Versailles, 1667. Haunted by the trauma of the Fronde as the nobles of his court begin to rebel against the monarchy, Louis XIV in his 28th year in a Machiavellian political move decides to make the nobility submit by imposing a definite move of the court from Paris to Versailles, his father’s former hunting lodge. Trapped by their king’s “invitation”, the nobles of Paris gradually come to see the castle as a gilded prison and soon even the most humble courtiers of the king begin to show their viciousness as the alcoves of secrets, politics and war are manoeuvred through, revealing Versailles in all its glory and brutality.
Set against a backdrop of power, love, betrayal and war, Versailles examines a defining period of French history. A ruthless leader, King Louis XIV will stop at nothing to achieve his vision of creating the most beautiful palace in Europe and seizing absolute control of France and his enemies.
The cast is an international roster with Brit George Blagden (Les Misérables, Vikings) playing the Sun King. Despite being filmed in France, the series was shot in English and written by English writers, including co-creators David Wolstencroft (Spooks) and Simon Mirren (Waking the Dead), with a British actor playing King Louis XIV.
Opulent, lavish and rather saucy, BBC 2’s new period drama hit our screens this week – original airing on Wednesday nights with a repeat performance on Saturday nights at 1055pm – and commanded a rather disappointing set of viewing figures, just 1.8 million.
Touted as the most expensive TV series ever made in France, Versailles cost a reported £2.1m per episode, more than twice the average cost of an episode of Downton Abbey and given its lavish production values and stellar cast it will come as no surprise that this wasn’t a cheap production for French company Canal+ – only time will tell if it was worth the gamble. They seem to think so as a second season has been confirmed.
One scene stole the show for me, Louis out riding alone, dismounted and stood overlooking his father’s hunting lodge, the final setting for the palace. A pack of wolves begin to creep ever closer to the King, Lous turns and begins to reveal his sword, ready to fight his corner. The tension was palpable, even though you knew he’d survive the encounter. Gripping stuff.
The great thing about Versailles – the drama – is that there is so much history to explore, to take advantage from. From Louis XIV’s long serving butler, to the Queen’s black baby there are few secrets at court and Canal+ appear to have done a rather splendid job of morphing fact and fiction here. Relationships are intense, the erotic nature of the period certainly explored – on numerous occasions – but for me the greatest gift a series such as Versailles can give us – an education. There are liberties – of course there are – but like any book loosely based around fact or history – this series will make you want to know more, before you know it you’ll be using google to see what’s real and what isn’t.
You’ll discover relationships, mistresses, cousins wedding cousins and of course trysts that you never knew existed! The only issue I had with the first episode is that apart from Louis XIV there were no other stand-out performances from the main body of cast members, none that made me want to keep watching. That said, I am keen to see where the story takes Claudine, played by Lizzie Brocheré who is keen to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a female doctor, rather than be seen as a witch.
Education in a woman in those days was certainly frowned upon! The first episode was confusing in parts and the writing and delivery, well I’ve seen and read better! With all that said if Versailles can keep the viewers happy in future episodes, season 2 which begins filming shortly should prove quite interesting.
Given the nudity and rather explicit sex scenes the first episode has garnered just two, yes two, official complaints to ofcom – remarkable in its own right. The scenes are indeed rather fruity with more than a passing reference to nudity paid. Not for the faint hearted and certainly not a drama to watch with your parents, it is wonderfully shot and the colours maginificent.
So there we have it, a decent start for BBC 2 but not a patch on Wolf Hall – a six part adaption of Hilary mantel’s novels – which began with 3.9 million viewers last year. Only time will tell if the characters are engaging enough to keep the viewers happy. It’s certainly no Tudors – my favourite BBC Period drama – a solid start but not spectacular.