Cinema has always been irresistibly attracted to monarchy. Films have simultaneously mythologized and humanized their royal subjects – mythologized by casting famous screen stars as famous monarchs and humanized by showing them experiencing the same emotions as their subjects. In his book Biopics (1992), George Custen points out that a recurrent theme in female biopics is ‘the conflict between the fulfilment of heterosexual desire through romance and marriage and professional duty’. This is nowhere more apparent than in Elizabeth I biopics in most of which love affairs have played a major role, duty has been eventually affirmed and she has been celebrated as The Virgin Queen. As Custen argues ‘Gender is one of the most powerful frames informing the construction of fame’. Gender, in Victoria’s case, meant something very different from Elizabeth. Victoria’s authority derived not from avoiding marriage and romance but from the fact that during her reign she moved successively through the various phases of approved nineteenth century models of womenhood-youthful virgin queen, devoted young wife and mother, grieving widow and grandmother of the nation. Her longevity coinciding with the zenith of the British Empire made her by the end of her reign a living imperial icon. Personally Victoria was strong-willed, stubborn and passionate. But her recognition of her own nature led her to defer to masculine guidance. Throughout her reign she depended on the support and advice of a succession of men: Lord Melbourne, King Leopold of the Belgians, her beloved husband, Albert, the Prince Consort, the highland ghillie John Brown and Benjamin Disraeli. She also opposed the idea of votes for women. Her marriage to Albert and the birth of their nine children firmly fixed her in the role of wife and mother and the royal family, with their musical evenings, seaside and highland holidays and annual Christmas festivities, became the epitome of the bourgeois family.
The last years of Victoria’s reign coincided with the development of film as the new medium of communication and Victoria became the obvious candidate for a biopic. The first was the now lost film Sixty Years a Queen (1913) which interspersed the great events of the reign with sentimental domestic scenes. But there were no more biopics until 1937. For at the request of King George V the British Board of Film Censors banned any film featuring Queen Victoria while any of her children were still alive. The ban was lifted on 20 June 1937, the centenary of Victoria’s accession. Producer Herbert Wilcox was given permission by King Edward VIII to make a biopic. Victoria the Great (1937) which teamed Anna Neagle as Victoria and Anton Walbrook as Albert concentrated on the first half of the reign, emphasizing his training of her to become a dutiful Queen.
But it was more than just a respectable version of ‘the private life’ film, pioneered by The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). After the Empire had been rocked by the abdication of King Edward VIII over his love for a twice divorced American Wallis Simpson, Victoria the Great demonstrated the essential soundness of the monarchy by depicting a perfect royal marriage and a dedicated partnership in the service of the nation. It was such a critical and box office success that Wilcox promptly remade it in Technicolor as Sixty Glorious Years (1938). Released at the time of Munich, it stressed the need for peace with preparedness and emphasized the strength of the British Empire.
There have been two films specifically concerned with Victoria’s long seclusion and her eventual emergence from it, the years when she was popularly known as ‘The Widow of Windsor’. In the fictional but enchanting The Mudlark (1950) the devotion to Victoria (Irene Dunne) of a homeless waif Wheeler (Andrew Ray) persuades her to reappear in public. In the moving Mrs Brown (1997) the true story is told of the friendship that developed between Victoria (Judi Dench) and John Brown (Billy Connolly), who provides the masculine presence in her life lacking since the death of Albert.
While virtually all cinematic portrayals of Victoria have been sympathetic, there has been one notable exception, the thirteen part ATV series Edward the Seventh (1975). It covered his entire sixty nine years of life from birth to death. Ten of the thirteen episodes feature Annette Crosbie giving the most unsympathetic portrayal of Victoria ever seen. Virtually unbalanced, she is prone to hysterical rage, is bitterly jealous of the popularity of Edward (Timothy West) and his wife Alexandra, wallows in her grief after the death of Albert at the expense of her duties and implacably opposed all attempts to get her to devolve some of her public functions on Edward. Edward by contrast emerges as humane, kindly, decent, enjoying life to the full while seeking ways to serve and tirelessly endeavouring to maintain the peace of Europe. The shift of sympathies reflects the cultural upheavals of the 1960s when the old nineteenth century values, certainties and social controls were overturned.
The more recent Victoria biopics have returned to the themes of Anna Neagle films: the early years of the marriage and Albert’s training of Victoria to fulfil the duties of a constitutional monarch. The BBC miniseries Victoria and Albert (2001) with Victoria Hamilton and Jonathan Firth, the feature film The Young Victoria (2008) with Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend and the ITV series Victoria (2016) with Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes all cover more or less the same events.
But Victoria uniquely interweaves the life of the royals upstairs and the lives of the servants, with their amours, rivalries and secrets, downstairs. In this it recalls Downton Abbey which may explain why 4.5 million people tuned in to watch and a second series was commissioned.
Jeffrey Richards is Emeritus Professor of Cultural History, Lancaster University, where he has taught since the early 1970s. He has published widely on the history of cinema and popular culture. His books include – but are not limited to – Visions of Yesterday (1973), Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York (1977), The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1930-1939 (1984), Films and British National Identity: From Dickens to Dad’s Army (1997), Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds (2008) and China and the Chinese in Popular Film: From Fu Manchu to Charlie Chan (2017). Jeffrey is also General Editor of I.B.Tauris’ Cinema and Society series, and Manchester University Press’ Studies in Popular Culture series.