“Versailles” is a Franco-Canadian TV series: an expensively-made costume drama about the court of Louis XIV, famous for its extravagance, fashion and fireworks - both literal and metaphorical.
Apparently it was shot in English rather than French to lure a global audience on the scale of the British TV series “The Tudors”. In that respect it has been a bit of a damp squib, and the current Series III – showing at 9pm on Mondays on BBC2 - has been declared the last. According to British tabloids, ratings fell as low as one million following a glut of orgy scenes in Series II. British and French TV viewers alike turned off.
I can see many reasons why. There are serious casting errors and a didactic script. The only history lesson in “The Tudors” was that raunchy Henry VIII had some wives, most of them very pretty, and a few had their heads chopped off. That’s it.
To my eyes, none of the women in “Versailles” are particularly attractive. They are mainly hard-faced schemers, and it’s hard to tell one from another - with the notable exception of Liselotte, the second wife of Philippe, Duke of Orleans, brother to the king. Liselotte is a caricature of a young fat frump from Germany, who can’t keep her hands off the pies. She does, however, have far more spirit than most of the cast and is therefore one of my favourites.
The worst casting mistake is the British actor George Blagden as Louis XIV. Blagden plays the role like a reptile – icy but weak. Even in the inevitable, audience-pleasing bedroom scenes, he seems detached. Surely that’s not right for the Sun King? I thought he burned with passion.
For me, the floaty wigs and thin moustaches worn by the men don’t help, either. The hair is certainly glossy – Blagden and Alexander Vlahos, who plays the king’s cross-dressing brother Philippe, give Kate Middleton a run for her money in terms of flowing locks. It’s an irony that in this kind of production, it’s all about the looks, the sexiness, the glamour – and yet here the French have failed. Vlahos is handsome enough, but even on return from war he looks as if he’s just slipped out of a dress into a pristine uniform. To be a successful general, he must have had a passion for blood, gore and fighting, as well as fancy hair-dos and make-up. Does he have to be one-dimensional, just because he is bisexual?
Unlike the men and women, the horses are very attractive indeed, so at least the French got that right. The casting of horses for this kind of production seems to be improving, and there are special companies which train good-looking horses to prance, pull chariots and perform stunts. It’s worth noting that Seamus, principal horse in the BBC TV series “Poldark”, has his own keen Facebook following. However, an eye-catching horse is nothing without a swarthy Aidan Turner (who plays Poldark) to leap manfully into the saddle.
In Series I and II of “Versailles” each episode shown on the BBC was followed by a five-minute clip with historians Professor Kate Williams and Greg Jenner in discussion about how historically accurate the story had been that week. This was a fun element, and I was disappointed not to see it carried over to Series III. The historical didacticism embedded in the drama continues unabated. The king holds forth on taxation and irrigation in the most boring possible way.
Religion is also badly dealt with. This series will cover the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which ended toleration of the Protestant Huguenots and marked the beginning of cruel persecution. Yet none of the characters are convincing in their apparent religious belief. Both the king and his mistresses are shown supposedly expressing Catholic guilt, yet it seems mystifying to the viewer rather than understandable. This seems to be a huge problem of anachronism in historical drama. In the past, people were prepared to be martyred for their religious and political convictions, yet it is hard for a TV audience to identify with that; perhaps especially while watching television.
We live in uncommitted times: most people’s passionate allegiance is to animals – dog, cat, or donkey rescue; veganism; other animal tropes propagated by social media. Countless Facebook clips show men wading into water to haul out a drowning puppy. But we are no longer prepared to die for political beliefs, and we regularly step around homeless human beings who clutter our streets, as if there were nothing at all we could do about them.
It seems odd that a TV series made by the French could fail on so many counts associated with French success: political seriousness; bedroom action; virile men. Perhaps their mistake was to look at the British model, and think it was worth emulating.
If you can bear with it, “Versailles” does offer historical insights into the court of Louis XIV and the build-up towards the mass exodus of thousands of Huguenots from France. If you watch on Catch-up or on DVD, you can always fast-forward through the full-frontal nudity and the tax lectures, and immerse yourself in the Sun King’s court without discomfiture or tedium. At least you’ll know how they all wore their hair.
Atkinson Action Horses provide beautiful horses for productions like “Poldark”, “Peaky Blinders” and “Victoria”.