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Silly Hats, Finicky Show Ponies, and Reading The Queen’s Private Diaries: Jenna Coleman On Playing ‘Victoria’
January 13, 2018  | By Alex Strachan

It’s good to be the Queen. At least it was, if only for a fleeting moment.

The first season of Victoria, PBS and ITV’s post-modern re-imagining of the life and times of Queen Victoria, told the story of a young Victoria, aged 18, who ascends to the throne of England in June 1838 and swings wildly between friendship with and youthful infatuation for her mentor at the time, William Lamb, the 2nd Viscount Melbourne, aka Lord Melbourne.

Royal weddings in those days were not so much unions of love as they were the result of arranged marriages between competing European interests — those snooty continentals and the monied dukes, duchesses, bluebloods, and assorted eligible bachelors across the English Channel — and so when the young Victoria married, it was to the more age-appropriate and Euro-connected Prince Albert. Their union was soon followed by birth of their first child, also named Victoria, and the first season ended on a happy note: mother, husband, and infant daughter together, in like mind and spirit.

Things change, though, when the second season picks up Sunday, Jan. 14 on PBS’s Masterpiece showcase (check local listings). The young Victoria, now 22, must manage her royal duty as Queen of England with her familial responsibilities to her husband and (soon to be plural) children.

In the accomplished hands of Victoria writer-creator Daisy Goodwin and directors Jim Loach and Geoffrey Sax, among others, Victoria, played by Jenna Coleman, and Albert, played by Tom Hughes, come across not so much as historical figures performing a costume drama as living, breathing human beings, with all the hopes and dreams — and flaws — that come with that.

In the season premiere, “A Soldier’s Daughter,” the young Victoria learns her government has been making decisions without keeping her informed. Worse, Albert has been helping them keep state secrets from her. British soldiers have been killed in the ongoing Anglo-Afghan War — history repeats! — and no one in Her Majesty’s government bothered to inform her. It’s time to lay on a little Henry VIII and teach the civil servants a thing or two about gender equity.

For Jenna Coleman, herself just 31 and regenerating as a stage-trained actor after two seasons as companion Clara Oswald to Matt Smith’s Doctor in Doctor Who, Victoria has been a godsend. Coleman, born and raised in the UK resort town of Blackpool on England’s northwest coast, grew up middle-class and as a child performed in a local theatre company called Yer Space. (Interesting side note: According to a 2016 interview with the UK Radio Times, Coleman’s grandmother gave her the name ‘Jenna’ after Priscilla Beaulieu Presley’s character, Jenna Wade, in the TV show Dallas. Now you know.)

Much like the historical monarch she plays in Victoria, Coleman has admitted to a few personal regrets — that she never pursued a university education, for starters, despite being named “head girl” at the private girls’ school she attended in Blackpool.

That can come, though. On this particular July day, appearing via satellite from London at the semi-annual gathering of the Television Critics Association, Coleman appears both visibly relaxed as she trades quips and barbs with her co-star Hughes and mildly anxious about how Victoria’s new season — very different in tone to the first — will be received. She laughs easily, but there’s a burning intensity underlying the mirth.

“There’s so much resource material to work with,” Coleman said. “The homes, obviously, the palaces. Victoria’s sketchbooks, to me, were very useful, though. And her voice. She wrote in a diary almost every single day, so you can always refer back to something and hear her voice. So, in a way, I’m completely and utterly spoiled, really.”

In the weeks and months Coleman devoted to research, Victoria Regina slowly came into focus.

“It’s like getting to know somebody, I guess. You kind of uncover more and more detail as you go along, little nuggets or funny remarks, tiny little things all the time. You kind of feel like you’re learning secrets, getting to know somebody that you only had a preconception of before.”

Coleman had to learn to ride horses in four weeks. Her training horse, a show pony named Almonzo — don’t ask — was “an absolute diva,” she noted.

“Spanish walk,” she said. “Sometimes, while I’m trying to be incredibly regal on set, Almonzo will suddenly decide to take me off for a walk, and actually Spanish walk — which makes me look really skilled, actually. But I’m not. I’m afraid. I’m not the leader.”

The name Victoria makes it sound like biography, but actually, the series, as written, is part character study, part relationship drama.

“One of the most exciting things about this series for me is exploring the dynamics within (Victoria and Albert’s) relationship. The tectonic plates keep shifting. They're operating in a marriage as a husband-and-wife, and Victoria wants to be a wife to her husband. But then, politically, as soon as Albert begins to try to take part of Victoria's role initially, she completely flips. So, as an actor,  you're constantly playing within these different (scenarios), politics within a domestic marriage. The clash of wills is really interesting and shifting.”

Victoria’s candor in her diaries helped Coleman prepare for the role, in often unexpected ways.

“One of the funniest things I read, because she's so candid, was on her way to Scotland, she’s always commenting on people's appearance and how she thought the people a bit lower down the coast were not so pretty, but the faces get a bit more pleasing the further into the mountains you go. Her observations and voice are really interesting.”

The more things change, the more others stay the same: The Royals in Victoria’s  time also had an affinity for funky hats.

And Albert, for example.

“He had an armored parasol,” Coleman said.

A chain-mail parasol — an umbrella to shield his head from the sun, and ward off slings and arrows from revolting peasants.

It was inevitable, given her time on Doctor Who, that the question of a female Doctor would come up.

“I love it,” Coleman said. “I think it’s genius. I think Jodie Whittaker is brilliant and lovely, and I can’t wait to hear her speak as the Doctor. I want to hear the voice. It’s exciting times.”

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