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The Young Victoria - Julian Fellowes interview

Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JULIAN Fellowes, the acclaimed writer, actor, producer and director whose body of work includes writing Gosford Park and appearing in Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, talks about his involvement with The Young Victoria and why he wanted to tell the story of the younger part of her life.

He also explains why Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, was instrumental in bringing the project to the big screen in the first place.

Q. What sparked your very clear enthusiasm for this part of Queen Victora’s life?
Julian Fellowes: I was just very interested long before this film because I read a book, by chance, and I realised how little I knew of her early years. If someone had said to me: “Do you know about Queen Victoria?” I probably would have said “yes”. But the Queen Victoria I knew was Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria… you know, short, fat, and dark and cross and living in Scotland with a handkerchief on her head. I hadn’t really understood the early life and if I had thought of it at all, I would have assumed that she had a very comfortable growing up, and that she was prepared for the throne, and then accepted it and that was that. I didn’t realise at all that she had survived this emotional battering in order to get there and was immediately fascinated by that.

Q. Could you tell us about the unique involvement of Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, in this film?
Julian Fellowes: The Duchess of York had the original idea of making a film about the younger Queen Victoria. She knew [producer] Graham King and she ran into him in LA, I think, and said to him: “We’ve all seen the older Queen, we’ve all seen the widow, but nobody has seen Victoria and Albert as a younger woman and their marriage. We don’t know about the marriage she was in mourning for.” He was very taken with this idea and he decided he’d do it. I was then recruited and the only alteration I asked for was to nudge the story forward a bit so we got the Duchess and Lord Conroy and all the complexities of that.

So, it became the story of Albert essentially from the visit of 1836, when he came over with his brother, rather than only the marriage. They had this quite bumpy first year and then they settled into working together… when their desks were put together. So, she did have the original idea and every good film needs a good idea, so we’re all very, very grateful.

Q. Did she visit the set at all?
Julian Fellowes: She came for the Coronation Ball at Lancaster House. She came with both of the princesses. But that was it.

Q. How much research did you do into the period of the time?
Julian Fellowes: I knew quite a lot about the period anyway but, of course, when you get a job you then read up and read round it, and all the rest of it. I’m not a believer in modernising the thing, because I think that if you modernise it too much the actual quandry the characters are in ceases the exist. You start to think, “well why doesn’t she just leave him?” And you then fail to create the pressures within the storytelling that mean that wasn’t an option.

So, you have to have a fairly clear idea of the disciplines of that particular world to understand when they were in a spot. I mean, the problem of Victoria’s childhood… if you make it too modern you might think: “Well, don’t hold the hand when you go downstairs!” But that wasn’t the world they were in and that wasn’t a choice that was open to her. You have to show enough of the true detail the period to understand why they were in this predicament.

Q. What did French director Jean Marc Vallée bring to the material having not been someone who grew up with the same knowledge and appreciation of Queen Victoria that we may have?
Julian Fellowes: Well, I loved C.R.A.Z.Y and he said to me: “I’ve made a film about a dysfunctional family and I feel this is a film about another one.” He saw these people as a dysfunctional family, not as a series of dukes and duchesses and kings and queens. He saw them as a family whose business yoked them together even though they were completely disparate as personalities. That was his view of the thing, which I think is what comes across in the film.

Q. What was it like having Princess Beatrice on set?
Julian Fellowes: She was very good-natured actually. Most of being in a film is waiting – you have five minutes of action and then two and a half hours of waiting and that can be hard for people who aren’t used to it in terms of what they do with their brains for that time. But I thought she was very patient. She’s a very nice girl.

Q. How much did your name help to get access to some of the locations used?
Julian Fellowes: That was entirely my address book! [Laughs] No, I don’t think Julian Fellowes opens Julian Fellowes’ door! But they really were wonderful locations. The one I loved best, actually, was the least famous, Ditchley. Blenheim and Wilton are the great houses of England, but Ditchley Park is much smaller than that and fantastically pretty. I loved it. It was Queen Victoria’s private sitting room. But seriously, we got in because of a handsome cheque book!

Q. Do you think there was a plot at the time to put as many Colburgs as possible on the thrones of Europe?
Julian Fellowes: Oh there definitely was a plot. It’s a most extraordinary story… but this funny little Dukal house of Colburg, which was totally unimportant, had this adviser and Leopold was very clever. So, there was this kind of scheme to build the family up, so one was married to the Queen of Portugal and became King Consul of Portugal; later one was married to Archduke Maximilian of Austria. First of all, Leopold was married to Princess Charlotte of Wales. So, Leopold in the movie should have been Albert if Princess Charlotte hadn’t died. So, after his death he’s made king of the Belgians and then he gets his other nephew as the consult. He’s got his sister in as the mother.

The Colburgs were really kind of shunted all over the place and by the 1860s they were connected by blood with pretty well every major reigning house… far more than a lot of the more senior families in Germany. What is interesting is that Baron Stockmar, Leopold’s adviser, had this understanding that constitutional monarchy was a different form of government. Up ‘til then, constitutions for most absolute monarchs just meant less fun, and they hadn’t seen it as any kind of alternative political arrangement, just of having less power.

But he saw that if this could be moulded into a real political arrangement it had a much longer shelf life than the idea of absolute monarchy, which people even of that time in the 1830s were beginning to see was not going to last for very much longer in western Europe. So, instead of just abolishing royal houses, they could be adapted and that’s very much a Colburg message. They were a very, very clever house.

Q. Can you just say a bit more about producer Graham King… a Brit who is a real Hollywood player…
Julian Fellowes: I’m mad about Graham King, who is a sort of great man. He is a Brit but everyone kind of forgets that. In the year when Helen Mirren won her very well deserved Oscar for The Queen, that was the British Oscars! Nobody noticed that a Briton had won best picture, for The Departed! He is so modest. He is a tremendously courteous man. He’s extremely powerful but doesn’t need to whack you over the head to prove it. Of course, in Hollywood good manners are like a drink on a hot day! And I love working for him.

Read our review of The Young Victoria