and about just how much food was consumed.  It was nice actually getting to see the present-day Palace kitchens – although they were rather dull-looking, all stainless steel surfaces! – and it was even interesting to hear about how the old Palace kitchens, before Victoria and Albert’s renovations, regularly got flooded with sewage!  But I’m not sure that we really needed to see people making roast quails, or sitting at tables laden with food.  I wonder what ITV did with all the food afterwards!  I’m not sure that I really needed to know that eating so much rich food gave people flatulence, either, but never mind.

But then it was back to the more serious stuff, and we heard about Prince Albert tackling the inefficiency and corruption within the Royal Household, and his and Queen Victoria’s joint involvement in putting pictures from the Royal Collection on display and creating the Palace ballroom.  In a relatively short space of time, they really did do a very impressive job of turning a palace that hadn’t even been completed when Victoria first moved in, and that’d undergone a lot more work since then, into … well, one of the most important buildings in the world, a centre of politics and culture, the focal point of the nation.

As with the recent BBC 1 programme about the role of music in the lives of Victoria and Albert, the programme did a good job of showing just how completely everything changed when Prince Albert died.  I can’t believe they trotted out the idea that Prince Albert died because of the trauma of finding out about the Prince of Wales and Nellie Clifden, though.  OK, it didn’t help, but they didn’t half overplay its significance.  But they dealt very sensitively with the sadness of Victoria losing both her mother and her husband in the same year, and then withdrawing from public life … and, not unreasonably, they credited Disraeli with coaxing her back into it. Victoria does come in for a lot of criticism over what was seen as dereliction of duty, and it was touching to hear the programme explain that, in addition to her grief, she’d lost her self-confidence. It’s very hard to mix with anyone when you feel like that, never mind be the head of an empire.

Happier times lay ahead, with the opening up of the Palace for royal garden parties, and then the Golden Jubilee and Diamond Jubilee festivities, with Buckingham Palace and the Mall as the focal point for them.  The programme did have rather a feeling of one of those A-level history essays where you get off the point and then hastily shove in a reference to the actual essay question, with references to the Palace being shoehorned into talk about Queen Victoria’s life – I’m not sure that which room she met Disraeli in was really that relevant to anything! – but it did undoubtedly get across the point that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert transformed a palace which had only been owned by the Royal Family since 1761, and hadn’t really been used much until 1837, into one of the most important and best-known buildings in the world.

I recently went to see an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace and, even though it was early in the morning, and the Queen wasn’t even in residence, there were just hordes of people, from all over the world, standing outside, looking at the Palace, and taking photos.  The Gallery only opened in 1962, incidentally, and the main Palace only assumed its current appearance after building work in 1913.  It’s not all about Victoria and Albert!  But they were the ones who made it into a symbol of the nation and the monarchy, and, whilst this wasn’t the greatest historical documentary I’ve ever seen, it did explain that.

That’s two programmes I’ve seen about Queen Victoria within a few days.  Given how many programmes are being shown this month to mark the bicentennial of her birth, there will be lots more to come!

 

 

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Queen Victoria: My Musical Britain – BBC 1

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This was an unexpected treat. Really entertaining!  I love the idea of Queen Victoria helping to popularise the “wicked waltz”, being serenaded by Prince Albert with songs he’d written himself, holding “impromptu jamming sessions” with Mendelssohn and being so obsessed with Jenny Lind (of Barnum fame) that she cut short a formal dinner with the Prime Minister to go and see her. Not to mention having her favourite celeb singers at her 16th birthday party – how cool is that? We even got brass bands and the Halle Orchestra – hooray!!  And the music halls. I think Lucy Worsley was pushing it a bit by saying that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s romance was responsible for a century of British music; but, in this year which marks the bicentennial of their births, this was an interesting and original take on their lives and influence.

I was half-expecting Lucy to dress up as an opera singer and prance about on stage, but she actually managed to act like a serious historian for once. OK, she changed into a black dress when talking about Queen Victoria’s later years, but it wasn’t a particularly Victorian black dress! It’s usually Suzy Klein who presents the BBC’s musical history programmes, and I hadn’t realised that Lucy was so into music. We saw her playing the piano very impressively!

I’d never particularly thought of Queen Victoria in terms of music, either. Ask me to name a “musical monarch”, and I’d have said George II, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. Young Victoria apparently found George II’s type of music boring, but was really into Italian opera. We got this rather lovely image of her, at a time at which she was given virtually no freedom by her mother and Sir John Conroy, being allowed to go to the opera and getting quite obsessive over some of the singers. Some of them came to sing at her 16th birthday party, and she took singing lessons from them. Lucy’s theory was that it was a way for an emotional person leading a very restricted life to express herself. I like that.

We’re all rather past the idea of Queen Victoria as a repressed and grumpy person who was “not amused”, and we know that she was into dancing. I didn’t know that Johann Strauss actually wrote a waltz for her, though. This was at a time when the waltz was still considered quite scandalous, so Victoria was out there at the cutting edge of things! It was rather pushing it to claim that it was Victoria who popularised the waltz, though, especially as she wasn’t actually allowed to waltz – all that bodily contact! – until she married Prince Albert.

Prince Albert did a lot of good things, but he was undeniably rather boring, and he wanted Italian opera and Viennese waltzes out and German classical music in. But he wrote his own love songs for Victoria, and serenaded her with them. That’s so romantic ❤ !! OK, it’d only work if you had a partner with a good singing voice, but Albert and Victoria both did have good singing voices. They played duets on the piano, as well. So sweet!

They did still go to the opera, as well – and I think it was a valid point that their presence helped to make opera-going, which had become associated with drunken posh blokes trying to seduce opera girls, respectable. And they held musical soirees at home. It was overplaying it to say that it was their interest in music which led to the increase in interest in musical entertainment generally, though! It was part of the general growth of leisure activities during the Victorian period, and, to be fair, Lucy did point out the importance of the development of mass production of musical instruments at more affordable prices. We got to see a brass band. Yay, I love brass bands! I’m not sure that Queen Victoria was particularly into brass band music, but, if she wasn’t, she didn’t know what she was missing! And we heard about the birth of the Halle Orchestra. Always nice to get some Mancunian history into any history programme 😉 . Lucy noted that Sir Charles Halle always made sure that some seats at the Free Trade Hall and anywhere else that the Halle were playing were made available at low prices. Music for all!  One thing that wasn’t mentioned was church music, but maybe that wasn’t particularly Queen Victoria’s thing.

Of course, Charles Halle was originally from Germany, and, as Lucy kept saying, the music scene in Britain at that time was dominated by Germans.  Mendelssohn notably spent a fair amount of time in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s.  I’d never realised that Victoria and Albert were so pally with him: the Queen’s patronage was a real boost to his career, and he even used to go round to see them and they’d all sing and play the piano together. That’s brilliant! And, whilst I’m vaguely familiar with Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony, I wouldn’t have thought to connect his interest in Scotland with Victoria and Albert’s well-known love of Scotland. Er, having just looked on Google to see when his Hebrides Overture was composed, I see that it was after a visit to Scotland in 1829, well before Victoria even came to the throne! So that’s another area where Lucy’s arguments were pushing it; but they did undoubtedly create interest in Scottish culture outside Scotland.

Going back to the subject of opera becoming respectable, Lucy then started talking about a Swedish opera singer – and I knew before she said the name that she meant Jenny Lind. How cultured am I?! Well, OK, not very, in fact – I only know about Jenny Lind because of the Barnum connection! But Victoria was apparently a huge fan of hers. She went to see her sixteen times in one season, threw flowers at her, gave her a dog, and cut short a formal dinner with the PM in order to go to one of her shows! She was really keen. And then Prince Albert died … and she never went to a public concert again. That’s really sad – and we got some poignant images, from things she’d written in her journals, of how it’d taken her a while even to listen to music again, but that, when she did, particular pieces reminded her of Albert. I think everyone can identify with that. We’ve probably all got songs/pieces of music which remind us of loved ones who are no longer with us. But she chose to have the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal College of Music founded in his memory – and that, as Lucy pointed out, says a lot about how important music was to both of them.

We then moved on to the music halls. Much more my sort of thing than German Lieder or Italian opera! And the “By jingo” song, which always annoys me because the peoples of the Balkans got a very raw deal due to the obsession with restricting Russian influence!  Anyway. Lucy then claimed that Queen Victoria wearing black all the time was partly an image thing, and facilitated the branding of the monarchy because everyone knew that she always wore black. I wasn’t impressed with that. It was mourning black, OK – she was in mourning for her dead husband, not trying to look cool l like I did when I was 14 and wanted to wear black because the Stone Roses did!  I’m not even sure what wearing black was supposed to have to do with music – although the idea seemed to be that it was all part of the idea of Queen Victoria as the face of the British Empire, and that music played a big part in promoting imperialism via both music hall patriotic songs and the music of Elgar. Hooray for Elgar – finally, a top-level British composer.  I take the point about music and imperialism, but trying to connect that with Queen Victoria wearing black wasn’t overly convincing!   Oh well.

The programme finished by talking about Wagner’s Lohengrin being played at Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday party, and how Wagner’s music was to become synonymous with the Nazis, and Queen Victoria would have been devastated to know what lay ahead for Anglo-German relations. Things had rather wandered off the point by this time, and topping it off by saying that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s romance was responsible for a century of British music was definitely going over the top, but it was a very interesting programme. The bicentennial of Victoria and Albert’s birth, in addition to the popular ITV series about them, means that we’re going to be hearing a lot about them this year, and it’s going to be difficult to find different and original angles. The BBC managed it with this programme, and Lucy Worsley, who can sometimes be very irritating, did an excellent job with it. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that she was “very, very amused”, with three underlinings, after one Italian opera performance. I was pretty amused by this programme!

 

Victoria (series 3) – ITV 1

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Oh dear. This was all very dramatic, and made for entertaining Sunday night TV; but it completely misrepresented the Chartist movement, Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria’s relationship with her half-sister, and even the sort of clothing worn by the little princes. I’m rather annoyed about the portrayal of the peaceful Chartists as a baying mob hammering on the gates of Buckingham Palace. As for Palmerston looking thirty years younger than he was, Feodora being turned into a jealous schemer in scarlet lace and the idea that the viewing public wouldn’t be able to cope with seeing little boys wearing dresses … come on, ITV, give us a break!!  Entertaining, yes; but an accurate portrayal of events and personalities would have been equally entertaining, and a lot less frustrating for historians!

According to this, Victoria resented the fact that her half-sister, Princess Feodora of Leiningen, had left Kensington Palace to get married, Feodora was jealous of Victoria’s position, and Feodora randomly turned up in London in the middle of the 1848 Revolutions, got on everyone’s nerves, and went around wearing scarlet lace dresses. Er, no. Victoria and Feodora got on extremely well, and Feodora, after her marriage, lived out her life at the Schloss Langenburg in Germany. For an accurate portrayal in fiction of their relationship, see the excellent books by Jean Plaidy and Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.  Come on, ITV, this is supposed to be a programme about Queen Victoria, not Dallas or Dynasty! Oh, and we’ve also got a fictitious duchess who’s going to have an affair with a footman, but at least that won’t be misrepresenting someone who really existed!

Palmerston would probably be quite flattered at being shown as a raffish man about town in his forties, when he was actually nearly seventy at the time, but it’s hardly very accurate! In the first series, Lord Melbourne was also shown as being a lot younger than he was. Do the scriptwriters have a problem with men past a certain age? The Victorian establishment certainly didn’t: the Duke of Wellington was in charge of dealing with any unrest in London in 1848, and he was getting on for eighty. My first ever encounter with Palmerston was in the context of his nearly dragging Britain into the American Civil War, which would not have been a good idea; but I’ve got quite fond of him since then, because of his support for Greek independence, reform in Central Europe, and Don Pacifico. And there’s certainly an argument that the Crimean War might have been avoided had he been Foreign Secretary in the mid-1850s.

There was certainly controversy over his outspoken support for the 1848 revolutions, but this programme made it look as if he was saying that everyone should go around chopping off monarchs’ heads, whereas he was actually speaking in favour of self-determination. As a sensible, liberal person, he realised that the nation state was, and is, the most successful and effective form of political unit ever known.  Being trapped in “a prison of nations” leads to instability, economic disparity, and an often violent break-up.  And, OK, he might have been fond of the ladies, but there was no need to suggest that he was some sort of pervert and no woman was safe in the same room as him.  Apparently Daisy Goodwin was trying to make him seem like Boris Johnson!  He didn’t seem anything like Boris Johnson, but he didn’t seem very much like Lord Palmerston either.

There were some annoying minor inaccuracies, as well. Someone was surprised that the Duchess of Devonshire had let her footman leave. There was no Duchess of Devonshire in 1848! The Duke wasn’t married, and his mother was long since dead. The first name of Cuffay, the leader of the radical faction of the Chartists wasn’t Samuel; it was William. Uncle Leopold had written to say that he was under threat from the revolutionaries. Seeing as there wasn’t a revolution in Belgium in 1848, I don’t think so. Then there was the thing with the boys’ clothes. Affie, being much too young to have been breeched, and probably Bertie as well, would have been wearing dresses, as little boys did in 1848. Instead, they were shown wearing kilts. In London. Apparently, the scriptwriters thought that viewers would have been confused by seeing boys wearing dresses. What??!! This isn’t a debate about gender identity: it’s a simple matter of what a particular section of the population would have been wearing at the time.

Irritating as that was, what really got to me was the way that the Chartists, who – admittedly apart from the radical wing led by William Cuffay, but their plans for armed insurrection didn’t actually come to anything – were a peaceful movement, looking for reform and certainly not revolution, were shown as an angry mob hammering on the gates of Buckingham Palace and throwing bricks through the Palace windows. And, for added drama, Queen Victoria was shown as going into labour in the middle of it all! (Princess Louise was actually born several weeks before the Chartist mass meeting of 1848, which was nowhere near Buckingham Palace anyway.)

What a load of rubbish! To be fair, the programme did initially stress that Chartism was generally peaceful and sought reform through constitutional means – universal male suffrage (female suffrage, annoyingly, doesn’t seem to have come into it), the secret ballot, equal constituencies, annual Parliaments, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, and payment for MPs to enable people who actually had to work for a living to sit in Parliament. The first People’s Charter was presented to Parliament in 1838, the year of the great Chartist meeting on Kersal Moor (I had to get that in!), the second in 1842, a year which also saw a series of strikes, especially in Lancashire and Cheshire (had to get that in as well!), and the third in 1848. A large meeting was organised in London, to form a procession, leaving from Kennington Common, to present the Charter to Parliament.

Unfortunately, it was all a bit of a damp squib in the end, not helped by the fact that some of the signatures were fake (some things never change). But it certainly wasn’t violent. Yes, there was some unrest later in the year. I like telling people that the only place in England which actually joined in with the 1848 Revolutions was Ashton-under-Lyne! But that was a fairly minor thing. There was also some talk of an uprising in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and, yes, in London. As happened after the original French Revolution in 1789, the authorities panicked and brought in legislation meant to stop public meetings and supposed plotting, and people were rightly angry about it. But to show radical Chartists attacking Buckingham Palace is completely inaccurate, and I think it was really quite wrong to do that: it gave a completely misleading impression of an organisation which played an important part in the move towards bringing democracy to our country.

I don’t think what happened abroad was portrayed accurately, either. OK, this wasn’t meant to be a documentary on European history, but it made it sound as if it was all about trying to overthrow monarchies. And, yes, Louis Philippe did take refuge in London, but he tried to keep a low profile: he certainly didn’t move into Buckingham Palace! The July Monarchy in France was overthrown, and replaced by the Second Republic. Which only lasted a few years, before the Bonapartists were brought back. Bourbons, republic, Napoleon, Bourbons again, Orleanists, Napoleon’s nephew, another republic … they never seem to be able to make up their minds in France! There were also uprisings in several German states, and in Austria. But not really in Belgium.

Reforms in Denmark and Switzerland. An uprising in Ireland, which wasn’t mentioned – although, to be fair, it wasn’t until later in the year. I’ve been doing some Hungarian history revision recently, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 went on for eighteen and a half months, before being crushed by Austrian and Russian forces. There were also uprisings in Austrian-ruled Northern Italy, Bourbon-ruled Southern Italy, German-ruled Poland, Austrian-ruled Ukrainian Galicia, Moldavia (Moldova) and Wallachia, It’s hard to think of anything comparable. The fall of communism in 1989, maybe. Or the “Arab Spring” might be a better comparison – promising a lot but sadly achieving very little.

And it wasn’t all about upheaval and violence, which was how the programme made it sound. It was liberal. It was the Springtime of Nations: it was about self-determination. To be fair, both Palmerston and Prince Albert were shown expressing some sympathy for the “revolutionaries”, but it still all came across as being about violence and chaos. Not impressed.

Sadly, most of the 1848 Revolutions were crushed. But, in Britain, the campaign for parliamentary reform went on. Now we can all, regardless of socio-economic status or gender, elect MPs. That was supposed to be the answer to everything. Many of the leaders of the 1848 Revolutions admired the British parliamentary system and wanted one like it. And look what a mess the bunch of idiots we’ve got in the House of Commons now are making of everything . But that’s beside the point. The point is that, whilst this was great entertainment, and whilst anything that gets people talking about history is welcome, it was chock-a-block with inaccuracies, and it will have given people unfamiliar with the period completely the wrong impression of what was going on. Black mark, ITV!

I was glued to every second of it, though … .

Some other posts about Queen Victoria 🙂 :

Victoria (series 1)

Queen Victoria’s Letters

Queen Victoria and her tragic family

 

Victoria and Albert: The Royal Wedding – BBC 1

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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.

Albert: The Power Behind Victoria – Channel 5

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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!