Radio : Victoria season

19th January 2001 at 00:00

Victoria season
BBC Radio 4

The prevailing image of Queen Victoria is of a regal suet pudding. There she sits, dumpily unamused, symbolising Britain's serious and grandparental role in the world. Some of this is fair enough.

She was almost literally the grandmother of Europe - her nine children produced 38 grandchildren who married into continental royal families. In India she was the Queen-Empress, and for much of Africa she was at the apex of a system that spread British religious and cultural values far and wide.

But so many popular conceptions of the Victorian era and the woman who gave it its name are simplistic that Radio 4's two-week season has the unstated theme of "the Victorians as you have never thought of them before".

When Victoria was 16, her future was by no means certain. Her extended family included those likely to produce an heir with a stronger claim to the throne than hers. In the event, many illegitimate offspring were discounted and the legitimate ones died young. But even so, in an atmosphere of intrigue such as might have been familiar to the young Elizabeth I, Victoria was protected from courtiers until succession was assured.

Even while she waited, isolated and monitored, the young princess demonstrated a will of her own. She was shrewd in her judgments of older, more experienced people and prevented her domineering mother promising too much power to her ambitious adviser, Sir John Conroy. She ascended the throne in 1837 aged 18, and ruled for 64 years - she died on January 22, 1901 - presiding over an era that still resonates for us more than a century later. Victoria was a prolific letter-writer and keeper of journals.

These are the sources for Juliet Ace's lively serial for Woman's Hour, Young Victoria , which starts on Monday (10.45-11am, repeat 7.45pm) with an eager-voiced Imogen Stubbs in the title role. The account of Victoria's life from the age of 16 to Prince Albert's death in 1861 covers a period in which she took a close interest in affairs of state. it included the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Crimean War two years later. During most of the period, Victoria and Albert were popular, but there was an assassination attempt.

How did the police catch the perpetrator? They sent the royal couple out driving again to attract another attempt. The 19th-century ruler needed more than a stiff upper lip.

But this is essentially a personal, even domestic, account of Victoria's experience, her enjoyment of dances and entertainment as a young girl, her overwhelming love and admiration for Albert, her weariness with so many pregnancies and her delight in the pure air of Balmoral.

Christmas as we know it, with trees and candles, was introduced by Albert in 1840. Homes were bought - Osborne on the Isle of Wight and Balmoral Castle - and redesigned by the energetic prince. Children grew up - as the ninth was born, the eldest, Vicki, married Prince Fritz of Prussia.

Albert's death came just as the young Bertie (the future Edward VII) was undergoing one of the crises so often brought about by his playboy behaviour. Juliet Ace has made no attempt to update the language. The result is an involving and informative drama that sounds authentic and accessible.

Victoria was told that the Contagious Diseases Act was "something to do with cows". Her sensibilities were not to be impugned with talk of prostitution and venereal disease, which in the 1860s was rife in garrison towns. The 1864 Act, which gave magistrates the power to examine women suspected of prostitution, is one of those dealt with in A Revolution in Five Acts (January 22 to 26, 11.02-11.30am, repeat 9.30pm), a series introduced by Ian Hislop which examines five key pieces of Victorian legislation.

The other programmes deal with the Railway Act, which "set out to turn the train into an agent of moral good", the Repeal of the Corn Laws, the Reform Act of 1867 and the Chimney Sweeps Act, which aimed to ban the sometimes fatal practice of sending boys up chimneys.

The Contagious Diseases Act played a significant role in politicising women. Supposed prostitutes found to be infected were treated with mercury, which made their hair and teeth fall out. Women found to be free from disease were given a certificate of health, which branded those who might have sought other employment as licensed prostitutes, called "Queen's Women".

Historians comment throughout these programmes - a device echoed in Victorian Marriage Beds (Mondays, January 22 - February 5, 2.15-3pm), although these programmes are billed as drama. High-class acting (Anna Massey, Sam West, Anton Lesser star) combines with expert commentary to throw light on George Eliot and John Cross, the younger man she married; August Strindberg and his second wife, Frida (on their honeymoon, she awoke to find him strangling her during a nightmare); and Bishop Edward Benson and the lesbian Mary Sidgewick. Something else successfully kept from Victoria, who announced that such a phenomenon was impossible.

Radio 4's Victoria Season, from January 22, will colour many regular programmes such as The Food Programme and The Moral Maze . Special programmes include Tales from Thackeray , two Monday plays, Victorian Love Stories and The Darkling Thrush , the story of Hardy's centennial poem.

The National Trust is planning a series of events celebrating Victoria's reign. Tel: 0870 4584000.

English Heritage will commemorate Victoria's death by opening the garden at Osborne House on January 22 and recreating the Queen's bedroom as a 'royal shrine' from January 31. Tel: 01983 200022.

The Wallace Collection in London has an exhibition of the work of thomas Sully, Victoria's portraitist. Tel: 020 7563 9500

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