BBC 2’s newest lavish period drama is a British-Franco-Canadian collaboration about the building of the fabulous Palace of Versailles. A second season was already ordered ahead of the premiere. I guess that’s the thing with history – there’s a whole lot of story to tell. It’s part produced by Canal+ but in English with no phony French accents, which is great. There’s nothing more jarring in a drama than hearing accented English that sounds like Vicki Michelle in Allo ‘Allo.
It stars George Blagden (out of Vikings) as Louis XIV dealing with rebellion amongst the nobility, and trying to stamp his power and authority on the country. Louis decides to up-sticks from Paris permanently and never go back as away to control his court. His courtiers are baffled at his grand plans to build a palace in a forest on the site of his father’s hunting lodge, but he’s the mother-loving King – chosen by God and blessed by the sun. And in 1667 they really believe that shit, so no one is going to argue with him about what colour the curtains should be.
It’s a confusing first episode – all the male cast members looks the same and from the back they all look like women with their lush long (probably really greasy) hair. Is that the King or his brother Philippe, or Philippe’s gay lover or the King’s mistress? I don’t bloody know! It doesn’t help that the camera is constantly spinning around and twirling like a dancer, giving the viewer motion sickness.
The cliff-hanger ending of episode one is the Queen (Maria Theresa of Spain) giving birth to a bastard child – the immediate giveaway is that the baby is black and the king is most definitely not. Of course the King is carrying on with a pretty young thing but it’s a mans world and so far there’s no evidence of that. The African jester’s baby on the other hand is damning. (This storyline looks to be based on historical gossip rather than actual fact.)
The most interesting character is the doctor’s daughter – a very rare educated woman who is seen up to her wrists in bloody anatomy, benefiting from her father’s social standing as doctor to the court. You can really feel the fear when the good Doctor says if anything goes wrong with the birth they have to pack up and run. Louis is not a guy to be messed with (torturing corrupt tax collectors seems to be a hobby) and I guess the Queen will learn that lesson the hard way too.
Versailles is a 10 part series so requires quite some commitment. Canal+ is your mark of quality French productions, but I’m not sure this was worth getting excited about. If I fancy a lavish period drama I might give episode 2 a watch and see if we can form an entente cordiale.
Versailles Episode 1 is available on iPlayer for a further two weeks.