I loved The Last King (2003), also known as Charles II: The Power and The Passion, when I saw it way back when. It’s one I’ve always meant to rewatch, both because it was entertaining, but also because I know so much more about late 17th century costume now than I did back in the day. It’s got a great cast — Rufus Sewell as Charles II, Rupert Graves as the Duke of Buckingham, Helen McCrory as Barbara Villiers, Shirley Henderson as Catherine of Braganza — and who doesn’t love the story of the merry monarch and all his wimmin?
Well, I signed up for BritBox, which is the BBC and ITV’s streaming channel, via Amazon. Apparently it’s where BBC is going to release all their back catalogue, so it’s already historical costume TV series central. I saw The Last King there and decided to wind it up and give it a deep dive via a multi-part semi-recap review.
The costumes were designed by Mike O’Neill (Daniel Deronda, North and South, Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren). Sadly the series is old enough that there’s only a teeny bit of press to be found about it, and very little about the costumes. I’m guessing the budget was small, because there are some costumes that are great and others that leave a lot to be desired … and everything is filmed in close-up, which I always think is a way to avoid showing the costumes and/or the lack of extras!
Alright, so it’s been a while since the first episode! I’ve been busy! Shuddup! ;) On to episode two! We are firmly in the 1660s now, and everyone has MUCH better hair:
Charles is all hot for Frances Stewart, the future Duchess of Richmond. She’s very small and blonde:
Barbara Palmer (Helen McCrory) is still lurking around scheming with the Duke of Buckingham (Rupert Graves). Luckily Barbara has figured out how to style her hair, and has ditched the mantua that she wore in the last episode for a new, black dress:
The Duke of Buckingham wants to be Charles’s closest advisor, while Charles relies more on his Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde (Emperor Palpatine). The two have one of many spars, this time literal, getting all sweaty with swords:
Amazeball news: after three years, THE QUEEN IS PREGNANT. Charles and Catherine are STOKED.
Don’t worry, Barbara Palmer is here to scheme with her labia. Right now she’s seducing Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, while wearing a gold-trimmed chemise.
Various political stuff happens, and I’m going to tell you right now, I Don’t Care. Throughout this episode there is war with the Dutch, the English get their asses kicked, Buckingham ends up in the Tower then released, Hyde gets banished, and while it was fine to watch, I don’t care enough to have remembered the details. Sorry! I’m far more interested in Charles and his lay-deeze.
However, I will point out that the men’s fashions change in this episode too. In episode one, they were wearing doublets and full petticoat breeches with lots of flippy-flappy bits. Now, they’re all wearing the prototype of the man’s suit with long jacket, long waistcoat, and more-fitted trousers. This is a real transition that happened in this era, and interestingly, the idea for the new look came from Turkish stage costumes. So what we think of as the man’s three-piece suit is based on Ottoman dress. Fascinating, huh!
Charles is having his portrait painted avec chiens:
Specifically, he’s being painted about 10 years too early for this:
Here’s the earlier style, with doublet and petticoat breeches. Yes, these are Swedish, but they’re the clearest view I could find:
And here’s another example of the new coat, waistcoat, and breeches:
The best thing about this episode is our boys are finally wearing proper, long, full, curly FULL-BOTTOMED WIGS. YASSSSSSSS.
Barbara is going full procuress with Frances, who is virtuous and Just Wants to Get Married. Barbara is both enjoying that the king isn’t getting what he wants from her competition, and also trying to keep her competition close so she can hang on to her power, and also I think Barbara just enjoys fucking with people.
The queen has miscarried. Everyone is very very sad. She’s also sick and maybe going to die. Charles is incredibly kind, caring for her and watching over her and being incredibly sweet about it all. Note: this doesn’t last, but it’s nice while it happens.
Charles’s brother, the Duke of York, wants to go to war. But he’s Charles’s heir, so Chuckie isn’t into it. Both are wearing the new suits, and the trimmings are spot on and really highlight their Ottoman origins.
The queen recovers, but she’s probably never going to have children. She’s envious of Barbara’s many children with the king.
Charles is stressed about the whole not-having-a-son thing, and starts blaming Catherine like a jerk. Okay, to be fair, in their worldview, God doesn’t like them so they must have done something wrong.
The Great Plague has come to London, so it’s 1665. Charles does occasionally go back to his flippy-flappy look with the petticoat breeches, but he’s still wearing a long coat over it.
He goes out to view the effects of the plague. Because so much of this is filmed in close-up, I spend a lot of time sighing over his pretty green eyes:
Barbara and the Duke of Buckingham scheme. She’s sleeping with Monmouth and is trying to get him legitimized, so that she can be in control of the next king. She’s hoping there’s proof Charles married Monmouth’s mother, Buckingham tells her where to look.
The Duke of York converts to Catholicism. Charles is PISSED because, after their father’s execution, ain’t no way the English people are going to be okay with a Catholic king.
Frances can’t decide whether to shag the king. Barbara keeps pushing her at him.
The queen has heard that Charles is thinking of divorcing her; he’s getting pressured by Buckingham and many others. She has a sad, and it’s actually quite touching, as she tells him if he wants to annul their marriage she won’t fight it.
There are pups:
Barbara continues to scheme, trying to find proof of Charles’s marriage to Monmouth’s mother. She searches around in her shift and this lounging robe:
Frances STILL hasn’t put out, and she sends both Barbara and the king notes telling them she’s eloped with the Duke of Richmond. All kinds of political stuff, including stuff about the test act and having to axe Hyde, so Charles doesn’t want to give parliament any more power over him. He summons Catherine and Monmouth to tell them that 1) he’s not divorcing Catherine, and 2) Monmouth will never be his heir. Catherine is vastly relieved, Monmouth is pissed as only a teenager can be, but Barbara is there to comfort him and tell him all is not lost.
Someone arrives to say, dun dun DUN — fire has broken out in London!
Stay tuned for my review of episode 3, with hopefully less lag time!