Comfort and Joy aren’t the two things you immediately associate with the Royal Family, even at Christmas, when the Queen beams herself into living rooms across the country, where many are struggling to make ends meet. But while Netflix’s showstopping drama The Crown mines the modern monarchy for drama, intrigue, scandal and the fraught tensions behind the gilded facade, ITV’s Victoria returns for its own dive further back into our royal history – and the festive focus for this feature-length special is enough to give the broadcaster’s own series a low-key warmth that’s just right for the season.
The year is 1846, and with Christmas upon the royal household, Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) decides to make his mark on the most wonderful time of the year with a few Germanic traditions. And so he puts the whole palace’s noses out of joint with extravagant ideas and instructions: a tree for every child, candles in their branches, baubles on their leaves and one big tree in the middle of the room. Oh, and hanging from the ceiling.
That forms the basic framework, around which Daisy Goodwin comes up with some neat flourishes and a flurry of plot updates from previous seasons. There’s the under-the-stairs romance between Miss Skerrett (Outlander’s Nell Hudson, on equally charming form) and chef Francatelli (Ferdinand Kingsley), Albert’s womanising brother, Ernst (David Oakes), who is suffering from syphilis (much to detriment of his affair with Margaret Clunie’s Duchess of Sutherland, and there’s even the return of Peter Firth as the scarred Duke of Cumberland, providing a wonderfully nasty performance worthy of any panto villain. (If he had a moustache, you can bet he’d be twirling it.)
All of these running narratives expand and evolve to generally sweet ends, echoed by the more central preoccupation of what each character should give the others for Christmas. Is it a time for offering forgiveness, when the Duke of Cumberland demands what is rightfully is? Is it a time for providing acceptance, as Miss Skerrett finds herself inheriting slaves in America. Is it a time for presenting tolerance, as Albert’s family invade the palace, most of them uninvited or unwanted?
The most awkward gift of all comes in the shape of Sara Forbes Bonetta (Zaris-Angel Hator), a young princess from Africa, who was set to be a sacrifice, until Captain Forbes intervened and arranged for her to be given to Victoria instead. Jenna Coleman’s queen remains a remarkable performance, able to be childlike and demanding, while still imperial, magnanimous and mature – and the introduction of Sara brings out Victoria’s maternal side, as Coleman gets to show off her character’s compassionate nature. She recognises the inappropriateness of being given a human being as a piece of property, which gives the episode a surprising amount of weight – a parrot from Africa proves Sara’s biggest ally, even if the symbolic image of a bird in a cage perhaps verges on being overstated.
There’s pathos, too, in the discussion of Albert’s childhood memories of Christmas, which were naturally not as happy as he would like to think. There’s something to be said for the way that both Victoria and The Crown find strength in fleshing out their queens’ male counterparts, and Tom Hughes gets better and better in his role, revealing more vulnerability and kindness of Albert beneath his prime, moustached exterior. By the time we reach a brief incident involving Albert skating on thin ice, we’re genuinely concerned for the prince.
And yet there’s still time for plenty of lightweight frivolity, from paintings and jewellery to veiled insults at family dinners. Those hallmarks of festive telly are reflected, in turn, by Albert’s own sense of tradition – and that proves the greatest gift of the whole story, as we’re reminded that almost all of our Christmas habits were imported from Europe (something that bears a poignant pertinence in the age of Brexit), and that they started from a place of sincere sentiment, rather than slavish ritual. Throw in a cute soundtrack that downplays Victoria’s often intrusive theme in favour of an arrange of Coventry Carol, and a cute scene featuring Victoria playing carols on the piano for Albert, and you have a gently wrapped bundle of drama, love and trees that hits the seasonal sweet spot. And yes, even some comfort and joy, too.
Victoria’s 2017 Christmas special is available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD.