Sit yourself down in front of an episode of BBC2’s latest historical drama Versailles and you’ll quickly be able to tick off a lot of the familiar tropes of the genre: it’s got beautiful locations, characters engaging in endless power struggles, and actors with anachronistically great teeth wearing big wigs and elaborate costumes. But stick around a few minutes more and you’ll notice something that doesn’t come around that often in a show like this: a gay power couple right at the centre of the story.
This isn’t a case of a ratings-hungry scriptwriter arbitrarily chucking in a man-on-man subplot for bonus controversy points, either. Versailles is set in 17th century France during the reign of Louis XIV, whose brother and close confidante Philippe, Duke of Orléans – known to most simply as ‘Monsieur’ – was known to have had a lifelong romantic and sexual relationship with the Chevalier de Lorraine. While that might amount to little more than a footnote in a lot of the history books, this series puts their relationship in much sharper focus and explores how such an arrangement could’ve worked at a time when it wasn’t even legal, let alone acceptable. And as we chat to Evan Williams, the charming Canadian actor playing Chevalier in this series, we’ve never been quite so engaged by a history lesson.
“It was a time when homosexuality was punishable by death and France was a Catholic state, but it was a known secret that the king’s brother was homosexual and that they were together – they were an item at court,” explains Evan. “There was nothing the king could do about it, except maybe put his brother to death. Since he wasn’t going to do that, they could basically do whatever they wanted, and by virtue of that, Chevalier was completely protected – he lived in a sort of gilded cage. It was a bit of a blackmail situation really, because he had the king’s brother’s ear…”
When so many queer historical figures had their sexuality toned down or airbrushed entirely out of their stories to comply with the tastes of the time, it’s almost surprising that Monsieur and Chevalier’s relationship made it into the history books at all. However, when Evan came to research his character before starting on the show, he discovered that his interventions at court were not reported kindly.
“According to the record books, they say he was ‘as beautiful as an angel, but also as greedy as a vulture’ – history is not kind to the Chevalier!” he chuckles. “But we don’t really know how the reality was. All we know is what history tells us, and history was very heavily doctored, mostly by King Louis, so what we know is what he chose to tell. I did as much research as I could, but the actual literature on him is relatively limited, especially since I don’t speak French very well!
“He’s a fascinating character to play,” continues Evan, “because on the one hand, you have all these machinations and political manoeuvres and backstabbing, and on the other hand you have what is actually a beautiful love story which is true to history. The Chevalier and Monsieur were together since they were in their mid-teens all the way until they were in their mid-70s. So it’s fun to be doing this kitchen-sink relationship drama in the midst of all the opulence of the court!”
Like The Tudors before it, Versailles takes an unflinching approach to sex and nudity – which probably explains why the Mail on Sunday frothingly branded it “primetime porn” months before it was even due to air here in the UK. As it happens, the first time we see Chevalier, he’s got Monsieur’s head between his thighs – so it’s lucky for all involved that there was no awkwardness between Evan and his co-star Alexander Vlahos, best known to UK viewers as Mordred in BBC1 Saturday evening fantasy saga Merlin.
“I have a blast working with Alex,” grins Evan. “Right at the beginning, in the very first meeting we had, we looked each other in the eyes and said, ‘Are we gonna do this? If we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna go all the way.’ And we made a pact right there. The chemistry between us was natural, and the writers are very clever and worked in the natural way that he and I bounce off each other – for want of a better term!
“It’s been a complete blast to continue to explore the whole thing and watch how it changes and grows deeper,” he adds. “The most beautiful thing about the story to me is that more than being a gay love story, it’s just a love story. Even though it was an issue to the people at the time that the characters were gay, it’s not an issue to the lens of the camera. It’s just a beautiful, complicated, sometimes devastating, sometimes magical journey between these two people who can’t help but be completely, desperately in love with each other.”
Alongside Versailles, Evan has a recurring role as Luke on MTV teen comedy Awkward, a character he describes as “the opposite kind of role, a very square-jawed heterosexual love interest”, so getting the chance to play someone as diametrically-opposed as the Chevalier at the same time was a thrill – and so was the opportunity to act on a lavish costume drama.
“I’m from Canada, and we just don’t have the budgets there to really justify this kind of show. If we tried to do it in Canada, they’d be cutting corners left and right,” reveals Evan, who’s currently in France filming for the drama’s second season. “It’s a real pleasure to be on a show that can actually put its money where its mouth is, and they chipped in for all the important stuff. The costumes are all handmade – they weigh like 1,000lbs, but they’re gorgeous! And the wigs! I don’t really find my character 100 per cent until the wig comes on, and then all I have to do is glance in the mirror and the guy just grows from inside me – there’s something magical that happens!”
Versailles is on BBC2, Wednesdays, and BBC iPlayer.
Words Steven Perkins