An outlandishly dressed foreigner – hoop skirt, clown make-up, powdered bouffant – arrives in France, where she struggles to adapt to their sexy Gallic ways. No, it’s not Emily in Paris, although I’ve seen Emily wear weirder things than a powdered wig and a hoop skirt. It’s Marie Antoinette (Thursday, BBC Two), which in some ways is Emily in Paris: The Olden Days. I also suspect Emily in Paris might be heading towards a similar end as Marie Antoinette, which would be a brave way for them to conclude that series.
Marie Antoinette comes from the pen of Deborah Davis, who with Tony McNamara wrote The Favourite, which was all about the court of Queen Anne. The duo subsequently divvied up the lady monarchs of history between them. McNamara got the boastful autocrat Catherine the Great (subject of his excellent The Great) while Davis got the Austrian cake connoisseur. They definitely have an oeuvre. But who knows? Maybe their next productions will be about Smurfs or a policeman whose partner is a monkey.
There are two kinds of period drama. There are the Julian Fellowes shows in which posh centrists quibble over what cutlery to use and have temperate positions on how to treat the poor. (“Let’s teach some of them to read and have the others help us get dressed!”) And there are shows in which people in wigs foment war while having energetic sex with strumpets and swains. Having energetic sex is something historians only recently realised people in the olden days liked to do, so it happens a lot in period dramas now.
Marie Antoinette is a regular girl no different from you or me. She has big eyes and big hair and spends her time chortling delightfully as she runs wild along the vast corridors of her palace or through the vast maze in her gardens. You know the way yourself. You’re probably doing it right now.
But wait: if you’ve read the PR bumf you’ll know that Marie Antoinette is also a feminist pioneer who invented marrying a rich man. She is always doing empowering things like riding a horse like a man, being sarcastic while curtsying, and becoming queen of France. That’s as empowering as you can get. Though, in fairness, it’s very much boardroom feminism, and (spoiler alert) there’s a sharp critique of it coming later in the story from activists of the far left.
Marie is to marry the ‘dauphin’, which is just a name they have in France for their future monarchs and is not to be confused with Fungi the Dingle dauphin. Though if Marie Antoinette were to marry Fungi, that would also be an interesting show too
Being a Girlboss runs in the family. Marie Antoinette’s mam is an Austrian empress by trade, a towering figure in the Holy Roman Empiring business (you go girl!) and the family she wants Marie to marry into are the famed French monarchs and biscuit entrepreneurs the Bourbons. (Every time I think of their name I get hungry.) Big Mammy wants this to happen so that their respective countries don’t go to war. In those days, as today, a lot of people could really murder a bourbon.
The French king, Louis XV, is a troubling sex pest who refers to himself in the third person, as “France”, and whose court features an intriguing assortment of funky freaks. There are stuffy retainers, calculating courtiers, overconfident boors and swaggering sexpots. It’s like any small Irish town, really. Marie is to marry the king’s eldest son, the “dauphin”, which is just a name they have in France for their future monarchs and is not to be confused with Fungi the Dingle dauphin. Though if there were a mix-up and Marie Antoinette married Fungi the Dingle dauphin, that would also be an interesting show and I think RTÉ should make it.
The dauphin, the French nonaquatic one, is named Louis XVI because monarchies love sequels. Sadly, he is a complete drip who prefers lamping rabbits to trying to father Louis XVII through XX with his flighty flibbertigibbet of a wife, possibly because the entire court like to gaze in at the royal bedchamber via keyholes. People love spying on erotic high jinks in this palace (there was no television in those days), and there are a lot of erotic high jinks to spy on.
The dauphin engages in sexually charged horseplay. Marie Antoinette gets sex lessons from the king’s mistress. And she also gets riding lessons, which feels a little on the nose. The king narrates how he cuts a tomato in a sensual fashion. (It’s up to you, but I probably wouldn’t eat it when he’s done.) And much of the show so far involves people discussing when these newlyweds will conceive a child, which might seem pretty prurient to you, but only if you’re not from 18th-century France or 21st-century Ireland.
I can only imagine what Dermot Bannon would do with the palace of Versailles on Room to Improve. He’d probably replace the front wall with one big window so the sexy shenanigans could happen in the sizzling sunlight
Again, spoiler alert: there will be no Louis XVII through XX. And, depending on your point of view, this will constitute a sad or a happy outcome. Davis plays things a lot straighter than her former cowriter. While McNamara’s The Great leans into the surreal grotesquerie of the Russian court, Davis is relatively respectful of the French one, and at least in the episodes so far the revolutionary peasantry remain in the wings. So thus far this is the beautifully shot but dull story of a girl without agency at the heart of imperial power. On the plus side, there are a lot of programmes I watch and say, “When the revolution comes, they’ll be first against the wall”; this is one where that’s actually going to play out onscreen.
I can only imagine what Dermot Bannon would do with the palace of Versailles on Room to Improve (Sunday, RTÉ One). He’d probably replace the front wall with one big window so the sexy shenanigans could happen in the sizzling sunlight. There’d be no more need of keyhole voyeurism then; you could just sit in the garden and watch it from there. And he’d probably add a pergola to the front, because, sweet angel of mercy, does he love pergolas. Then there’d be sequences where the king would be driven to distraction because Dermot had turned up at the last minute and made a moving plea to change the colour of the roof tiles despite what was already discussed and put in the plans.
And then the emotional client/king would maybe mention a dream he had in which he saw the journey of his life as two sets of footsteps in the sand. It troubled him, because at times the second set of footsteps would disappear and it would be difficult to get their owner on the phone to commit to roof-tile colours. “What was going on there?” he’d ask, with tears in his eyes, and Dermot Bannon would take him gently by the shoulders and say, “That was when I carried you.”
Yes, I am saying Dermot Bannon is a Christ figure. Email complaints to the usual address.