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The Decadence of ‘Versailles’ Comes to Ovation
October 1, 2016  | By David Hinckley  | 159 comments
 

Television’s gallery of egocentric, outrageous and history-changing rulers from the last millennium is about to welcome a new addition: King Louis XIV of France.

Versailles, which premieres Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on Ovation, picks up the life of Louis XIV (George Blagden, top) in 1667, when he was 28 years old.

Monarchs back then started with enormous powers, says David Wolstencroft, who co-created the series with Simon Mirren, and Louis XIV went on to expand them.

At the same time, power made him a constant target of those who wanted it for themselves.

Versailles dramatizes the high-level political intrigue at the same time it portrays Louis, his family, friends, and court as people with a range of excesses, material and moral. Like the Tudors or the Medici, they were largely above the law in their personal conduct.

Louis XIV’s brother Prince Philippe (Alexander Vlahos, left) was bisexual, which would have been a significant problem for most people at the time.  

It wasn’t a problem for Philippe, says Wolstencraft: “He was the king’s brother, so he could do what he wanted. He enjoyed the fruits of power.”

Philippe was hardly the only member of the family who indulged himself sexually, though moralists will be relieved to know that several practiced flagellation as part of their penance.

The jumping-off point for the central plotline of the series is Louis’s decision to move the royal palace from Paris to Versailles, a remote town where his father had a hunting lodge.

“It’s not a popular decision,” says Wolstencroft, but it served a specific and critical purpose for Louis XIV. It forced the French nobles, many of whom didn’t like him, to now come to him. In a sense, it gave him home field advantage, and as a strategy, it worked.

Converting the old place into a worthy palace required time, money and a whole lot of creativity. Louis wanted a new lake, for instance, which required diverting river to fill it.  

Mostly, though, the project required vision, which Louis had. He was versed in fields like engineering, architecture and design, which may account for the fact that more than 300 years later we still recognize his style of furniture.

So this young monarch made his vision come true, an impressive achievement that quite incidentally makes for good television today.  

“He built a castle in the middle of a forest,” says Wolstencroft. “The more intensive the world, the more we’re intrigued by the story. Look at what he did, the sheer sense of will that it took.”

Still, Wolstencroft notes, building the new palace did not make life comfortable or easy for Louis.

“He was always fighting to establish himself as king,” says Wolstencroft. “Solutions also create problems. The problem with inviting the nobles to your new home, for instance, is that they are now in your new home.”

The research for putting the series Versailles together, says Wolstencroft, yielded “almost an embarrassment of riches,” a surprising amount of it relatively recent.

“We have a much different portrayal now than we would have had 40 years ago,” he says. “A lot of new material has come out – though you always have to remember by whom the story is being told.

“There are reasons some things came out and others did not. Perspective is everything.”

Collectively, he says, what we now know of Louis XIV’s life enabled the creators and producers to write a human story, not just an historical documentary.

“We know what happened in the theater of power,” Wolstencroft says. “Our show is about what was going on under the surface.”

That can get melodramatic, even soapy at times, and Wolstencroft allows that the style of Versailles at times is not wholly different from that of a period drama like Downton Abbey.

But Versailles is also about an actual historical figure, he stresses, and Louis XIV’s influence echoes today.

Versailles has already been renewed for two additional seasons, with the second jumping four years into the future, and Wolstencroft says that is literally just the beginning.  

“He ruled for 72 years,” Wolstencroft notes, having become titular king at the age of 4. “We could easily do 10 seasons if we’re lucky enough.”

 
 
 
 
 
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