Ably presented by Professor Kate Williams and Greg Jenner, each brief episode of Inside Versailles provides both commentary upon the preceding episode of the main drama Versailles, and also an invitation to the curious viewer to delve a little further into the truth behind the television serial. Consisting of short (less than 10 minute) bursts of commentary and discussion that focus upon a broad range of issues, Inside Versailles deftly bypasses any conventional format. In fact, it is rather like sitting in on a convivial discussion between a group of history students in a university café.
Each episode begins with some pleasantly informal and humorous reflections on that evening’s episode of Versailles, reassuring the viewer that this kind of historical documentary will in no way conform to the outdated stereotype that assumes history is date-based and dull. Indeed, the sense of historical inquiry as an inclusive and communal process of interpretation and analysis is greatly enhanced through the incorporation of contributions from other historians, including Kit Heyam, Sara Barker, Phil McCluskey, Linda Briggs, and Amber Butchart. Ultimately, this also helps to define the function of these mini-docs as intended not so much to pedantically correct factual infidelities, but rather to add nuance and depth that will only add to the viewer’s enjoyment and understanding of the main drama. The boundaries between the dramatic and the historic are further dissolved through the engaging employment of reproductions of original artwork related to the topic under discussion. Building upon the visual dynamic already established through the mini-doc’s relationship with the television series, this creates a stimulating sense of life at Louis XIV’s Versailles as something that can be seen, understood, and enjoyed today.
Although the topics discussed in each episode might sometimes be fairly general, for example fashion at Versailles, or seventeenth-century attitudes to sexuality, Inside Versailles frequently capitalises upon its close relationship with the television series in its treatment of such issues. By referring to characters already established within the drama, it becomes much easier to access and explore political relationships that might otherwise appear impenetrably and off-puttingly complicated, for example, in episode four when Phil McCluskey provides a concise and engaging explanation of seventeenth-century French military politics. Coming after the drama of the episode, the factual certainty and depth become even more desirable, as it is only human nature to be curious about the ‘truth’ behind what audiences implicitly accept will be an adapted, and thus possibly streamlined, version of events. Indeed, this sifting of truth from fiction is one of the mini-doc’s greatest strengths with regard to the exploration of issues or narrative elements that may challenge the assumptions of a modern audience. Particularly effective in this regard are episodes two and eight, the first of which explores seventeenth-century attitudes towards gender and sexuality, whilst the latter examines the role of women as diplomatists at this time. Providing informative detail that gives credence to the drama’s interpretation of real life figures such as Louis XIV’s brother Philippe and his sister-in-law Henriette, this is historical documentary at its finest.
Working within a comparatively tiny window of screen time, Inside Versailles is a carefully constructed documentary that goes further than simply spoon-feeding nuggets of historical fact. Rather, it demonstrates that history is not a lifeless constant but an embroidery of relationships and subtle depth as sumptuous and intricate as any of the fabulous costumes that feature in the drama. Encouraging discussion instead of simply disseminating fact, Inside Versailles is a programme designed to inspire enthusiasm for historical research as well as to provide an informative companion for Versailles: it is much to be hoped that this mini-doc series continues next year when the drama returns for its second season.
Inside Versailles was broadcast on BBC Two between 1st June and 10th August 2016. Later episodes are currently available to UK residents on BBC iPlayer.