It’s being billed as the natural successor to Downton and this time it has been filmed in Yorkshire. Phil Penfold goes behind the scenes of Victoria.
Without Yorkshire, and its rich heritage of historic piles, one of the most elaborate screen dramas could never have been made. Victoria, the new eight-hour series from ITV, was almost entirely shot on location in the county, with hardly a historic property missing out.
Author Daisy Goodwin, who has written the series and is also executive producer, admits: “Yorkshire has played a pivotal role, and I take my hat off to our location scouts for their tenacity and their imagination. Most of the backdrops are real life Yorkshire, and I simply cannot remember the number of places we went to. The list is too long.”
To refresh Goodwin’s memory, they include Castle Howard standing in for rooms at Kensington Palace; the great drive at Bramham Park doubling for the avenue at Windsor Castle; Allerton Castle playing Prince Albert’s home; some of Newby Hall interiors remade as the lavishly decorated Brook’s Club in Mayfair; and Beverley Minster converted into Westminster Abbey for the Coronation scenes. Also on the list is Harewood House, Wentworth Woodhouse, parts of York and Whitby pier.
“We also used a lot of Yorkshire actors as extras,” adds Daisy. “At Beverley, we had an entire Territorial Army unit who turned up, and they were marvellous, because their posture was just right. There were other locations in the UK considered at first, but we pretty soon realised that with all the great homes and houses all with proximity to each other, that Yorkshire was the only place to be. It also meant that we could do a day’s filming, and then go back to a base in Leeds for both accommodation and post-production work.”
Stately homes aside, the other draw was the new Church Fenton Studios development. Victoria was the first production to be filmed in the converted aircraft hangar near Selby, which for some months became home to the interiors of Buckingham Palace. It’s a vast space and should ensure that other big budget dramas head north.
“That huge internal production space is the key factor in securing the big productions like Victoria that would otherwise have filmed elsewhere,” says Screen Yorkshire chief executive Sally Joynson. “Finding the right locations and a studio big enough to build the Buckingham Palace set was the priority for Mammoth Screen, who spent seven months filming in the region, generating work and income for local crew, location owners and the wider supply chain. It marks a major sea change for the film and TV industry in Yorkshire.”
The young Victoria, who came to the throne at only 18, is played by 30-year-old Jenna Coleman who also has strong connections with Yorkshire. For more than five years, she was the strong-willed Jasmine Thomas in Emmerdale, becoming embroiled in a series of convoluted plot-lines, including a lesbian love affair, abortion, murder and a final exit to a prison cell.
While Jenna, who now lives in London with her partner Game of Thrones actor Richard Madden, has also turned in impressive performances in Doctor Who, Death Comes to Pemberley and Room at the Top, Victoria presented a new challenge.
“This is the very first time that I’ve ever played a real person,” she says. “To be honest, I was absolutely amazed when I was sent the script. I thought ‘Why me?’ I knew next to nothing about Victoria, except that she was an iconic figure, and probably the most powerful woman in the world of her day. So the first thing that I did was to get as much research under my belt as was possible.
“One of the things that clinched it for me was that I am just 5ft tall. Victoria was only 4ft 11in and she was always teased because of her height. Teased, that is, until the morning when she heard that her Uncle, William IV, had died, and instantly became Queen.
“It was at that moment that she put her tiny feet down, and became a woman in her own right – and completely in control. She grew into a formidable woman with veins of steel.”
Goodwin, who has had a long career in TV production as well as writing best-sellers like The American Heiress and The Fortune Hunter, first encountered Queen Victoria at Cambridge University. “I was reading history and I was given an essay to write on the politics of the 1840s. On my to-do reading list were the diaries of Queen Victoria, which still contain millions of words, even though they were heavily edited by the Queen’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice.
“I opened the red leather books with great reluctance, because my image of Queen Victoria was that of an elderly boot-faced old bag in a bonnet, whose stern glare frowned down from hundreds of marble statues in town halls across the country. My preconceptions were totally at odds with the facts that I found in the entries. Victoria was a lusty young woman, with a lot of passion – especially when Prince Albert comes into her life. There’s one entry that reads ‘‘How handsome dearest Albert looks in his white cashmere breeches. With nothing on underneath.’ Now that’s not the writing of a prude, but of a love-struck girl.”
Chester-born Tom Hughes plays Prince Albert, and first met Coleman when they both appeared in Dancing on the Edge. He laughs: “Victoria and Albert were certainly passionate about each other. Far from it being an arranged marriage it was definitely love at first sight. I think that you can get a measure of how much they felt for each other that they had nine children in not much more than a dozen years.
“Also when they found their summer home at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, he designed the complete rebuilding, which included a lock and a bolt on their bedroom door, which he could operate by pressing a button conveniently located on his side of the bed. If that isn’t a ‘do not disturb’, then I don’t know what is.”
The Coronation scenes in the Minster were particularly difficult for Coleman who wore a heavy, replica crown. “I had to walk some distance with it – but before anyone says ‘We could see it wobble’, I have to tell you that it is meant to look, just for a second or so, as it if might fall off because that’s exactly what happened.”
Victoria’s first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, the man on whom she had to lean on for advice in the formative years of her reign, is played by Rufus Sewell. “I will admit that my very first fear, when I was offered the role, and before I read the scripts in detail was that they might have been ‘souped up’,” he says. “How wrong I was. Virtually everything is accurate, and some of the lines that you might think were made up by Daisy he actually said.
“Their relationship was so close at one point that gossips believed that they might be having an affair. Melbourne had a bit of a reputation as a ladies’ man, and some people started referring to Victoria as Mrs Melbourne, just as, much later she would be called Mrs Brown. But it was all entirely above board. She regarded him as a wise father figure who she could confide in. He thought of her as a daughter, whom he could guide and advise.”
There has been significant investment in Victoria and ITV is clearly hoping it will fill the gap left by Downton. “They are two different genres,” says Goodwin firmly. “Downton was fiction, Victoria is fact. The only similarity that the two have is that they were both set in a certain period. But Downton has had such a vast international success that it must stand alone. All we can hope for is that viewers will warm to Victoria’s story, and her remarkable life and times.”
Victoria begins on ITV1 tomorrow at 9pm.