In no particular order
I have a question. Why is it that if you’re into the details of the lives of living Royals you’re a classless gossip hound, but if you’re into the details of the lives of dead Royals than you’re a history buff? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that I am very guilty of this hypocrisy. I will roll my eyes at every commemorative Royal Baby issue of Hello! Magazine I pass on the newsstand, but I also own about five biographies of Queen Victoria.
And there’s something about these people, especially the ones who sucked at their jobs, that has always attracted people with cameras. Their lives were lived almost entirely in public, so why not continue this trend after death?
There must be hundreds of these series and movies by now, so narrowing it down, even within the parameters of “dead royal nitwits” is quite a task. I’ve confined myself to television series or made-for-television movies, not theatrically released films. I’m also only considering series in English, which excludes some really great stuff, but you have to draw lines somewhere. I also won’t be considering adaptations of historical fiction in other media, which is why there is no I, Claudius or The White Queen here.
I’ve tried to be broad minded, but there’s no doubt that this list is very, very Eurocentric. And even Anglo-centric. My only defence for this is that these are the kinds of topics that works in English tend to be about (most historical K-dramas are about Korean history, after all) and, there are no two ways about it, I know a hell of a lot more about the history of Europe than I do about any other part of the world.
Blame my education, I guess.
Elizabeth R (1971)
There have been many television mini-series about the life of Elizabeth I, but this one is still my favourite.
This series is actually six “plays” about Elizabeth’s life that each focus on a particular event of importance, be it that kerfuffle with Thomas Seymour in her youth or the Spanish Armada. The focus in always on Elizabeth as a person, rather than on the high politics, though discussion of that is rather inevitable. The series isn’t a slave to historical accuracy, but it does go to a great deal of trouble to preserve the nuance and complexity of the times, and doesn’t try to whitewash Elizabeth and the more, um, abrasive aspects of her personality. And it also doesn’t fall into the trap of blackwashing my girl Mary I (she must be protected!) until she may as well be a vampire or something.
The real thing anyone remembers about this series is Glenda Jackson’s definitive performance. Sorry, Cate Blanchett but she simply is Elizabeth. The supporting cast is just as talented, with Robert Hardy as Robert Dudley being my favourite.
The staging and pacing of this series may be against the tastes of the contemporary viewer. It does feel more like a stage play than a television show, and the performances are very stage-like in their slightly exaggerated nature, but I couldn’t recommend this one enough.
Fall of Eagles (1974)
This series follows three imperial families; the Hapsburgs in Austria-Hungary, the Hohenzollern in Prussia/the German Empire, and the Romanovs in Russia, for the fifty or so years before all three blow up in the bloodbath of the first World War. Each of the thirteen episodes focus on a particular person or event, be it Princess Vicky dealing with the reactionary Prussian court in the first few years of her marriage, or Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky taking over the Tsarist secret police.
The historical accuracy is very, like, what the British thought about this stuff in the 70s, and the pacing of the series as a whole is a little strange. I’m not sure why the first episode, which focuses on Empress Sissi’s struggle with depression basically, because it’s prophetic(?) is even included. And towards the end we’re almost exclusively focusing on Nicholas II in Russia… struggling with depression and taking the country down with him. And Alexandra possibly going insane.
But in any case, the thing that keeps me going back for the rewatch over and over is one thing: the performances. Curd Jürgens steals the show with an endearingly over-the-top Otto von Bismarck who likes to scream at the Emperor and threaten to jump out of windows, Gayle Hunnicutt is wonderful as the haughty and unhinged Alexandra, and Charles Kay’s performance as the complete push-over Nicholas is perfect.
But the winner has to be Patrick Stewart (yes, that Patrick Stewart) as Lenin. I know the man has had a celebrated career, and this television series is so small time that I doubt he bothers to put it on his CV anymore, but this was the role the man was born to play. God gave him premature baldness so that he could play Lenin. It is known.
Edward the Seventh (1975)
One of the alternative names for this series was The Royal Victorians and I would argue that that’s a much more appropriate title.
It’s technically about Edward VII in that it begins just before he’s born and ends when he dies, but more often than not, the focus is on other members of the extended family. Poor “Bertie” is just the disappointing child most of the time, it feels like. In fact, Annette Crosbie, who plays Queen Victoria, gets top billing for every episode until her death. And that’s ten episodes in. And there’s also quite a bit about my girl Princess Vicky, who really could have used some Dornish succession laws, in my opinion, and her life in Prussia, her son, the wonderfully buffoonish Kaiser Wilhelm (played by Christopher Neame), and about Edward’s wife Alexandra’s family in Denmark, Greece, and Russia. There’s even quite a bit of time spent on Disraeli and Gladstone.
Crosbie’s Victoria is flawless. All the acting is pretty much flawless. The acting is something I really like about these seventies series. But Crosbie is head and shoulders above anyone else. Her Queen-Empress is insecure and more than a little vain, but also has great dignity and never has trouble being regal. My two favourite comedic scenes are one where Victoria is trying to brag about how today is the day she’s the longest reigning British monarch in history, only to have everyone congratulate her before she can, and another scene where Wilhelm is moving from one family member to the next during a ball and gushing about how nice everyone is and how much he feels he belongs.
In general, this is a great little family drama, centred around a family black sheep. Except the family happens to rule most of the world.
The Cleopatras (1983)
This is probably the only series on this list that I would hesitate to call “good”. In fact, this eight-episode epic about the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt is rather a melodramatic farce. It follows the women of the family, nearly all called Cleopatra, as they scheme and kill their way to the top, because only one thing matters to a Cleopatra; being Queen of Egypt.
To be fair to this series, and its jarringly anachronistic music and random flashes of horrible acting moments, the Ptolemys really were that crazy. They liked to do two things: marry their siblings, and murder their siblings. And that’s about it. The historical record isn’t nearly as complete as it is for all the other series on this list, but I doubt much of the behaviour was very exaggerated. That’s kind of what happens after you marry your sister for successive generations for more than two hundred years.
The biggest problem is probably how hard this thing was trying to be the next I, Claudius. It wasn’t the next I, Claudius, mostly because Cleopatra VII was no Emperor Claudius. But I do still like it a great deal, and think it’s just fun to watch. The extent to which this family is dysfunctional bypasses horrifying and goes straight to hilarious, and it hard not to laugh the seventh time a king or queen is deposed by a mob storming the palace. (Get to the boats!)
Young Catherine (1991)
When it comes to historical accuracy, this made-for-tv movie is probably the worst offender. It’s not terribly accurate. I first saw it when I was about fifteen, and even then I was screaming at the screen that Orlov was not Catherine’s first lover, and that Princess Dashkova was married, so why is she having conversations with Catherine about how she’s never seen a penis? And even apart from the liberties taken with plain facts, the narrative in general is very… idealized. I don’t think Catherine was ever that sweet and nice.
But something about this has always made me love it. Maybe it’s Reece Dinsdale chewing all the scenery as Peter III, or Vanessa Redgrave dominating as Empress Elizabeth. Christopher Plummer playing Catherine’s mentor isn’t too shabby either. Neither is Julia Ormond as the title character.
The highlight in terms of casting, though, is Maximilian Schell as Frederick the Great. Poor guy just wants to turn Russia into a puppet state, but all these damn German people he sends keep going crazy or native.
A Royal Scandal (1997)
Oh my god, the Georges. The Georges were wonderful. Four kings of Great Britain in a row with no redeeming qualities whatever. The focus of this movie is the fourth George, who did two things: give his name to the Regency period and spend money. Seriously, the amount of money this person spent…
Anyway, that’s not fair, because he also committed bigamy, and this is what this movie is about. George was married to his girlfriend Maria Fitzherbert, but it didn’t count because she was Catholic, so then his dad made him marry the hapless German princess Caroline of Brunswick. Though you’d think they’d get along, since she also has no redeeming qualities.
Their marriage is miserable and they both spend way too much money, then he tries to divorce her for adultery (ain’t patriarchy wonderful?) but everyone hates him so much that they don’t let him, even though she’s clearly guilty, so he locks her out of his coronation out of spite. Then she dies.
Really, the thing that makes everything about this movie hilarious is a combination of everyone’s deadpan performances, and the narrator. It’s just funny that anyone is taking these people seriously.
Fun fact, this is the only series on this list that’s about “mere” aristocrats, rather than royals. However, as the Lennoxes will tell you multiple times in this series, they are descended from a king.
This the story of the Lennox Sisters, the daughters of the Duke of Richmond who all lead very interesting lives at the top of the social pyramid in the second half of the eighteenth century. They grow up, get married, have families, get into trouble, only to have everything turned topsy-turvy by the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
All four of the sisters who we follow closely, Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah, are interesting and well realized characters. Caroline is embroiled in politics after disobeying her parents to marry the great statesmen Charles Fox, Emily goes off to have, like, twenty kids and fuck their tutor, Louisa tries to be a beneficent landowner, and Sarah is unlucky in love, but then she isn’t. It’s really just a family drama, except the family is ridiculously privileged. It’s nothing extremely deep, it mostly amounts to “I was very sheltered, now I’m just mostly sheltered,” but it’s another one I keep rewatching.
Charles II: The Power and the Passion (2003)
Remember how I just said the Hanoverian Georges were useless and had no redeeming qualities? Well the Stuarts were the reason why people thought it was a good idea for the king to have as little power as possible.
Charles II was the last final gasp of absolutism in Britain, and unlike his father and his brother, he had two brain cells to rub together and so actually made a go of it. He was also really into chicks. And that’s kind of the plot. Well, there’s more details in there, like the Exclusion Bill and Barbara Villiers and her shenanigans. There also a focus on Charles’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza and his bromance with George Villiers.
The thing that stands out in my memory about this series is the pacing. They managed to cram a lot of stuff into just four hours without dumbing it down too much. That is, of course, until A&E in the States got a hold of it and cut out nearly an hour. The resulting shorter movie is not nearly as strong, neither as a narrative, nor as a piece of historical fiction. So if you do seek this one out, make sure you get the BBC cut.
Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot (2004)
Mary, Queen of Scots has been in dozens of films and television series, but this is my favourite portrayal of her. It the first time I remember actually thinking she had a chance, and wasn’t just some lamb for the slaughter.
This series is structured in two parts. The first episode is about Mary Stuart and her short reign in Scotland, ending with her flight to England. The second episode speeds forward a good few years to her son James VI/I and his first few years of rule in England. Centred, naturally, around the Gunpowder Plot. The two halves aren’t entirely copacetic, and I did enjoy the first part a good deal more than the second. While this version of Mary is fascinating to me, and a lot more complex than the poor little martyr I’m used to seeing, this version of James is a little over the top. But I have to recommend it for the sake of the first episode. Clémence Poésy and Kevin McKidd do a great job as Mary and Bosworth, and I’m really rooting for her as she sidelines her brother and tells John Knox what’s what. As for the husband murdering thing… yeah, I’m on her side too.
The second half had many redeeming qualities, Robert Carlyle as James being chief among them, but it’s quite a tonal shift, and I just like the first one better.
The Lost Prince (2005)
Prepare to have your heart broken.
This two part mini-series, is about Prince John, the youngest child of George V and Queen Mary. This little boy suffered from epileptic seizures and was quite possibly on the autism spectrum. He died when he was only thirteen, but he lived through some very interesting time.
The idea behind the narrative is that Johnny witnesses the great events of the first two decades of the twentieth century, but doesn’t really understand them. We see the visit of the Romanovs to the Isle of Wight in 1908, the Home Rule Crisis in 1913, the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, the anti-German backlash against the royal family during the war, but he doesn’t really notice much of it. He’s mostly concerned with his insular world of servants and games. So he doesn’t really notice the world falling apart around him, but he does somehow manage to be the emotional heart of his family.
This series is wonderfully atmospheric. Johnny was the perfect character to approach through a visual medium. The way he sees the world and relates to others makes it’s own kind of sense and has a lyrical quality to it that is unforgettable. And if you’re not bawling like a baby when he plays the trumpet for his grandma, you are dead inside.
So there they are, more than enough of Royals Behaving Badly for you to not miss the gossip columns for many weeks to come.
I’m always up for more, so feel free to leave your recommendations in the comments below.
Images courtesy of BBC, ATV, & TNT