Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Monarchy On The Screen: Queen Victoria’s Children (BBC)

What can I say? The BBC every once in a while throws up a stinker. The TV year began here in Britain with a three-part documentary called Queen Victoria’s Children, airing on BBC2 for three nights in a row from January 1. It looked promising since no documentary has ever been made of Victoria’s remarkable and varied brood, but it turned out to be one of the worst documentary series I have ever watched. It was so negative about Victoria that the producers’ names should be included in the list of those who tried to assassinate Victoria throughout her life (there were 7 people), for the series was character assassination through and through.

The series basically described Victoria as an irrational monster, a ‘domestic dictator’ someone called her, a woman who never liked her children yet was still obsessed with controlling every aspect of their lives. Her children were portrayed as helpless victims at the mercy of a tyrannical mother who got more vicious and demanding after Albert died. Passage after passage was torn from her diaries to back up the documentary’s claims, showing that Victoria hated infants, insulted her children, and demanded that her needs always come before others. By the end, you are left with an image of a woman who was cold, controlling and cruel. It is all claptrap, of course. Victoria certainly was a handful to deal with, perhaps the most emotional and temperamental monarch we have ever had, but this documentary cherrypicked features of her character to make sure we got a horrible picture of her. They magnified her flaws, mangled her qualities and generally played fast and loose with the truth.   

Some screenshots from Queen Victoria's Children. It’s unclear if the
production company or the BBC was responsible
for this travesty. Perhaps both.

I was very surprised by how terrible this documentary series was, particularly since the company behind it, Blakeaway Productions, produced the best monarchy documentary of last year, King George and Queen Mary: The Royals Who Rescued the Monarchy. I am puzzled by what could have prompted such a howler from the same company. Perhaps they wanted to produce something to grab ratings during the Christmas season, which is the most competitive period in the British television market. Or perhaps someone was asleep at the wheel. Who knows?

You could tell something was amiss right in the first episode when expert after expert was rolled out in front of the camera. As a rule of thumb, you should always beware when a documentary includes a lot of talking heads to back up its claims: it betrays insecurity on the subject and hopes that a lot of academic noise will make up for the lack in substance. Queen Victoria’s Children paraded 8 ‘experts’ in the first 20 minutes. There were 18 in total throughout the series, half of whom, like Matthew Sweet and Kathryn Hughes, had no royal credentials at all. Most of the criticism flung at Victoria by the whole company was so weak and nonchalant that I got the distinct impression the producers gave them instructions to say anything nasty they could think of against the old Queen. Piers Brendon, a Cambridge history professor, spent his entire time on camera killing Victoria with all the gravitas of a man killing a Sunday afternoon at the local pub.

Poor Victoria had no way to defend herself. Credible biographers of her children, like Jane Ridley (Bertie), Matthew Denison (Beatrice) and Charlotte Zeepvat (Leopold), were given airtime to describe life from the children’s perspective, but no serious, respectable biographer of Victoria could be seen to offer a rebuttal. This is partly understandable because Victoria’s best biographers, like Elizabeth Longford and Christopher Hibbert, are all dead, but I found it interesting that Kate Williams, who presented an excellent documentary on Queen Victoria in 2011 and turns up everywhere on TV these days like a bad penny, was nowhere to be seen here. Perhaps, as Mrs Fairfax famously said, she had more sense than to be there.

Sure she looks sour, but was she a ‘domestic despot’?

There was so much rubbish tossed about during the three episodes, it would take me days to pick it up piece by piece in this blog, so I will pick only the things that irritated me the most. The most obvious flaw was judging Victoria’s 19th century parenting with 21st century standards. The documentary made it sound like Victoria and Albert’s strict parenting—the formality, the high expectations, the punishments—were characteristics all their own. In reality they were probably a shade more lenient than the norm in the mid 19th century: this after all was the age of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. Childhood was a harsh business all around back then, and it’s no use to castigate individuals for the faults of an entire age.

The archetypical Victoria(n) family: mother, father and 9.0 children.

Secondly, the producers presented a very skewed image of Queen Victoria’s character. They expounded at length on her obsessive relationship with Albert but did not fully explain that her behavior was the direct result of growing up without a father or any other male attachments. They repeated at nauseam that she was a self-centered individual but they did not say that it was the consequence of being an only child who grew up with no healthy sibling-like relationships. They pounced on her need to control her children but did not fully put it in the context of Victoria’s own upbringing under the famous Kensington System: Victoria had such a strong tendency towards controlling her children because that was all the parenting she knew from her mother.

Victoria’s innate honesty was also presented in a bad light as a tendency to insult her children, which is grossly unfair. Uniquely for a Queen, Victoria was one of those people who was honest to her core, who did not dissemble or held anything back in what she felt, said or wrote. It was something her children knew well and were accustomed to—and they were certainly less bothered about it than this documentary was.   

Another irritant was picking phrases from Victoria’s diaries and letters to give evidence from her hand of what a horrible person she was. This was a very ludicrous exercise. Victoria wrote an average of 2,000 words a day for 68 years: that’s over 24 million words throughout her life. Her diary alone comes up to 122 volumes of writing. To pick up a few scattered quotes among such mountains of opinions to prove a point was just foolish and self-defeating, especially since Victoria wrote just as she thought, impulsively, almost as a stream of consciousness. Presenting something she wrote in a few letters like conclusive evidence of her personality was shamelessly simplistic.

One of the thousands of pages filling Victoria’s diaries. This one talks about a few late summer days in the Highlands.

The thing that irritated me the most however was portraying the children themselves as victims, poor little human beings scarred by their parents, who grew up as good adults in spite of Victoria… This was absolute nonsense. First of all, they were not victims. Vicky as an adult dealt with her mother almost as an equal. Bertie humoured his mother when he did not ignore her. Alice spoke her mind to her plainly. Louise rebelled. Even hemophiliac Leopold, despite the martyr-like image given of him in the documentary, got his own way by going to University, marrying and traveling through Europe.

But most disappointingly, and perhaps most revealing of all, is the fact that for a documentary called Queen Victoria’s Children, this series was pretty thin on the actual lives and achievements of the children. There was no mention of Louise and Arthur’s stints in the governorship of Canada, no mention of Leopold’s involvement in intellectual causes, no depth given to Helena’s work with the Red Cross, no history given of Alfred’s tragic marriage and son’s suicide, no details given of Alice’s touching death. The producers were obviously so obsessed with trashing Victoria that they seemed to have forgotten this was a documentary about her children.  

I could go on and on about this but I realize that I am beginning to sound as nasty and obsessive as the documentary itself. To make a long story short, Queen Victoria’s Children is a very disappointing viewing experience. If you ever come across this documentary, don’t watch it: it’s rubbish.  

Don’t just take my word on how bad this documentary series is. Here’s a review from a different angle by Julia Baird at the Guardian, and here is the opinion of writer Christina Croft on her blog.

If you see this program advertised in your TV guide,
Avoid contact and notify the authorities immediately.

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