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.
In Australia the majority of our public understanding of history comes not from reading the work of historians but from watching film and television productions based on history. Performance has also become a key interpretative strategy for museum and heritage sites, and digital programs and web-series are playing a growing role in school curriculums.
My PhD explores the process of adapting history through performance – how it could or should be done, and what the opportunities or challenges might be in adapting the work of historians through different performance mediums. My research is practice-based and I’m building upon my background as a theatre-maker and heritage interpreter to develop a series of performance texts that are adaptations of the Founders and Survivors Project, a quantitative history research project analysing the experiences and legacy of Tasmania’s convicts.
In 1803 the British invasion of Australia spread southwards to a lush heart-shaped island named Van Diemen’s Land by Europeans, known today as Tasmania. The island soon teemed with red-coated soldiers, record-obsessed colonial bureaucrats, and ambitious free settlers who over the next fifty years would whittle it into a ‘little England.’ This feat was only made possible thanks to a devastating process of land dispossession from local Aboriginal groups and the forced labour of around 73,000 men, women and children convicted of crimes in British courts and transported from the far reaches of the Empire as convicts.
For the purposes of the colonial administration these convicts were comprehensively documented:
As unfree migrants, the convicts sent to Britain’s Australian penal colonies were described in extraordinary detail that proliferated over time. We know the colour of their eyes and hair, their place of birth, age, religion and literacy as well as the names of their parents and brothers and sisters. We also know much about their former criminal and work histories and the disorders for which they were treated on the long voyage to Australia. So minutely were their bodies examined that we have a record of their scars, inoculation marks and tattoos.
– Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Founders and Survivors Project [i]
The Tasmanian convict archive contains some of the most detailed data about 19th century working classes in the world. As well as describing the convicts, the archive also traces each convict whilst under sentence, keeping track of any work done, punishments borne, marriages sought or babies born.
When convict transportation to Van Diemen’s Land ended in 1853 locals began unburdening themselves of the past and scrubbing clean the ‘convict stain’ that many felt had tainted the island. The convict archive was literally locked away, with some records actively destroyed, and society developed an unofficial ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy about the convict past. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Tasmanian convict archive was made available to the public, and it was only near the end of the 20th Century that it became a point of pride, not public shame, to have found a convict in your family tree. In 2007 the Tasmanian Convict archive was inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
The Founders and Survivors Project is an ongoing collaborative research project between a number of institutions involving historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers who are interrogating this UNESCO listed convict archive. Convict records are gradually being transcribed and uploaded by researchers into a massive database, and quantitative analysis techniques are unearthing some ground breaking ‘big picture’ stories about the convict experience. Instead of seeing the archive as a record of convicts’ individual failings and experiences, which has long shaped our understanding of convict history, we can ‘read against the grain’ en masse and see the attitudes and systems of the colonial administration and how convicts’ lives were influenced by political, social or economic factors.
The project’s findings cover diverse territory – from myth-busting entrenched attitudes towards Irish convicts to analyzing height data to gauge whether the children of convicts were at a health disadvantage. Big data is changing the way we do history, and significantly shifting our understanding of the Tasmanian convict experience.
Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania
When adapting this research for performance a key challenge has been negotiating the warring needs of accuracy, artistry and accessibility in developing a performance text for a particular audience. For each performance text I have decided how much fidelity to the original historical research I need (or want) to maintain and what role the slippery and subjective term ‘authenticity’ should play in my choices. Quantitative history enjoys a relatively small audience thanks to the complexity of the methods used by researchers, and one of the aims of my research has been to interpret the data analysis process in ways that allow it to be accessible and engaging for wider public audiences without losing accuracy or misrepresenting the findings. I’ve been exploring techniques around simplification, prioritisation, and providing extra informative scaffolding, and have been experimenting with ways of visually representing the data, inserting the data into narratives and finding ways to perform ‘a likelihood’ rather than an outcome.
The early exploration of performing a Gaussian curve
Because the Founders and Survivors Project is so dependent on digital technology, and the database provides such a highly mediated window through which to view the Tasmanian convict experience, I have used similar digital-based mediums in my performance texts. I am developing a vlog-style series that uses visual representations of data and builds upon contemporary forms of educational storytelling to communicate some of the key findings of the Founders and Survivors Project. I’m also exploring online digital engagement with the Founders and Survivors research and how digital data visualisation might also be integrated into live theatrical performance.
My findings might be used to inform museum and heritage performance practice or performance adaptation projects for stage, film or television, but might also influence the communication practices of quantitative historians, and I’m looking forward to publicly releasing my performance texts and gauging how they bring this exciting new research into Tasmanian convict history to new audiences.
[i] Maxwell-Stewart, Hamish ‘And All My Great Hardships Endured’?: Irish Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land’ in Transnational Perspectives on Modern Irish History, Routledge, Niall Whelehan (ed), United Kingdom (2015)
Lydia Nicholson is a theatre-maker and heritage interpreter and is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Tasmania. She studied at Flinders University and the University of Sydney, has worked with a range of theatre companies in South Australia and New South Wales and developed public programs with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, the Australian Museum, National Trust Tasmania and the British Museum.