I’m waiting downstairs in the Media Centre offices at White City. I’ve been to the BBC before, to appear on various programmes, but this is different – I am meeting John Farren, the editor of Timewatch, to discuss a forthcoming programme on Young Victoria – presented by me and based on my work. I can hardly believe I am here.
In my book, Becoming Queen, published in September 2008, I explore the passionate youth of Queen Victoria, set against the story of the life of her cousin, Princess Charlotte, the heir to the throne, whose tragic, premature death set off a wild race to father the next heir between the sons of George III. We have a vision of Victoria as dull and dreary and repressive: instead I want to explore how she was vibrant, tempestuous and determined to fight for the throne. This was despite an overbearing mother who would do anything – even consider imprisonment and coercion – to get power, a miserable, isolated childhood, and a quite ridiculous name. No one in the country had ever been called Victoria before – she was called it to indicate that she would never be more than a minor Princess. Victoria’s battle to reach the throne is a fascinating story: painful, gripping, shocking, and ultimately redemptive. John thinks that it would work brilliantly on TV – to my delight.
I’m back at White City, meeting Mike Wadding, the director, James Gray, the researcher and Tanya Severn, the production co-ordinator. They are so engaged and interested that it is really easy to talk. I tell the story, and we discuss. We agree that I will make a voice recording of the story so that Mike and James can listen to it on their ipods.
Throughout April, we work hard on the script, and discuss locations, stills, interviewees and props. I come back early from giving talks in Stockholm to film in Hyde Park, first with James and Mike, and then with our cameraman, really Director of Photography, Paul Lang. The initial shoots are a little shaky. Second time around is better and we all feel more confident. I am speaking about Victoria, as well as other subjects on the Queen Victoria cruise ship in May, so I take my pieces to camera with me. We’re set to film almost as soon as I return.
First Filming – May 2007
We start with a three day trip to Sidmouth, the Isle of Wight, Dover and Ramsgate. I arrive at White City and meet the team, and Paul Miller, in charge of sound, and Helen who will do make-up, which we need for me and the interviewees as we are filming in high definition. We cram into a car full of snacks. I feel a little as if I am on a family holiday...
We arrive at the Royal Glen Hotel in Sidmouth. Victoria, her mother and father, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, came here when she was an infant, in the hope of saving money. But the winter was bitter, and the Duke died abruptly, leaving the Duchess a poverty stricken widow.
I have been to the hotel before, but now I have the ‘Princess’ room, chosen in case we need it to film. It’s huge. I feel like a Queen myself.
Mike and I go over my pieces to camera before I have to say them, and change and revise, where necessary. I discover that it is easier to revise it moments before than learn it all in advance. The day proceeds so quickly. We film in the hotel, outside, and on the beach and it’s all done. I also learn how much shots of me are needed simply walking about or looking around.
I am learning just how long filming takes. Not only does it take a long time to set up the shot, but then so many things interfere: sound, the sun changing, the focus being out, so the time to capture the actual piece is limited.
The team are great. I think of Queen Victoria who declared ‘Great events make me calm’. She would have been impressed by Mike and Paul, who are always unflappable, patient and generous with time and advice. Very early on, Mike said to me that the shoot must be fun – and it is.
The rest of the road trip is busy. We visit Norris Castle on the Isle of Wight, in the rain, and I stand looking out over the ships in Dover, next to the coastguard control centre. Ramsgate is our final location, where the first stop is a proper fish and chip shop for lunch. Then we head to the pier, and also to the park, to talk about when Victoria was seriously ill with typhoid and the Duchess of Kent tried to force her to agree to a Regency. Victoria’s childhood was miserable, but this is one of the most shocking moments of all, and I begin to feel incensed on her behalf as I talk to the camera.
June 2007: Kensington Palace
We are clambering over the locked gate in Kensington Palace. No one stops us – perhaps because we look like the most overloaded set of burglars in London. We’re filming after hours, and failed to find anyone to let us in and we stagger in complete with cameras, scripts, and sound equipment. Finally, Paul and the camera assistant, Magic, start setting up in the Red Saloon. We move aside the cash desks and security desks, which welcome the visitors, and replace them with camera tracks.
On my last birthday, in November, I visited the same restaurant in Kensington High Street that we go to for lunch, then I went to Kensington Palace. So I feel as if I am reliving my birthday every day.
Over the next five days, we film across Kensington Palace, fighting to get as much in as possible before it goes dark, setting up camera pods, so I can be filmed through a chandelier and tracks across the picture gallery. My shoes cause endless problems with the sound. Paul Miller has to cover the soles with wedges of sponge, so I feel a little as if I’m moon walking.
June 2007: Westminster Abbey
We have various places to film – we read extracts from Queen Victoria’s diaries at Miller’s Academy in Notting Hill and carry out our interviews there. We film in Green Park, which is full of people who want to wave at the camera. We travel down to Claremont, in Surrey, home of Victoria’s uncle Leopold, later King of the Belgians, now a school. But the most thrilling place of all for me is Westminster Abbey. We essentially have the place to ourselves from about 7pm and it is amazingly atmospheric. At one point, I deliver a piece from behind the Altar. To do so I have to wait behind the altar, right by the graves of Edward the Confessor, that the public cannot see, except from afar. I feel very lucky and we all come out on a great high.
July 2007: Editing the Film
I go to see the first version of the film in the edit suite. Finally, I see what high definition TV is. The film looks so great, and I’m so impressed by all the angles. But now we have all the pieces to camera, interviews and various shots, we need to write the voice over. After John Farren has watched it, Mike sends me the tape and I start to work on the script.
August 2007: Finishing Touches
The film is due to be submitted on the 8 August. I’ve postponed staying in Paris until I’m absolutely not needed, so on the 10 August, I set off on the Eurostar. It’s been an incredible learning experience in which I’ve learnt a lot about television, but most of all about Victoria. The very experience of being alone in the places that she was has made me feel closer to her. After spending three years researching and writing the book, it has been incredible to experience it in the form of a programme – as a series of emotional, dramatic and ultimately redemptive events, in truly magnificent locations.
It has been a great experience. If I could do it all over again – I would.