I was royally excited about this week’s ‘Lunch’ with author Daisy Goodwin, who has pulled off the unfathomable feat of writing a best-selling book while simultaneously creating a series from said book all in the space of a little over a year. “I started writing the novel and at the same time realized it would make a good television series,” she told me. Within three months, she had a deal to make Victoria for ITV/PBS. “I got an agent and a producer. No one could say no to me.” And that, as they say, was that.
Of course clever Daisy already had two New York Times best-sellers, The American Heiress and The Fortune Hunter (both from St. Martin’s Press), and spent 10 years at the BBC making arts documentaries but, she said, “I’d never written a script before. It was quite an education.”
Daisy had the highest praise for Victoria stars Jenna Coleman (Dr. Who, Death Comes to Pemberley) who plays the young, diminutive and strong-willed Queen Victoria (“She’s amazing”), Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle) cast as her much older and world weary Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (“Such a great actor”) and Tom Hughes as Prince Albert (“He’s an Englishman playing a German who speaks English. He’s so good that my mother-in-law, who is German, asked, ‘Are you sure he’s not German?'”)
“Hanging out with the actors was fantastic,” she said. “Sitting there for the first read-through was thrilling. I’ve never been so excited about anything in my life.” Listening to the actors say the words she’d written “felt like I’d died and gone to heaven,” said Daisy between bites of Nantucket Bay scallops.
Sewell, it seems, left a particularly strong impression on Daisy. “Rufus is a very, very close reader of the script. Some actors just turn up and do it, but with him we had some very long discussions about two or three words,” she recalled. “There was a scene where Melbourne says he doesn’t want to read Dickens and he asked, ‘Did he really say this?’ And I told him, ‘He did.’ I learned when an actors have a concern you have to listen. Rufus was a great teacher. He’s also the only actor I’ve met who is happy when you take away lines. He can do it all just with his facial expressions.”
I couldn’t agree more. The chemistry between Sewell and Coleman is so completely off the charts in the show’s first three episodes, it’s sure to make a lot of viewers sad to see history play out when ‘Lord M,’ as Queen Victoria called him, steps aside when she falls in love with Prince Albert. “In the U.K. [the series aired there late last year] there was this whole thing on social media between #Vicbourne and #Vicbert,” said Daisy. Who won the day? “It was pretty close.”
Even though everyone knows Victoria and Albert went on to have what became one of Britain’s greatest love stories, I’m still partial to Lord M and young Victoria as a couple. “It was definitely love between Melbourne and Victoria,” said Daisy. “She fixated on him because she didn’t know any better. He could have stopped her from marrying Albert, but he knew it was the right thing for her. Lord Melbourne was Victoria’s first love and Victoria was his last love. His story is quite sad. When he died, she burned all his letters.”
The those final scenes between Victoria and her Lord M are heartbreaking. The dialogue in the actors’ most poignant scenes (of which there are many) is pretty much word for word from the book. “It’s my vision in both [versions],” said Daisy. “If it worked, there was no reason to change it.”
“[Writing] a television series requires a great deal more plotting,” she explained. “In the book, you want to follow one or two characters or it gets confusing.” For fans of both, one simply reinforces the other. “If you like the series, you’ll get so much more out of the book. People who see the series first will then understand the characters more when they read the book.”
Here in the states, Victoria’s publication preceded the series, which premiered this past Sunday night on PBS in Downton Abbey’s former 9 p.m. time slot. Fans of Downton will find much to like here. Daisy added a slate of characters for the show from ‘below stairs’ many entirely fictional but others, including the Queen’s dresser Skerrett (Nell Hudson)and Mr. Francatelli (Ferdinand Kingsley) are based on real people. “There has been very little written about servants [who lived] during that time. I read a lot of personal accounts and created the characters from that. I wanted to give a sense of the huge divisions of inequality in England at that time. Buckingham Palace was less than a half-mile away from a terrible slum. It was too important to gloss over the terrible poverty and incredible wealth that existed.”
At that very moment, an extremely uncomfortable looking Donald Trump, Jr. was making his way through the dining room and brushed by our table. There was none of the usual glad-handing that usually occurs when most bold face names work the room. He kept his eyes straight ahead as he made his way to the Garden Room, where more than a dozen Trump Organization staffers were having lunch. A few moments later two very somber Secret Service agents parked themselves in the table directly across from us, ordered a platter of french fries and settled in to keep an eye on PEOTUS’ oldest son.
“They look like they’re right out of Central Casting, don’t they?” said Daisy. With their identical dark suits and ear pieces, indeed they did. Their presence seemed to spark another train of thought as Daisy continued, “Maybe it’s because of everything that’s happening right now. I think one of the reasons Victoria is so popular is because people want to see a strong female character. In the U.K., young girls had viewing parties with Victoria masks and tiaras.”
In fact, this entire project was sparked by an argument Daisy had with a strong-willed young woman in her life — her 16-year-old daughter. “She’s very small — the same height as Victoria and she’s very intense. She rushed out and slammed the door, and I thought, ‘Well, how would it be if she woke up tomorrow and found herself the most powerful woman in the world?’ I had an epiphany.”
Why did she want to focus on Victoria’s early years? “You’ve got a country that’s been ruled, for centuries, by old, fat, disreputable men, and suddenly you’ve got this beautiful young queen. It’s a very exciting moment, and I felt that this was the place to start,” said Daisy.
No word yet on where she’ll finish. Daisy is already at work on Season 2, which covers the early years of Victoria’s marriage to Albert up until 1848. They had nine children, which was unheard of in its day. “We could go as long as there’s interest. They had nine children. We’d probably have to recast.” Ultimately, Queen Victoria was succeeded by her son, Edward VII. “He tended to play down her female side. There were so many myths about her. It’s good to finally see her as the fiery young woman who loved the physical side of marriage. She was fascinating.”
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. Bloomberg’s Global Chief Officer Ken Grossman presiding over a table of five.
2. Simone Levinson
3. Lisa Caputo
4. Steven Rubenstein
5. David Shane and Claire Atkinson
6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Jeff Greenfield and Andy Bergman. If you’re planning on watching PBS coverage of the inauguration, look for Jeff who will be offering commentary on the day’s events.
8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia with pals Brooke Hayward and Alex Hitz
11. Cindy Lewis
12. Drew Schiff
14. WinView’s Tom Rogers
16. Robin Lewis
18. Randy Jones
20. Joan Gelman and Joan Hamburg
21. Scott Kelley
25. PR maestro Tom Goodman and Jill Brooke, now on Galerie’s masthead, whose friendship goes back to the their days a ABC News. When I stopped by their table for a chat, the conversation turned to Tom Friedman’s must-read piece in today’s New York Times.
27. Daisy Goodwin, John Karle and yours truly
Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.