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The Future of the Monarchy is Tested on 'Victoria'
January 13, 2019  | By David Hinckley

It turns out that Queen Victoria took the French revolution quite personally, so it’s an uncharacteristically nervous monarch who’s waiting for us as the third season of the PBS hit Victoria premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Jenna Coleman (top) returns as Victoria alongside Tom Hughes (top) as her husband, Prince Albert. We’ve jumped ahead to 1848, so they have a fistful of children and Victoria is visibly pregnant with the next.

Consistent with real-life traditions of the British aristocracy, Victoria devotes far more of her time and thought to the dramas of the grownups, all of whom are riveted by the way the French masses rose up and deposed their king, forcing him into exile, scattering his family and creating – gasp – a republic.

This sort of plebian uprising was echoing elsewhere in Europe and being urged in Britain by groups like the Chartists. While not a wave of millions, the Chartists at the very least were loud enough to get the attention of the Royals and trigger a new sense of wariness.

Victoria herself vacillates between confidence that the majority of the British people embrace the monarchy and fear that an aggressive minority could throw the country into chaos and put her family’s lives in jeopardy.

Albert shares her concern for the family safety, at the same time he urges Victoria and the members of Parliament to consider the cause of all this unrest: that far too many honest, well-intended working people were forced to live under barely subsistence conditions.

The way to counter unrest, Albert argues, is to alleviate some of those conditions. He’s a lonely voice. The other side includes hard-liners like Lord Portman (Robin McCallum), an arrogant cabinet minister who can push his repressive elitist policies because he controls the swing votes that can determine which party holds power.

Victoria and Albert loathe him. He remains in power and becomes the season’s first slimy villain, which is bad for Britain and good for the drama of the show.

In the process, Victoria also starts to explore one of the most significant aspects of this new dynamic, which is the complex nature of the Chartist movement.

Many of its founders and supporters advocate peaceful protest and a campaign to pressure legislators for “one man, one vote.” If that basic fairness can be achieved, they feel, the will of the people will gradually transform government into a fairer system.

In all areas of British life, including the employ of the Palace, we see Chartists who have no desire to end the monarchy. They just think the monied ruling class should not have the only input on national policy.

We also see a handful of Chartists who want to follow the French model and burn down the Palace, figuratively or literally. They want a republic like the one in France that they see as embodying true democracy. This faction of Chartists does not shrink from violence, even knowing it will inevitably provoke a backlash from the authorities.

Portman and those of like mind would be delighted to provide that backlash, seeing it as the way to both crush the violent radicals and discredit the rest of the movement, whatever the legitimacy of their case.

Still, the show is called Victoria, and the cameras remain primarily inside the Palace – where we have two new walking, talking reminders about how revolution looks from the perspective of the ousted.  

King Louis Philippe of France (Bruno Wolkowitch), the man dispossessed of his throne, seeks refuge in Victoria’s palace and she grants it.

She also acquires another unexpected long-term house guest, her half-sister Feodora (Kate Fleetwood). The two were raised together in Kensington Palace, where the much younger Victoria was quite fond of Feodora, but they haven’t seen each other much since Feodora married into royal blood on the continent and moved to Germany.

With all those pesky revolutions, alas, Feodora now seeks refuge back in Britain, whose royal institutions seem a bit safer from the unwashed masses.

Neither Louis Philippe nor Feodora shies away from warning Victoria at every opportunity that what happened to their lives could happen to hers.

In the larger picture, this sets up an intriguing theme for the show’s third season. One of Victoria’s first challenges on the throne was restoring public confidence in the monarchy among the masses, and while she was quite successful in that campaign, it is equally true that her reign produced mixed long-term results for those masses. The Irish famine and the novels of Charles Dickens come to mind.

Dramatically, it all presents the toughest challenge yet for Coleman and Hughes, who must show their flaws while retaining our sympathy. On opening night they seem up to it.

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