While the twentieth century might have been the era which saw technological advances that continue to shape our lives, the nineteenth century was when the socio-political events occurred that made those advances possible. For it was during this era that many of the old ruling families of Europe found their power pulled out from under them, and the continent's map began to take the shape we are familiar with today. Countries which had previously not existed, Germany and Italy, were born when charismatic leaders rode the crest of the nationalist wave that was sweeping Europe.
Along with the political upheavals came social changes as the power base began to shift away from the aristocracy and their inherited wealth in courts across Europe, to a new merchant class who made their money through manufacturing and trade. With their increased wealth came demands for more say in how they were governed which led to a series of reforms across Europe that saw the gradual winnowing away of power from monarchs and into the hands of elected politicians. While it's true in countries like Germany and Russia it would eventually take war and revolution to oust the monarchy, in others the transition was far less painful.
England had already undergone its bloody civil war between Parliament and the throne close to two hundred years earlier when Charles I was deposed and beheaded by Oliver Cromwell. Although the monarchy was returned to power after only a short interval, it was with far less influence in the actual governance of the country. By the time the nineteenth century had come around, the monarch in England was still considered head of the government, but in name only. So although she was head of a vast empire when she ascended the throne at seventeen, Queen Victoria's word was not law.
This era, specifically the reign of Queen Victoria, is brought to life brilliantly in the Granada television production of Edward The King that has just been released as a four DVD box set by Acorn Media. For, although the series is about the life of Victoria's heir, Edward VII, their stories are irrevocably intertwined and the one can not be told without the other's. The series begins in the year preceding Edward's birth, only a few years into Victoria's reign, and not only follows his life to its conclusion, but provides details of her life with her husband Prince Albert and an overview of the changing face of Europe and the world.
The first four episodes, volume one of this set, deal with Edward's formative years. In an attempt to mould him as a future King of England, Prince Albert devises an educational plan that keeps him working from dawn to dusk and isolates him from the "corrupting" influence of other children. Over the first few episodes a picture develops of a young man who, no matter how hard he tries, will never succeed in pleasing his parents. Unlike his brothers and sisters he is never shown any affection, given any encouragement, or allowed any freedom to do anything that he might enjoy. Naturally when the first opportunity arises for a little independence, when he's a student at Cambridge University, he jumps at the chance and begins an affair with an actress.
His timing couldn't have been worse, because it happens during the middle of the American Civil War and Prince Albert is involved with delicate negotiations to keep England from being drawn into the conflict. Britain needs the cotton trade with the Confederate states for its industry, but also can't afford to alienate the Union states either. Shortly after dealing with his son's affair he contracts typhoid fever and dies. Victoria blames Edward for the death of her beloved husband and for the rest of her life that dominates her relationship with her future son.
As the series progresses through its thirteen parts we see the effect this has on shaping Edward. While Prime Minister after Prime Minister pleads with the Queen to let her son play a more active role in government, she keeps insisting he's not ready to take on any positions of responsibility. At the same time Victoria retreats into virtual seclusion following the death of her husband and refuses to take part in any public functions. When the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, asks Edward and his new wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, to make themselves visible by attending parties and functions to remind the people of their monarch's existence, Victoria accuses her son of being frivolous and immature. Victoria also demands that Edward not be allowed to represent the monarch in public as she is the sovereign, not him.
It's no wonder that Edward began a series of extramarital affairs; he had nothing else to do. Even though the series shows that he clearly loved his wife and was devoted to her, it also shows that his mother's refusal to allow him any meaningful employment, and her continual low opinion of him and his character, pushed him to living down to her expectations. Although a part of him knew it was behaviour akin to cutting off his nose to spite his face, he couldn't stop and was involved in scandal after scandal.
Of course no one can live forever, although Victoria sure tries, and after over sixty years as Queen she finally dies and Edward inherits the throne. By then he's already advanced in years, and doesn't have very long a reign so very little of the series actually deals with Edward as King. In spite of this it's a fascinating study of both the time and the people in it. This is the first production of any sort that I've seen where Victoria, wonderfully portrayed by Annette Crosbie, is shown as a young woman, and happy. The first four episodes showing her relationship with her husband, Prince Albert (Robert Hardy) were exceptionally well done as they managed to not only depict their happiness together but show how they developed their low opinion of their eldest son.
While in the first four episodes a variety of younger actors portray Edward, it's Timothy West who portrays him from his early twenties onwards. He does an absolutely masterful job as he is able to bring out the various sides of his character. He is both charming and, contrary to his parents' opinion, very intelligent. We watch as his frustration with his limited role gradually turns him from a loving husband into a philanderer as he continues to look for ways to spend his boundless energy and enthusiasm for life. It doesn't help much that his wife prefers a quiet life, while he desires the adoration of society as consolation for the lack of attention and affection he received from his parents.
In spite of the fact that the original program was televised in the 1970s, the sound and picture quality are fine. Special features included with the four discs include an in depth look at Robert Hardy, the actor who portrayed Prince Albert, some of the original introductions to episodes when it was originally televised in the US with Robert McNeal, and a featurette on the life of the real King Edward VII.
Not only is Edward The King an exhaustive history of one of the most important times in the modern era, it is also provides an intimate portrayal of the lives of some of its pre-eminent people. British television has always had a knack for bringing history to life and making the famous real, Edward The King is another shining example of that talent.