Lady Emma Portman is our eyes and ears at court, and is a friend to Victoria, a protector of Sophie, and—tantalizingly—an ex of Palmerston’s. Read our interview with Anna Wilson-Jones, the actress who plays her, for inside-the-bedchamber access to insights about her character, her cast-mates, and much more.
MASTERPIECE: Lady Emma Portman is the wife of a Whig minister who’s described as “something of a boobie. But she knows everyone.” That’s a great introduction to her character. Can you unpack for us what it says about her marriage and her place in society?
WILSON-JONES: I think her marriage would almost certainly have been arranged by her family. I very much doubt she married for love. But I don’t think there is animosity there, however Lord Portman doesn’t inspire her! He is probably rather dull (although Robin who plays him is the opposite!), thus her marriage is rather unfulfilling. I think she filled her time with social engagements and she loves to people-watch. I also imagine she is a great reader of books (and people!). She says she has played many a “card game”—she is as much a femme du monde as one could be in those times. Her desire to be at the palace shows ambition. It’s the closest thing to a career a woman could have.
After the first series, Daisy [Goodwin] told me she felt that Emma had always been in love with William—it made such sense of their relationship.–Anna Wilson-Jones on Lord Melbourne
MASTERPIECE: From her very first scene, Emma is on the side of the queen. Can you describe Emma and Victoria’s relationship?
WILSON-JONES: I like to think that Emma and Victoria are true friends and that Emma has gained Victoria’s trust, but Victoria will always be the queen and Emma her servant. Thus Emma advises with caution and deference and occasionally chooses not to say something! But there is an honesty and genuine affection between them. Historically, I believe they knew each other as children and Victoria would come to Harewood house (Emma’s ancestral home) for “play dates”!
MASTERPIECE: Her position as Lady of the Bedchamber (and later, Extra Lady of the Bedchamber) is something we really don’t have any context for. What is expected of her?
WILSON-JONES: Well, in reality a Lady of the Bedchamber would perform the duties of a servant in many ways, but would be a woman of the aristocracy as it would only be acceptable to have a woman of that standing being so physically and intimately close to the queen, helping her dress and pouring water for her ablutions! However, these women would have been her close female company and we must assume that real friendships developed. Emma remained in Victoria’s service all her life. Maybe her duties became less as their friendship grew, thus her later position as an extra lady of the bedchamber.
MASTERPIECE: Lord Melbourne is always “William” to her, and they’re very close—she even leaves the court to care for him when he’s dying. What’s the backstory there?
WILSON-JONES: We imagined that Emma and William had been friends for most of their lives; she seems to know him better than anyone and has seen him go through the heartache of losing his wife and his son. After the first series, Daisy told me she felt that Emma had always been in love with William—it made such sense of their relationship. Her protectiveness of him, her willingness to always be the one delivering messages! In Daisy’s novel Victoria, she refers to their past in more detail. Of course, it was sadly unrequited in the romantic sense. But maybe in those last months at Brocket Hall he realized she really was his true love…! Historically, Lord Portman was a Whig MP and ally of Lord Melbourne. Emma and William would have known each other very well and the Whigs were certainly very sociable!
MASTERPIECE: Do you have a favorite moment from working with Rufus Sewell, either on screen or off?
WILSON-JONES: I can’t really choose one, always fun, always interesting. I loved our scenes in his parlor and his greenhouse when we speak as true friends without pretense. So often the characters are on their best behavior, being watched by others, so it was a chance to be more relaxed and free.
MASTERPIECE: What does Emma make of Victoria and Albert’s ups and downs?
WILSON-JONES: She understands them. She is a mother and a wife. She knows how hard family life can be, let alone if you are queen of England!
MASTERPIECE: I have it on good authority (ie the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast) that you and Jordan Waller (Lord Alfred) make your own fun on set, particularly during the filming of the Georgian ball. What do the two of you get up to?
WILSON-JONES: We are only ever in character and are very sensible! As a Lady in waiting and Equerry our characters are ever-present, so Jordan and I have a lot of time on set where the only stage direction is a raise of an eyebrow or a look. So we tend to create our own dialogue…you’ll have to learn to lip read! But at the Georgian ball, it was Dangerous Liaisons—I was John Malkovich and he was Glen Close. (You can see Jordan and me in another guise in as short film we did together, Rosemary and Basil)
MASTERPIECE: Let’s talk corsets and costumes—What are the costume elements that you endure to bring Emma to the screen?
WILSON-JONES: Layer upon layer upon layer. I have three petticoats, one of which is like a down duvet. You are trussed up with a framework of materials! I actually don’t wear a corset as it had a bad effect on my ribs, so I’m the lucky one, but it means I have to remember to move as if I’m wearing one. However, it also feels wonderful to be adorned! The costumes Ros designs are just incredible. You cannot be anything but Victorian once you have them on.
Going to the loo is fun.
MASTERPIECE: Much of Emma’s work is done in nonverbal ways, looks that are either supportive, or telling, or warning, or encouraging. Where does her restraint and subtlety come from?
WILSON-JONES: She is worldly-wise but has ultimate discretion. She knows that the palace is a public place in so many ways, people are always watching and listening. She chooses carefully what to say and when. I think Alfred and Emma privately chew the fat with less restraint!
MASTERPIECE: The hint that Emma and Palmerston had a dalliance is too tantalizing…Can you please tell us what went on between the two of them?!
WILSON-JONES: Well, we have yet to find out! I imagine an affair during their youth…she says she knows he cannot give Sophie what she needs, so I expect she knows he’s not one for romance and commitment, but more gratification! The Whigs apparently were quite relaxed in their morals. Not Victorian at all!
MASTERPIECE: Emma doesn’t miss a trick. Does she have Feodora’s number?
WILSON-JONES: Oh yes, from the moment she arrives. I would love to have had a chance for a show down with her! Kate [Fleetwood], who plays her, is wonderful.
MASTERPIECE: Her intervention on Sophie’s behalf is lovely. I presume she wouldn’t step in for just anyone…What makes Sophie’s case different?
WILSON-JONES: I think she’s realizes Sophie is vulnerable and unable to fend for herself. She is bullied by her husband and at the mercy of men. Maybe Emma herself was naive when young, she too probably married by arrangement rather than love, although I imagine Emma always had her head more firmly on her shoulders. I do think Emma would always try to protect or advise when she thinks someone is being manipulated or hurt or an injustice has occurred. But always with care and discretion. She’s not judgmental; she knows what illicit love is, but equally knows the damage it can do.
MASTERPIECE: Would you agree that we all need an Emma Portman in our lives?
WILSON-JONES: Well I will take that as a compliment! I think we all need someone wise and levelheaded but compassionate to talk to. She also has a sense of humor, which is crucial in life!
MASTERPIECE: A robust storyline for Emma is well overdue! What’s a dream plot that you’d love to see for her?
WILSON-JONES: Yes, it would be lovely. Of course it would be refreshing to see a woman of a certain age having a romance, it’s rarely seen on screen, but maybe William was the love of her life. However, while researching the 19th century, I found out that the seeds of the suffragette movement were planted among women of the upper-classes. Emma is in a privileged position to see what happens in parliament, what happens in the palace, and will be party to domestic and foreign affairs. She was also close to Wellington. Women in court would have discussed what’s going on and have opinions. Emma is very well read and intelligent. She does not subscribe to Schopenhauer’s belief that women have smaller brains! Maybe she could start secret meetings with likeminded women?
MASTERPIECE: You are the narrator for the audiobook of Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria—Did that experience add to your understanding of the show or your character? Was it hard not to conjure up your colleagues from the show as you read? Do you do the German accents in the audiobook?
WILSON-JONES: Oh completely! Daisy has such an extensive knowledge of the characters and the period. It was lovely to see them written on the page. So often a novel can go where the screen just can’t. I also accompanied Daisy promoting the book so listening to her talk about Victoria was so wonderful and interesting. I would read out extracts from Victoria’s diaries which were also fascinating.
It was impossible not to picture the cast. I tried not to do impressions but convey the essence of the characters. It was such fun playing Conroy one minute and Wellington the next. Audiobooks give you the chance to play parts you would never do on screen. I’m afraid I do do all the German accents, and I can only apologize to all Germans. It was challenging playing five or six German characters on one page, to try and distinguish between them all. I did have to picture the actors and try to replicate the patterns of speech so apologies also, to all the actors!
MASTERPIECE: Emma is great at giving advice. What would your advice be this season for Victoria, Albert, Feodora, and Lord Alfred?
WILSON-JONES: My advice to Victoria, spend more time with your children, even if you have nine, they grow up so fast. To Albert, don’t sweat the small stuff. To Feodora, be content being just a princess! Dear Alfred, it’s time to move on and find a new love.
Who knows all the royal gossip and intrigue? Lady Emma Portman, and you, if you listen to the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast interview with Anna Wilson-Jones! Listen now!