This is our truth, tell us yours
Jem mentioned to me that she’d watched an episode of Victoria, an ITV costume drama. It’s loosely based on the life of the woman who becamse Empress of India, etc…. Jem mentioned it to me because it features the Chartists, so I thought I’d watch the episode in question and see what it was like.
OK,so let’s get the general issues out of the way. Victoria is not so much a costume drama as a couldn’t afford many costumes drama. The interior shots appear to have been filmed in a unit factory where the lack of scenery and structure is covered up by a gloomy half light thatmakes every scene lookas if it were shot in an alcove.
And the Chartists? Well, bear in mind that Chartism was real, and serious, and a challenge to the established order. All this was achieved, apparently, by a ragtail army of assorted country bumpkins who turned up for the march to Newport with pitchforks. According to Lord Melbourne, who fills a shamelessly Freudian dual role of companion and surrogate father figure to the queen, the rising happened because there had been a bad harvest.Never mind the debates between physical force and moral force Chartists, the calls for a national rising, the imprisonment of Henry Vincent and the removal from the magistracy of John Frost. All you see in the progamme is the bumpkins peacefully marching up to a bridge blocked by a handfull of redcoats,who then shoot the bumpkins down. The dramatic tension is provided by news that Mrs Williams, the cook is the godmother of one of the chartists, who will be hung drawn and quartered for treason unless the queen intervenes.
The truth is a little more complex. The march to Newport was mainly made up, in each of its columns, of industrialworkers. A pitchfork is not a useful tool in a coalmine. The men who marched on Newport had pikes, guns, pickaxes and mandrels. They marched by night, not by day, and in pouring rain.A pitched battle did take place, but at the Westgate Hotel in Newport.
None of this is made clear. The chartists are just another interlude in a sorry tale of the emotional life of Victoria.
The question I would ask is why the writers chose to simplify and sanitize the truth. The plight of the godson could have been oven into history. Here’s some sample dialogue you could have used
Skerrett: But if he’s a good lad Mrs Williams, he can appeal for clemency, say he was just swept along with the crowd.
Mrs Williams: He was stuck with a bayonet in the fighting at Newport; he almost got into the hotel. He can hardly plead innocence.
See what I did there? The Chartists become real people fighting, not comic opera bumpkins being gunned down.
Imagine if the dialogue between Melbourne and the queend had included Melbourne explaining that Frost was a republican, and Williams an atheist. Would it have highlighted the queen’s plight and have brought more tension into the plot?
I think so.Victoria is soap opera pretending to be costume drama, and not succeeding at either.