The following will contain some spoilers for Versailles Episode 1 and serves as a general catch-up as well as a primer for those watching the world of Louis XIV
Versailles has had quite the trip to the small screen and not without some controversy. Centering as it does on the most famous of French monarchs, Louis XIV (that’s Louis the 14th non Roman numeral fans), aka The Sun King, it is perhaps understandable that viewers across the republic of France were a little annoyed that a grand, multi-million € tv series was written by Brits, acted by Brits and spoken in English. Nonetheless, the series, the most expensive French tv ever made, was lauded and garnered some impressive ratings when it aired (with a choice of French dubbing or subtitles). And the French have taken great delight in mocking the ‘outrage’ the high levels of sex and nudity in the show are said to have caused some British viewers, even though the show hasn’t been aired yet.
The problem with a lot of historical drama is one of presumed prior knowledge, with those viewers who perhaps fell asleep in history class being left behind. Versailles doesn’t assume and also doesn’t drip feed a massive catch-up of French history, but instead drops us straight into the court of Louis XIV and quickly and expertly gives us all the information we need. It’s 1667 and Louis has been thrust into the role of monarch after the death of his mother the previous year, a traumatic event that still causes the young King nightmares. Holed up at his late father’s hunting lodge in Versailles, he dreams of building a magnificent palace to cement his standing and court, but also to act as a show of his power, influence and right to be King. His brother, the complex Philippe, and most of his advisers are against the plan but Louis is adamant.
Quickly we meet Philippe’s wife, also one of Louis’ (many) mistresses and who Louis had his brother marry so she’d stick around. Philippe would much rather be in bed with the Chevalier de Lorraine (Evan Williams) anyway, who’s introduction pretty much guarantees tabloid outrage. The life of a king looks fun, but there are many who would like Louis dead – the nobility would much rather run the country in much the same way as they did when Louis’ mother was still alive thank you very much – and conspiracies and conspirators are being caught, some as close as the neighbouring village. Head of police Fabien Marchal (Tygh Runyan) hunts down and brutally interrogates such assassins and any Game of Thrones fans wanting more sadistic violence in their viewing week will be well served by him. What with this, wars being fought by France that cost a great deal and much of the nobility shirking their tax responsibilities and the pressure is on for the young man. Not that you’d know it from all his philandering.
As Louis indulges himself in blondes and brunettes, his wife is due to deliver his first child and (hopeful) heir. Doctor Masson (Peter Hudson) and his daughter Claudine (a progressive young girl fascinated by medicine, which just wasn’t the done thing at the time and could prove very dangerous) are on hand to deliver the child to the waiting audience but quickly usher everyone but the king out when it arrives. The child is black and therefore could not have been sired by Louis.
There’s much to enjoy with episode one, which has to set the scene as well as introduce all the main players. In this it’s practically a manual on how to do so properly and, considering it’s dense historical subject matter, is nothing less than an absolute triumph. There will be some who decry the sensationalism and the creation of fictional characters but they should be ignored for Versailles tells a fascinating story set in a very different time. So what if it ends on a cliffhanger worthy of Dynasty in it’s prime? All this actually happened, which makes it even more enjoyable. Vive Versailles!
Versailles airs on BBC2, Wednesdays at 9:30pm. In America Ovation TV will show it from October 1. Netflix have acquired streaming rights with a yet to be confirmed air date.