Victoria actress MARGARET CLUNIE reveals what makes her on-screen lover so beguiling, why being on set felt like boarding school and how she reckons Prince Albert and his queen have influenced today’s young royals.
I scarcely recognise the lady before me without her ringlets. I am having an audience with actress Margaret Clunie, who portrays an actual lady – Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland – in ITV’s acclaimed period drama Victoria.
Of her ‘spaniel hair’ (her words, not mine) in the show, Margaret, 30, says ruefully, ‘The ringlets are clipped in. They tried so hard in the first series to make my hair curl, but it is so pin-straight that in the second series they said, “We give up – this year, clip-ins.”’
Playing the duchess can be a labour of love. ‘Wearing corsets is horrible. They are so restrictive. Now I understand why women were described as ‘becoming hysterical’ back then: it was because they couldn’t breathe, or eat!’
She has relished taking on the role of Harriet, who will next appear on our screens in tomorrow’s much-anticipated Christmas special. The drama has been a hit, attracting some five million viewers, with the first series overtaking BBC’s Poldark in the coveted Sunday-night slot.
The work of writer/producer Daisy Goodwin, it takes place in the 1840s – during the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign – and chronicles the trials and tribulations, personal and political, of the young queen, her husband Prince Albert and her court, of which Margaret’s character is an integral part.
As the queen’s Mistress of the Robes – ‘which roughly translates as the person who picked out her jewellery and was in charge of doing the rotas for her ladies in waiting, like a 19th-century version of a Google calendar’ – Harriet was ‘basically, her right-hand woman’.
Margaret admits to having had ‘a shaky grasp’ of that period of history. ‘I think I learned about it at school when I was 11.’
She has since brushed up on her knowledge. ‘I would have liked being a Victorian – taking life at a slower pace and the lack of social media would be blissful. I love writing letters.
Also, the high glamour of the era: everything was an occasion and people really made an effort; now, if you’re going out you just throw on jeans and text to say you’ll be ten minutes late.’
She particularly enjoyed ‘delving into’ the character of the duchess – ‘a force of nature and lifelong friend of the queen who had a super-glamorous life; she was close to [Prime Minister] Gladstone, hosted diplomats and lived in beautiful homes’.
Harriet has been a hit with viewers, with part of her screen appeal owing to the forbidden romance that plays out between her and Prince Albert’s elder brother Ernest, ‘a bad boy with a heart of gold’.
It is this smouldering love affair that has, in my opinion, made the drama so gripping. Can Margaret see the attraction of naughty Ernest, as compared to the more serious Prince Albert? ‘Totally! I would go for the bad boy every time – they’re the most exciting,’ she laughs. ‘I think if you’re a charmer, you go very far in life.’
Harriet and Ernest’s relationship was left on a knife-edge at the end of the second series: she escaped the court to get away from the heat of their attraction, then returned as a widow after her – dull – husband, the Duke of Sutherland, was killed in a riding accident.
Ernest planned to propose to her, until he discovered that the syphilis he thought he had cured (with mercury vapours) had returned, and so he jilted her.
‘I really feel for Harriet,’ says Margaret. ‘Her marriage wasn’t satisfying, but she had to stick with it [although the attraction between her and Ernest was potent enough to be noticed by Prince Albert and others].
It’s pretty ballsy that she dared to want happiness, an outrageous concept for a woman in Victorian times. It was hard not to think [before the duke died], “Just divorce him.” We are so lucky to live in an age where you are allowed to make changes.’
This tangled romance is set to take centre stage in the Christmas special, with the storyline continuing six months on from where we left off. Margaret is careful not to divulge too much.
She offers that ‘there will be everything you would hope for from a big Victorian Christmas: ice skating, lots of children and the most beautiful trees, eight massive ones, all decorated with exquisite handmade ornaments; there’s an amazing scene where they do the big reveal’.
(This is only fitting, as Victoria and Albert are credited with popularising the tradition of Christmas trees, along with other festive touches.)
Something tells me, though, that the episode won’t be all yuletide cheer. Margaret nods. ‘There’s a bit of everything, joy and sorrow. Poor Harriet has quite an up and down Christmas; she’s humiliated, broken-hearted and pretty annoyed with Ernest. It’s fraught. They do get a bit saucy. But even back then, the physical side of a relationship mattered – and he has syphilis, so it will be difficult.’
Margaret concedes that this love story may be only loosely based on historical fact. ‘I’m not sure what really happened or how many times they met.’ But she thinks that Goodwin’s storyline was a stroke of genius.
‘Every show needs a scandalous romance. That slow, forbidden love is so much fun to film. Everything is unsaid and implied. There’s so much delicious subtext. People used to communicate feelings that could not be voiced by touching their wrists. Nowadays, everything is so unsubtle and it all plays out on social media. There is something so alluring about how it all bubbled away beneath the surface back then. My favourite scene is where Harriet is practising archery and Ernest comes along and delicately moves her hip, supposedly to help her form. It is so sexy.’
There’s also a lot of highly charged piano duet playing, though Margaret admits, ‘We have a fake piano where you press the keys but no sound comes out. Thank goodness, as I never got further than grade one.’
Off screen, Margaret has a close friendship with actor David Oakes who plays Ernest. ‘He is lovely. We worked together three years ago on Endeavour [a detective drama and prequel to the popular series Inspector Morse]. When he got the part of Ernest, after I had been cast, he rang to tell me and I was whooping with excitement.’
The atmosphere among the cast is jolly, with filming in Yorkshire for six months a year. ‘We stay in a lovely hotel in Harrogate and have a set in an aircraft hangar nearby. It is like boarding school; the hotel lobby is our common room.’ (Margaret attended an independent girls’ school where she boarded in her final year.)
‘I loved it and now I have that experience all over again. We have great restaurants and Turkish baths where we go in our free time, though mostly we just sit around drinking endless cups of tea and coffee.’
Jenna Coleman (who plays Victoria) is ‘lovely and always carries delicious snacks which makes her very popular on set, where everything revolves around eating. She is very petite – and I am quite tall – so we make a funny pair. The first time my dad saw me on the show he rang to ask why I was standing on a box. I wasn’t – I was just standing next to Jenna.’
She insists that actor Tom Hughes, who plays Prince Albert, and is Jenna’s real-life boyfriend, is nothing like his on-screen alter ego. ‘Albert is serious and intense, but Tom is hilarious.’ She is full of praise for Rufus Sewell (Lord Melbourne). ‘You learn so much by watching him – he can portray an entire emotion just by twitching one corner of his mouth.’
And Dame Diana Rigg (Duchess of Buccleuch) is ‘brilliant. She recites random poetry off by heart, tells us all what to do and then says, “You’re welcome, darling.”’ Nell Hudson, who plays Victoria’s dresser Miss Skerrett, was already a ‘great friend’ from drama school. ‘When we aren’t filming, we text each other constantly – we have a very active WhatsApp group.’
The set is also rife with pranks; in one notable episode where the Victorians dealt with a rat epidemic, 25 live rats were brought on set and one joker started a rumour that only 24 had been rounded up at the end. ‘For days, I was visualising their horrid pointy noses and having nightmares. Thankfully, it turned out to be a big lie, which someone thought was funny.’
Like Victoria and Albert, Margaret is blissfully newlywed herself, having married her beau of nine years, musician Tom Bull, in December last year. It was a Christmas-themed London wedding; she wore an off-the-shoulder gown ‘with a sparkly thread running through’, custom-made for her by the fashion label Eponine, for whom she has modelled.
‘I totally relate to how in love Victoria and Albert were,’ she gushes. ‘No one tells you what a thrill it is when you get home from honeymoon and it hits you.’ But while Victoria can’t bear to be parted from Albert, Margaret has not found her filming schedule – and the weeks spent up north – an issue. As a fellow creative, Tom ‘gets it’, and she returns to their South London home most weekends.
‘FaceTime is key. We are very supportive of each other. Neither of us has ever done the nine to five, so this is our normal. If Tom’s band has a gig on a Saturday night, I’ll think, “Great, I can hang out with the girls.”’
When the pair are together, they ‘do fun creative stuff’, such as going to the theatre and cinema and cooking together. ‘I’m working my way through the River Cafe Cook Book. My next goal is to make homemade pasta.’
For her recent 30th birthday, Tom treated her to a night at Cliveden, the famously grand country house hotel where the real Duchess of Sutherland lived for a time. ‘We stayed in the Sutherland Suite and they made a big fuss of us; it was so spoiling. There’s an amazing painting of Harriet in the restaurant.’
Margaret had a happy, straightforward upbringing. She has an elder sister, Alex, who works in the art world – ‘she produces amazing light installations’ – though neither of her parents is creative. ‘I don’t know where our passions for art and drama came from. I can’t say they encouraged it, though they are very proud. My dad is retired – he worked as a consultant and mum was a medical secretary.’ As a child, Margaret was ‘always in all the school plays and choirs’.
After graduating with an English degree from Newcastle University she applied to drama school and the rest is history – though it hasn’t been easy. ‘I have had so many jobs – waitressing, retail… I would get small television parts and think I’d made it, and then a year would pass before the next one.’
Then Victoria came along. ‘This has been my big break. I feel so lucky to have been in both series.’ Margaret would also like to turn her hand to comedy again; one of her earliest jobs was a part in A Young Doctor’s Notebook & Other Stories, set in revolutionary Russia with Daniel Radcliffe and Mad Men’s John Hamm. ‘I was totally overawed by both of them but they were so kind and helpful.’
And she dreams of performing Shakespeare on stage. For now, though, a third series of Victoria is top of her wish list (something viewers will be rooting for, too).
As someone who has made her name in a drama about the royal family, what does she make of our current crop of royals, I wonder?
‘Is it OK to say that I really like them?’ she asks sheepishly. ‘I think they get a hard time. You can’t say a bad word about the Queen – a woman in her 90s who has devoted her entire life to her country – and I have a lot of respect too for the new wave of young royals and the way they’re choosing their partners for love, such as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. I know it was a long time ago, but I wonder if this shift in thinking – away from who you should marry to who will make you happy – started with Victoria and Albert and their famously loving marriage.’
It remains to be seen if happiness will be on the cards for the Duchess of Sutherland this Christmas, but I have no doubt – as Margaret departs with a flick of that perfect straight hair – that the lady who plays her has it in abundance.
The Victoria Christmas special Comfort and Joy is on ITV tomorrow at 9pm
Styling: Hannah Teare. Assistant Stylist: Honey Elias. Hair: Shukeel Murtaza at Frank Agency using Hair by Sam McKnight. Make-Up: Maria Asadi using Dior Christmas Collection 2017. Producer: Ester Malloy