Thursday, 5 January 2012

TV Review: The Royals who Rescued the Monarchy

The last two nights, I watched "The Royals who Rescued the Monarchy", a fascinating study of how George and Mary both innovated the monarchy and moved it back to more Victorian moral values.

The first part looked at the way in which the stricter moral behaviour was in a way a reaction against the lifestyle of Edward VII, with his mistresses (before and after he became king).

The first World War, and the anti-German sentiments that engendered also saw the change of name to the House of Windsor, and the monarchy connecting directly with the people, at official events, but also visiting miners in Wales, and other similarly depressed areas. Unlike the autocratic and remote monarchies elsewhere in Europe and Russia, which were largely crumbling after the Great War, the British monarchy established a much more direct connection between themselves and the people, away from the aristocratic land owners. In public, George V realised that he could not be remote and autocratic.

At home, however, George V could act like an absolute monarch, and did, regimenting and bullying his children. A photo shows the children in children's "sailor outfits", looking for all the world like the regimented children from the Von Trapp family in "The Sound of Music". Perhaps it is not surprising because like Captain Von Trapp, George V came from a strict and orderly Naval background.

Innovations included the first Radio broadcasts at Christmas, the tours of both George V and his wife Mary (and not the monarch alone, as had often been the case) to meet ordinary people, the presentation of cups at popular sporting occasions, and the invention of the OBE - a medal for ordinary people rather than already privileged ones, and visits to the dominions as Emperor and Empress. All these held the monarchy in good stead as the crowned heads of Europe came tumbling down. The Tsar in fact looked for refuge in England, but the unpopularity of him in the British press led to George V pressing hard and getting his initial offer refused.

We may think that Katherine Middleton as a commoner was a first, but in fact marrying outside the Royal families of Europe was a major first - their son Bertie (later George VI) married Lady Elizabeth Bowler-Lytton, who was not of a Royal bloodline. That was a major break with the past, where Royal always married Royal.

A curious omission - the King was supposed to be increasingly fonder of the well-behaved Bertie rather than Edward, yet other accounts show Bertie's speech impediment was not helped by bullying by his father. Also interesting - the funeral showed the crowds, and the voiceover mentioned the great esteem in which the late King had been held, but evidently the Government of the day did not entirely have the same faith in the crowd - there were countless policemen in evidence.

Lovely moments - the description of the King's voice on radio by one commentator - "he spoke in a mellow voice that appeared to have been marinated in an ancient whiskey, as indeed, it probably had. In fact what was good was the sound archive, that you could actually how George VI spoke.

The "time bomb", as the commentator pointed out, was the emphasis on a moral Royal family, no place for the playboy style with mistresses of Edward VII. The second part saw the impact of that on Edward VIII, wanting to marry a divorced woman, and of course one can't help see the impact of that on today's Royal family, from Princess Margaret onwards.

In the second part of  "The Royals who Rescued the Monarchy", the theme was how Mary helped shape the Monarchy. Originally May (of Teck), she changed her name to Mary when her husband became George VI.

It was good, but the first half-hour was rather padded by some identical clips and comments from the first part yesterday - obviously some of the historical clips would be the same, yet some of the modern interviews were also word for word the same.

But later on there was some fascinating colour footage from George V and Mary's 1935 Silver Jubilee procession. It was striking how the brilliant reds of coaches and coats, for instance, contrasted with the rather dull clothes of the crowd, in a way that black and white footage misses. I was also struck by how people waved white cloth handkerchiefs or hats in the air - so many men with hats - today it would be small flags on sticks bought for the occasion, as hardly anyone wears a hat, and paper hankies do not wave well!

The last half hour was new stuff because it was after the death of George V. I would have been disappointed if it had not mentioned Mary's kleptomania - when visiting, people with any inkling of her would hide any valuables, or she would tell them how good they would match one she had at home, and wasn't it a shame they were parted! And they did - unlike George VI who was a stamp collecting bore, she loved antiques, and also the history behind them. Mary was clearly brighter than him, and made sure the young Elizabeth had a better reading list than that prescribed by her mother - 19 PG Wodehouse novels! She also imbued Elizabeth with a sense of duty, which I think possibly only Princess Anne has really inherited from her. Her final act was to save the name "House of Windsor" when Mountbatten wanted to rename the Royal family as the "House of Mountbatten" - he came across as rather an egoistic snob hungry for privilege, which of course, he was.

It is interesting that she refused Wallis Simpson the title HRH, and Queen Elizabeth stripped it from Princess Diana - both cases indicating Royal disapproval. Quite a bit of footage of Wallis Simpson and Edward, but I don't really know why the commentary persisted in saying he was "handsome" - he clearly had some kind of thyroid condition, a case of goiter if ever I saw one, which became more pronounced as he aged. But the chief mark against him was that he wanted a private life, and quite a hedonistic one, and as a future king, he was not allowed to have one. His less formal manner and latest suits must have seemed very modern, but while the clothes of George and Mary have a formal, timeless, quality, Edward's now quite dated style of clothes, his often pale looking face, and the slightly jerky film make him seem more like a relative of Buster Keaton.

After the abdication, there was another first, Queen Mary attended the Coronation of her son, now George VI (a nod to the legacy of his father), and there are lovely shots of the whole family, including Mary smiling, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace before a huge crowd below. Usually dowager Queens would stay away from the new King's enthronement, but her presence served to remind people of the continuity, and the fact that the Royal family was indeed a family, not one autocratic ruler. In many ways, she mellowed when not under the thumb of George V, and rather than incessantly boring shooting parties, could get out to the theatre more often.

In the Second World War the dowager Queen Mary was evacuated to her niece's house at Badminton, where she waged war on the ivy, getting anyone she could to tear bits of it off the house. She also wanted to chop down the cedar tree outside her window, and only stopped mentioning it when her niece said it would come down "over my dead body". But while she was dripping with jewels, she still had a common touch, and would get her chauffeur to pick up any serviceman she noted walking by in the nearby town and give them a lift, whether British or Americans, much to their surprise! She also took time to give the future Queen Elizabeth lessons in the history and meaning of paintings and ornaments in Royal Palaces like Windsor, and together with George VI led to Elizabeth's strong sense of duty.

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