Versailles Review: Revolutionary Docu-drama

VERSAILLES: Wednesday 15th February, BBC2, 9pm

There’s always a dangerous line to tread between making history accessible and recklessly abandoning any semblance of historical accuracy (The Tudors, take note), but BBC Two’s Versailles series strikes the perfect balance between the ‘docu’ and ‘drama’ of its genre.

The three-part series covers the reigns of the authoritative, theatrical, and really rather randy “sun-kingâ€? Louis XIV, who ordered the construction of the palace at Versailles (on a swamp, riddled with mosquitoes), the melancholy and ultimately despised Louis XV, and the tentative Louis XVI, who was finished off by bread-craving revolutionaries. History is repeating itself on BBC Two, as this was aired for the first time in 2009, yet the decadent period of the Bourbon dynasty clearly has enduring appeal, and its return is very welcome.

The historians, novelists and biographers providing the commentary, many of whom are improbably glamorous, take their subjects passionately and always with a wry smirk. Whether it’s the inevitable pantomime romp elements – lots of ruffled-shirted sexing and majestic lusting – or pressing political incidents, such as, y’know, an epoch-defining revolution, the academics strike the right tone. Observations include “power’s a great aphrodisiacâ€?, and the slightly breathless “no one did it like Louisâ€?; littering their historical analyses with light-hearted nuances.

The focus on theatricality and scenery makes this series less sophisticated than other history programmes recently offered by the BBC. Its format restricts it from achieving as cerebral a historical evaluation as Professor Robert Bartlett’s excellent series on the Normans of August 2010, or the dynamic revision of the Crusades by Dr Thomas Asbridge aired earlier this month.

Yet unlike the BBC’s usual forays into the past, the narrative is compiled using intimate records and memoirs, and the detail these sources provide is the backbone of the series.

We learn that in order to realise Louis XIV’s dream of Versailles, mature trees had to be uprooted and brought in from other French provinces, due to the poor-quality land; that a high death-rate among the palace builders caused an angry mother to spit at the king, and that a gravely limited water supply forced servants to rush and turn the fountains on as the king strolled through his gardens, and then immediately shut them off when he had returned to his bed-chamber (where he “honouredâ€? his mistress three times a day, allegedly).

Also dug up from the archives is Louis XV’s request that his courtiers do his would-be assassin “no harmâ€?, that his true love and best friend, Madame de Pompadour, said she would “rather dieâ€? than pleasure the king sexually, and rather too graphic an explanation of why Louis XVI was unable to consummate his marriage to Marie Antoinette for seven years. I won’t spoil it.

The series’ jocular nature is an asset, drawing us into the ostentation and intrigue of life at Versailles, all the way from Louis XIV languorously kissing his mistress’ mosquito bites better, to crowds of peasants armed with pitch-forks and Enlightenment ideals in 1789.

Follow Anoosh on Twitter @anooshchakelian