As Series One comes to an end, Daisy Goodwin – the screenwriter of the TV series Victoria – tells me about casting Jenna Coleman as the leading lady, creating on-screen chemistry, and what episode made her cry.
Huge congratulations on the success of Victoria. It’s received a warm and critically appraised reaction – how does that make you feel?
Delighted. It’s my first screenplay, so I’m thrilled that people seem to have enjoyed it.
What do you think strikes viewers the most when they watch it?
I think that people like to see Victoria in a way that maybe they haven’t imagined her up until that point, because they think of her as an old lady, and so to see her in her youth – as a young, passionate, impulsive woman who’s trying to make her own way against a largely male establishment – strikes a chord with a lot of people. It’s very pleasing that so many young people are watching the show. I think they feel it speaks to them.
Can you talk about the inspiration behind the series and your initial creative vision for it? What kind of research did you do?
I studied Queen Victoria at university – I did a paper on Queen Victoria and the monarchy. I had to read Queen Victoria’s diaries. They were something of a revelation – I sort of imagined them being the most boring documents known to man but actually for the first few years they’re an unwitting tribute to her. Massive crush on Lord Melbourne, her first prime minister! He’s literally mentioned in every single entry. She basically writes down everything he says, the way he looks, the way he wiggles his eyebrows… You can read between the lines.
[The diaries also] record her very frank feelings for Albert – there’s this hilarious bit just after they got engaged she says I saw my dearest Albert in white cashmere britches with nothing on underneath! She’s a very open admirer of the male form. As you read the diaries, you know she’s a teenager, instead of what we usually think of her as an old lady, a grandmother, or a great-grandmother, even.
You have an extensive background in producing and journalism. How has that factual focus influenced your own writing?
Because I read history, I must be the only person in the world whose undergraduate degree is actually useful to them in later life, other than doctors and lawyers. I used the things I studied in this series. The fact that I really concentrated on the 19th century has really helped me with this show because I have a sense of perspective of the things I’m writing about.
I know what happened when, instinctively, and also the language comes quite easily to me. I know without thinking about it what words people would have used and what they wouldn’t have used. I can make it sound quite modern without making it anachronistic.
Can you tell me about the casting process? Was Jenna Coleman the only actress considered for the part of Victoria?
No, she wasn’t the only person. We did go through a long list. But the point was we wanted an actor who was small, because I was very keen that in that way she reflected Queen Victoria’s own physicality. So she was only 4’11” and I thought that was a very important part of the role that we see she’s so much smaller than everybody else. She’s a little woman confronting this forest of old men.
So that cut down our options quite a bit. We met a number of actresses but Jenna is amazing. Her range is extraordinary. She can do spirited teenager, she can do woman in love, she can do heartbreak, she can do jokes. For me, it was her comic timing, it was so spot on. We’ve been incredibly lucky to get her; she is absolutely, as we say, every inch a Queen.
What was the casting process like for Lord Melbourne and Prince Albert?
[For] Lord Melbourne: again, once we knew Rufus [Sewell] was interested, we didn’t have to look any further, because he’s such a good actor. The moment I saw him read with Jenna I knew we were going to have TV gold! Again, with Tom, I saw him in the spy thriller The Game, I thought he was wonderful in that. I always had a vision of him… He was definitely on the top of my list for Albert. That came quite easily. Then we were very lucky to have a fantastic cast of British character actors come in.
When did you realise the on-screen chemistry with ‘Vicbourne’ and ‘Vicbert’ would be so electric?
You don’t know, do you? When you see the rushes of Melbourne… we did the Melbourne stuff first, the moment we saw what we now call Vicbourne together, I knew we were headed into very exciting territory. I think I probably wrote for them a little bit too; and it was interesting, before I’d seen them together I’d imagined slightly different scenes, but I realised I didn’t have to write very much because they sort of do it all with a look.
So you almost changed your script to suit how the actors were going to portray it?
I think all writers probably do that a bit, because once you see people in action, you try and bring the most value out of them. So, for example, the rook scene, which if you’ve seen the show is where she goes to propose to him [Lord Melbourne], that was originally set in Brighton and it was going to be much more physical.
I completely changed it – and re-wrote it in the form that it’s now in – because I read in one of Victoria’s diaries that he had a bit of a rook fixation, and that made me think, how can I use that for his very noble rejection of her? There’s nothing he’d like better than to be with her but of course he knows that that would be impossible.
Were you expecting that reaction to Vicbourne?
I wasn’t expecting it but I suppose the only reason I’m not surprised is because that’s how I watch it every time as a viewer – it gets me – if it gets you as a viewer than it’s quite likely to get the audience in the same way. I can only write what I want to watch. When I was writing it, there were tears in my eyes. You kind of know when something’s going to hit.
I had no idea that people would love it so much and I was a bit worried that it couldn’t be matched by the chemistry between Tom and Jenna. But luckily they are so great together that you totally believe them too. Obviously theirs is a different relationship – Vicbert is a very passionate relationship between equals, whereas [with] Vicbourne, he’s her first love, she’s his last love. I thought that was very tender and poignant. [Now] I’ve got the challenge and the excitement of having to develop a happy marriage.
What was your favourite episode to write?
I love them all, to be honest. I love episode six, where I have a tiny cameo as the Duchess of Inverness, and it has some funny moments where [Victoria] is jumping up and down as a form of contraception. And episode four where Albert turns up and they have a duet together – and she says ‘Am I going too fast for you?’ and he says ‘I think you’re going too fast for Schubert!’ Which is tragic because it’s just me laughing at my own joke. I’m embarrassingly delighted with my own [work]!
What is your favourite line from the series?
The one that’s become the catchphrase of the show is when Lady Flora Hastings is dying – and it’s this awful thing to say – but Victoria goes ‘Can I get you peaches?’ and Lady Flora says ‘I am beyond peaches’. And I like ‘Too fast for Schubert’. The other one I like is at the end of episode five when Albert says to his Uncle Leopold, ‘I wouldn’t be having all these problems with money if you hadn’t had kept these actresses as mistresses’, and Leopold says, ‘What? Give up my charity work?’ They all make me laugh.
You made a guest star appearance as the Duchess of Inverness. How did that come about?
I could see the part needed an actress, somebody who could act, and the cast budget was pretty much spent. I could just take it upon myself because at least I knew what I was trying to do. So I volunteered and everyone was like ‘Hooray!’ They got to laugh at me and they don’t have to pay me. I was a popular choice.
How much time did you spent on set?
Only a day. It went from a non-speaking part to about three lines at the end of it. It got bigger and bigger. If I’d stayed there any longer I would have taken over the entire episode!
You had Victoria’s diaries to hand for research, but which character did you find the hardest to get inside their head?
Oh, that’s a very good question. I think that her mother is tricky because she loves Victoria, but on the other hand she makes spectacularly bad choices in the way she treats her. It was quite hard to do that, because I had to convey both love and also jealously. I think she was a bit jealous of Victoria and furious with her.
She spent her whole life waiting for the moment when Victoria became Queen and she was suddenly, as her mother, the second most important person in the country. Victoria basically turned her back on her and I think that was very upsetting for Victoria. That’s a difficult thing to write into and I hope I’ve conveyed the love-hate relationship between the two.
You’ve occasionally used dramatic license in the series, for example, with the servants – you’ve said you didn’t have a lot of factual information about them. So having studied history yourself, when do you feel the storyline justifies inventing what happened and coming away from the historical reality?
I think the point is – is it emotionally true to the characters? Both the characters in history and the characters I’ve created. What you can’t do is start a Franco-Prussian War if it didn’t happen, or go to war with Germany if that’s not when it happened.
But if, for example, you know that Victoria had a massive crush on Lord Melbourne, and although I don’t know what conversations they had, I do know that she burnt all his letters when he died, I think that gives me license to show what conversations they might have had, and maybe push it a little bit further, but I don’t feel I’m seducing the truth, because I know that that’s how strongly they felt about each other.
When it comes to Victoria and Albert, I think again they have a very passionate, contradictory, push-pull relationship. They didn’t write each other much because they were always together, there I feel that I’m sticking very close to their emotional truth, even if I don’t know that everything I think happened [really] happened. My interpretation is pretty true.
I’m reading her diaries and the historical documents of the time as a writer, not as a historian. I’m looking for the subtext. I’m interpreting the sources and that’s what you have to do. The audience is smart enough to know that they’re dramatic reconstructions.
These kind of shows can spark an interest [in history]. They really engage people with the past. Anything that can spark people’s curiosity is a good thing. Series Two will be dealing with the Potato Famine and how Britain dealt with the genocide in the country next door, i.e. very badly! It’s been studied extensively in Ireland but not at all in Britain – it’s maybe a paragraph. When we can shed a light on the past that really brings to life periods that are just a line in a history book, that’s a really valuable thing to do.
There isn’t much in the history books about Victoria’s relationship with Ireland; she came to visit Killarney, but not many in the UK may know about that.
They know very little about the Famine – Victoria did contribute to relief funds, but I don’t think the British really know quite how inhumane the government was at the time. That’s something I’m definitely going to be writing about and try to dramatize in Series Two.
And what else are you looking forward to exploring in Series Two? Considering you’re writing it at the moment?
It’s the time of the Hungry Forties – the 1840s is a time of great tumult – the birth of communism, revolution across Europe, Chartism, the movement for democracy, that’s the political side; on the domestic side, Victoria and Albert have a lot of children, and they have all the difficulties that a couple face when the woman has a higher status than the man.
That’s difficult even now, but it was even harder in the 19th century as you can imagine, so that will be a challenge. But Victoria didn’t really like being a mother, she didn’t really enjoy having children until they were older, so that’s going to be interesting. There’s lots of fascinating things to explore.
Should there be several more series and we have to see Victoria age visually on screen, how do you think that’s going to be approached?
Well, let’s see where we get to…! We’ve got quite a long way to go before Jenna has to play older than she really is, and we’ve got quite a lot of room for manoeuvre. We’re certainly not going to get to the death of Albert for a while, put it that way.
Your book on Victoria has just come out.
There are two books: there’s a book called The Victoria Letters, and then there’s a novel I’ve written, which I’d started on when writing the series. It’s a novel about the same period as the series. If you like Vicbourne, the novel is something you’ll want to read, because it goes into their relationship quite a lot. The Victoria Letters is the book of the series; it has wonderful pictures from the set and lots of source material. You’ve got fact or fiction – or both!
How does your approach to writing novels differ from your approach to writing drama?
The biggest difference is, with a novel, it’s just you and the page, and you get on with it. With TV drama, there are a lot of people looking over your shoulder. You think you’ve written your draft, and you’ve got 100 people going, ‘what about this? What about that? You can’t have that’. I remember in my first draft I had a whole scene with a lion tamer – they said ‘we can’t have a lion in the room!’
There’s a lot of feedback so it’s much more collaborative and less lonely. It’s more infuriating in a way. But there’s something very gratifying about taking your script and getting actors to turn it into art. That’s the greatest pleasure in the world, I can’t even tell you. For me, that’s the best box of chocolates you could open.
This post was also published on UTV Ireland. All photographs courtesy of ITV.