Actor Alex Jennings calls himself “a common boy from Essex,” but his career on stage and screen has included at least four different royal roles. Victoria’s scheming King Leopold offers new insight into his role on the series, where he looks for inspiration when playing real-life characters, and why he sees Leopold as both a kingmaker and a puppet master.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
King Leopold of Belgium has been the Pied Piper of royal romance in MASTERPIECE’s Victoria, shrewdly matching his nephew, Prince Albert, with the young Queen Victoria, his niece.
Leopold: Normally it is the man who must declare his love, but in your case, you will have to overcome your maidenly modesty and propose to Albert.
Victoria: Or not.
Leopold: No? But the duet yesterday was so charming…
Victoria: I’m sorry, Uncle, but Albert and I are not suited. He has no manners.
Jace: But Leopold could also be Albert’s father, a rather oily prospect that left Prince Albert reeling in the wake of the revelation last season.
Leopold: I had just lost my beloved Charlotte and your father had left her all alone here with your brother, and so… we comforted one another.
Jace: Actor Alex Jennings is no stranger to royalty, having played Prince Charles in the critically acclaimed film The Queen, King George III, and the Duke of Windsor in Netflix’s The Crown. But King Leopold offered a different type of royal.
Alex Jennings: I’ve done lots of historical characters which is fun to do, but brings its own kind of issues as well because you’re never going to be everybody’s idea of Prince Charles or somebody is going to think you’ve got it wrong. It’s quite a responsibility, sometimes. You feel you shouldn’t judge these people, in a way.
Jace: Jennings joins us to talk Leopold, the fallout with his beloved Albert, and why he always seems to be cast as a crowned noble.
Afterwards, Victoria creator, head writer, and executive producer Daisy Goodwin joins us for another round of fact or fiction.
Jace: This week we are joined by Victoria star, Alex Jennings. Welcome.
Alex: Thank you for having me.
Jace: In one of Daisy Goodwin’s scripts for season one of Victoria, Leopold is described thusly: ‘Leopold is evidently vain and self regarding. His trousers are too tight.’ In another he’s quote, ‘Loathsomely emollient.’ What were your first impressions of Leopold when you initially read the scripts for season one?
Alex: Well I did a bit of sort of background reading about the real Leopold, and that only gets you so far, really, whenever you’re playing a historical figure. I like those descriptions, that gave me something to go on, and indeed the trousers were very, very tight. I like the fact that you get a bit of the intelligent manipulator, the guy who sort of was connecting all manner of obscure European royal families and members together, primarily Albert and Victoria, of course. I had some fun with it, I think. Bit of a German accent, I think that’s what it was. My wife said when I was practicing at home, ‘Why are you playing it like Boris Becker.’ There was a little bit of sort of mid-Atlantic going on.
Jace: I mean I will say he remains one of my favorite characters on Victoria, and he’s always ready with perfectly turned phrase or an eyebrow-raising insinuation. How do you see the character as having changed since those early days in season one?
Alex: I guess in a way it’s become a little more serious, I think. In season two, when there was the whole plot suggestion that he might be Albert’s father, and not his uncle. There’s some historical gossip about that. He was in the right place at the right time to have possibly been Albert’s father, but it’s no more than conjecture, really. But we ran with it. And it meant that I had some good sort of dramatic emotional stuff with Albert, which was good to not just be the eyebrow-raising, slightly sardonic, lightweight Leopold, I guess.
Jace: Do you see him as more of a kingmaker, or a puppet master?
Alex: He was both of those things in reality, and was very influential, very influential and very close to Victoria historically, which you don’t necessarily see in the series. But they corresponded a lot and he was a very important sort of father figure and influence in her life, and was genuinely very fond of them both, I think, and saw the opportunity to fix a marriage that was good for him, good for them, and that and it happened to be a great love match, I think, as well.
Jace: Leopold’s relationship with Victoria is fascinating to watch, especially the rather unexpectedly touching moments between the two that develop, such as the marron glacé scene in season one. What was it like filming this particular moment with Jenna Coleman?
Alex: One of the great joys of it and the fun of it was the relationship with Jenna, and how she could be quite sort of snappish with Leopold and that he was interfering too much, and that little sort of grit in their relationship was great fun to play.
Jace: I mean the ghost of the doomed Charlotte hovers over that scene.
Leopold: I am glad to see you have an appetite, Victoria. You must be strong for what lies ahead. Charlotte used to like to like sweets, too, but her doctors would not let her eat them. It made her so unhappy. I wish so much now that I had given her all the marron glacé that she wanted. You and Albert, you remind me so much of her.
Jace: How much of Leopold’s character is informed by the loss of Charlotte, and indeed of the monarchy he so desperately craved?
Alex: I think especially in series one, the loss of Charlotte is very sort of at the front, and that sort of that diminishes as season two goes on. And he moved on, he had an affair with a German actress, he then married again and had children. But it’s very, it’s quite raw I think in season one, and he’s quite melancholy and wistful about what might have been his, but happy to be the main sort of facilitator of the relationship between Victoria and Albert.
Jace: I mean something I have always wondered about him is whether his belief that he was Albert’s biological father. Did it drive him even more to make that marital match with Victoria, was he securing a dynasty in that way?
Alex: Yes I think he was. I think he was absolutely doing that, and Albert was his his kind of favorite nephew, possibly son. And he felt, I guess, that he would, that his influence would continue, I suppose, on a on a large European stage.
Jace: One of my favorite Leopold moments is in the second season, when Albert finds out that Leopold might be his father. It culminates in a big fight complete with armor.
Leopold: I’m so proud of you, Albert, and now that you are a father you must understand my feeling.
Albert: Understand? Do you know what you have made me? A sham! My entire life a lie, Victoria married to a bastard, my children illegitimate. Ruined…And everything I’ve done for the, for the palace, for the monarchy, it all amounting to sheer hypocrisy — because of your behavior. Your behavior!
Jace: What was it like filming this confrontation with Tom Hughes?
Alex: It was Tom and I are friends, and we’ve worked together several times before. So that’s always good, when you have a trust with somebody you’re playing with, which we certainly do. And we felt very kind of free with it, and it was filmed in a very, very free way. We weren’t sort of glued down by too-specific blocking for the scene. We were able to be quite quite free with it. It was really exciting, actually. It was exciting to film, and also in a completely believable, stately home in Yorkshire that stood in for Leopold’s schloss. And that always, when you’re doing these historical series, the work of the designers, or the fact that you’re filming in one of our many, many stately homes, helps your imagination a lot. But it was a really exciting, exciting meaty scene to play, and what that did to our relationship in future scenes, as well, but it played out quite nicely, I think, through the next few episodes. That it had big repercussions in Albert, particularly, of him learning how to accept this possibility that Leopold was might be his father, and our relationship was given time to develop and to sort of find each other again, I guess.
Jace: I mean it is a heartbreaking moment for both these men considering their closeness. We see more how it plays out for Albert but how does this moment do you think play out internally within Leopold?
Alex: I think he misjudges the effect it’s going to have. I think he thinks it is possibly going to bring them closer. And it doesn’t quite do that, because Albert finds it very hard to accept it. And you know, what’s he going to do with that information? It could never go public. And historically, as I’ve said, it’s conjecture on the part of some historians, and other historians reject it as a possibility, as well.
Jace: In this week’s episode Leopold returns to Buckingham Palace after leaving Belgium due to unrest. There’s a beautiful moment in this episode between Leopold and Albert.
Albert: There is still so much to do. Three years ago I thought this country would go the same way as France, but while it seems that the English, they may grumble, but they do not come to the boil.
Leopold: It is the weather, I think. It is hard to lead a revolution in the rain. I am so proud of you, Albert.
Albert: I had a good teacher.
Jace: Have they finally reached a rapprochement?
Alex: Yes, I think they absolutely have. And Albert is able to accept advice in how he deals with Edward, his son, so the son and heir, because there’s a difficulty, in that relationship and how they’re going to manage this slightly wild child.
Jace: I mean, in looking at Bertie, Leopold is able to say the words he’s wanted to say to Albert, ‘He is your son. He will not disappoint.’ How difficult is it for Leopold to broach that subject openly, and say what he wants to say here? What’s that the actual subtext in this scene?
Alex: Well I think he he’s he’s obviously saying like you haven’t disappointed me. They have that bond. The bond has been repaired by that point.
Jace: The big set piece in this episode is the gorgeously elaborate Georgian ball that Victoria throws. How much fun was this to to film?
Alex: Do you know, it was really good fun in the end. Broken up rehearsals for the dancing, the kind of cour de ballet, they did a lot of rehearsal, and we — Jenna and Tom and myself and others of the kind of principal actors — they grabbed us when we weren’t shooting other stuff. Yeah, but we got it together, actually. And you know, it’s interesting sort of filming dances because of course, you rehearse the whole piece, but then when you’re filming it, it’s broken up into tiny little segments. It’s tiring, actually, because you’re doing it again and again and again and again. But it was fun to do.
Jace: Was there actually music on the set, or were you dancing to sort of nothingness?
Alex: Sometimes it was music, and they would then cut it, and you would sometimes have earpieces secreted beneath your wig to try and vaguely keep in time with what you were meant to be doing.
Jace: Before this next question, a quick word from our sponsors…
Jace: Leopold remarks about the gathering of the happy Coburg trio, I mean quartet, at the Georgian ball. Does Leopold truly not recognize Feodora, or is he deliberately snubbing her?
Alex: I think he’s a little vague about who she is. He hasn’t seen her for a very long time. But he also is aware of what a manipulator she is, and wants to kind of keep her in her place.
Jace: I mean what’s strange is throughout this season, I had a theory that Feodora was an imposter, one which was served by Leopold not recognizing her. What was your take on that moment specifically? Is it just Leopold being Leopold?
Alex: I think it’s Leopold being Leopold and being a little bit wicked and a little bit vague, and not wanting to give her any status. Really, really good fun working with Kate Fleetwood. We laughed a lot when we weren’t meant to be.
Jace: I mean Leopold, when Feo confronts him about backing the heir to the throne rather than her, Leopold says, ‘It was long ago, and her response is, ‘Not for me.’
Jace: Does he see her enduring sense of pain at all here? Does he feel it?
Alex: No, I don’t think he does feel it, because I think he views her as a manipulator and a thorn in the side of Victoria, I think.
Jace: I mean Victoria certainly believes that Feodora is out for revenge.
Victoria: Did you really send her away so she wouldn’t marry Uncle George?
Leopold: My late father-in-law liked nothing better than to torment his brothers with the notion that he could still produce an heir. I’m afraid Feodora was just a pawn in that game.
Victoria: You know she blames me? She wants to have her revenge.
Leopold: Revenge! Oh you exaggerate, Victoria. What could a penniless German princess possibly do to hurt the Queen of England?
Jace: But the fact remains that she could do quite a lot of damage, actually. Does he see her at all as a threat, or is she just a secondary thought?
Alex: I think he sort of sees her as more of an irritant, really. She’s not going to do that much damage.
Jace: I mean he has very specific views on monarchy, that it ought to be shrouded in mystery and not paraded as a what he says a public spectacle. Is this an old school philosophy that he’s espousing here, one in keeping with the notion of the Divine Right of Kings?
Alex: Yes I think he absolutely feels that it should be kept behind closed doors. And that there should be mystery to it. I think he absolutely does. And interestingly, because I’m also in The Crown, as you probably know, similar, you know, similar themes are addressed in that as well. But I guess that Victoria was one of the first that was opening things up. But prior to her, the monarchy had been treated as fodder for satirists, some were. They were really taken apart in newspapers and journals and cartoons of Georgian England. They were much more robustly traduced and treated generally, than they were in Victorian times. The sort of the majesty, the mystery of the monarchy kind of came back in a way, I think, and Victoria in some ways was protected from all of that.
Jace: Do you have a favorite scene from these last three seasons of Victoria thus far?
Alex: The big scene with Tom, the big the big fight with Tom was really fun, and rewarding to do, and some of the big set pieces, the ball scenes, which can be quite laborious to film. But I have to say, working on this and at the same time I was filming, sometimes I was going from Buckingham Palace in 1842, whenever it was, and the next day I’d be at Buckingham Palace in 1953 down in London. I mean it was a very happy time, and I was juggling the first series of The Crown with the first series of Victoria, which is a very nice position to be in. Michael Howes, who is our production designer who died, very sadly, last year, did absolute wonders, I think. The world he created for us to play in was quite extraordinary in his imagination, and how he could decorate the palace. He went to local kind of Woolworth’s, some cheap sort of cheap stores, and would buy kids sets of armor, little plastic, you know, like gold dressing up armor, and think, ‘Right we can use those,’ and they’d be cheap as chips, and he would then spray them gold and they would be decorating parts of the palace. It was just brilliant, the work he did on Victoria, really, and the sets that we filmed in up in Yorkshire was monumental, and kind of did a lot of the imaginative work for us, in a way. He was a kind of genius, Michael Howles.
Jace: And throughout your career you’ve played several royal personages including not only Leopold.
Alex: I have.
Jace: But Prince Charles in The Queen, King George the Third, Edward the Eighth a.k.a. David, the Duke of Windsor, in The Crown. Why do you think you’re so often cast as royalty?
Alex: I really don’t know why I’m cast as royalty, because I’m a kind of common boy from Essex, which is sort of the east of London, for people who don’t know. I don’t know, really. I don’t know. I’ve done quite a lot on stage and on film of real people, as it were. I’ve done Benjamin Britten and Alan Bennett at the National, I’ve played George Bush in a David Herr play at the National. I’ve done lots of historical characters, which is fun to do, but brings its own kind of issues as well, because you’re never going to be everybody’s idea of Prince Charles, or somebody is going to think you’ve got it wrong. But you imaginatively have to try and take a leap at something, having done all your research and then sort of absorb it and then kind of let go of it, and give your version of the Duke of Windsor, or Prince Charles. It’s quite a responsibility, sometimes. You feel you shouldn’t judge these people in a way.
Jace: I mean, after playing after playing Charles in The Queen, you’ve run into the Prince of Wales since. Did he say anything to you about your performance?
Alex: No he’s never — he’s looked at me with a bit of a sort of twinkle in his eye, a sort of ‘I know what you’ve been doing,’ but he’s never, he’s never actually said anything to me. No, no.
Jace: I’m often haunted by your performances. Your Duke of Windsor in The Crown, I think, is extraordinary.
Alex: Thank you.
Jace: What was your experience like on that series?
Alex: It was one of the happiest jobs I’ve ever done. And I became completely obsessed with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and read every book, watched what little there was available in footage. Watched all kinds of Pathé news footage of of how he was physically, I’m much bigger than him, much taller than he was. But I became totally sort of obsessed with their story, and just loved playing him. He also wore fantastic clothes, so that was good to do. And the choices he made, his foolishness, his naivéte, the fact that he that he then sort of floated through the rest of his life without any real purpose, that there was a sort of Shakespearean tragical sort of nature to his life, really, that I found fascinating.
Jace: The actors in The Crown were replaced with older actors for the third season.
Alex: Yes they were.
Jace: What are your feelings about that?
Alex: It was…There was some debate at one point that Leah Williams, who played the Duchess and myself might sneak through because we were sort of peripheral royals, and that we might get through in season three, but I completely understand that they wanted a clean sweep. And to up age us all. I completely get that. I was sad not to do his complete story. I would have liked that, because there’s a wonderful description of his final meeting with the Queen ten days before he died, and I would have liked to have played that. Well, I wish.
Jace: So you would have been open to getting aged-up with some, or a lot of makeup.
Alex: Oh, totally and possibly not that much makeup. Yeah, it’s been really good, and again, it was a wonderful thing that both the production of Victoria and the producers of The Crown enabled me to to play Leopold and and the Duke of Windsor and they were up for sort of helping to finesse and make it possible for me to do both. Very lucky.
Jace: Alex Jennings, thank you so very much.
Alex: Thank you.
Jace: And we are back with Daisy Goodwin. Welcome.
Daisy: Hi, Jace!
Jace: As Britain moves towards a decimal currency, a new coin is introduced worth a tenth of a pound called the florin. Is it true that the name of the coin, the florin, is offered up by Leopold?
Daisy: No. But he could easily have done. I think it was just a name that came in, that sounded right. It was a mediæval, I mean there were there were florins on the continent, so it’s a sort of, it’s a kind of international name for a coin.
Jace: The design for the so-called ‘godless florin’ has Victoria throwing off convention by wearing a crown and without the traditional inscription, ‘But by the Grace of God.’ Was this a shock to the British public, and even to Victoria herself?
Daisy: Well, her wearing the crown, that was her idea, but the lack of the inscription, that was Albert’s fault. It was meant to be there, but Albert left it off, and that was something that absolutely enraged Victoria.
Jace: Fact or Fiction: Queen Victoria’s private drawings of domestic life at the palace ended up in the papers.
Daisy: They didn’t end up in the papers, but they were they were sold, you know, they were sold as prints by the printmaker. So they did, they were seen by people who weren’t meant to have seen them. You know, it was a huge scandal at the time and Victoria and Albert, were, you know felt horrified by this.
Jace: What was the relationship between Feodora and Leopold in real life, given that they lived so closely to one another. Did she blame him for being the puppet master that cost her the throne?
Daisy: I think she probably did, yes. I mean they they didn’t seem to see each other very often. Poor Feodora was completely neglected by the rest of the family because she had no power. No money. No status.
Jace: Fact or Fiction: Did Albert believe in phrenology, and did Victoria and Albert have their children’s heads examined by George Coom?
Daisy: That is completely true. They did believe in phrenology, and they really thought that phrenology would help explain why Bertie was so backward, in comparison to his older sister.
Jace: Fact or Fiction: Did Victoria throw an elaborate Georgian costume christening ball after Arthur’s birth?
Daisy: She did throw an elaborate Georgian ball in the fashions of 100 years ago. I don’t know whether it was actually after the christening, but it certainly happened around that time. And it’s just an extraordinary event, and I think they all look so amazing in those costumes. There are wonderful pictures from the real ball that you can look up online.
Jace: Does Victoria name Arthur after the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley?
Daisy: Yes she does. Yes she does. That was completely true.
Jace: Victoria and Albert’s row heats up to a new level in this episode, with Victoria going so far as to smash a bust, and even slap Albert across the face, after he says that her quote, ‘Character is overdeveloped in the area of self-esteem.’ Did their marriage reach a low point like this in real life? How bad did things get for them?
Daisy: I think it did. I mean again, you know, it’s very hard to get the facts on this because, you know, it’s not something that Victoria writes about. But one of the things she does do, whenever she’s had a row with Albert, she writes in her diary, ‘Darling, darling Albert, I love him so much, dot dot dot dot, my angel’ and I think that’s because she knows that he reads her diary, so she’s trying to apologize for her behavior. I think that’s definitely a sense at this time in their marriage that Albert is trying to control her, and she doesn’t want to be controlled. And you can see from the gaps in the children, that there is a physical distance between them that hadn’t been previously.
Jace: Daisy Goodwin, thank you so much.
Daisy: My pleasure.
Jace: Her Serene Highness Feodora has been a prickly outsider this season of Victoria, scheming against her estranged half-sister, the Queen, while the kingdom seethes with rebellion and unrealized reform.
Kate Fleetwood: She feels incredibly hard done by. She missed out on being Queen. She could have married the old King George, and she was sent packed off by their mutual mother, because the mother wanted Victoria to be Queen. That’s a huge amount of built up resentment.
Jace: Next week on the podcast, actor Kate Fleetwood joins us to discuss how it felt to play the severe and sour Princess Feodora.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
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