Princess Alice: the Royals’ Greatest Secret – Channel 5

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I do wish that Channel 5 wouldn’t use such silly titles for their programmes.  Princess Alice isn’t a secret at all!  There’s been at least one previous documentary about her; there’s an excellent biography of her; she’s featured in dozens of other books and documentaries; and there was a lot of talk about her just two and a half years ago, when Prince William visited her grave during his trip to Jerusalem.

I always find her fascinating – partly because of her bravery in sheltering a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation of Greece, partly because of her Romanov connections, and partly because of the way she overcame severe mental illness and the really horrific “treatment” she was given for it, as well as coping with congenital deafness.  I always find the slightly mystical streak running through several members of the Hesse-Darmstadt branch of the family intriguing, as well.  I suspect that Prince Charles does too.

This didn’t say anything new, but it was all very interesting.  The combination of comments from “experts” and video footage from the time worked very well, although I could have lived without the references to “The Crown”.  Channel 5 have shown an awful lot of documentaries about the Windsors this year, and, whilst very watchable, they’ve got a bit samey.  This was something different.  What a fascinating woman!

As I said, it was nothing new to anyone who’s familiar with Princess Alice’s story, but what an amazing story it was!  Her birth in Windsor Castle, and her early years in Britain and Germany … although it didn’t mention her father’s naval career, for some reason.  Her marriage to Prince Andrea of Greece, adapting to a new country, her charitable and nursing work in Greece, and all the complexities of the Great War, the murders of her close relatives during the Russian Revolution, the political chopping and changing, the royal family being exiled and then returning, the Greco-Turkish War, and the military disaster which saw Andrea almost executed, and forced into exile.

Then their years in Paris, and Alice’s “religious crisis” and mental ill-health, and being bundled off by force to two sanatoria, where she underwent some really horrific treatment, at the behest of Sigmund Freud.  It’s like something from some horrible dystopian film, the idea of exposing someone’s ovaries to strong X-rays.  It’s a miracle that she ever recovered mentally from the treatment, never mind her initial illness.  And then one of her daughters was killed in a plane crash.

Then, after all that, she refused to leave Occupied Greece for safety in Britain or Sweden or anywhere else, and not only worked with the Red Cross but sheltered three members of a Jewish family in her home, saving their lives. She seemed to be being absorbed back into the British Royal Family at the time of Prince Philip’s wedding to the then Princess Elizabeth, but no, she went back to Greece, founded a nursing order of nuns, turned up at the Queen’s coronation in a nun’s habit, and then stayed on in Greece, despite financial problems, until the monarchy was overthrown again.  Then she lived out the rest of her life in Buckingham Palace … and was, eventually, buried on the Mount of Olives.

It’s an incredible story, and this documentary told it very well.  Thoroughly enjoyable watching.

And, going back to the irritating references to “The Crown”, maybe documentaries like this will remind people that royal families are actually real people, not soap opera characters.  How must Princess Alice have felt when that ridiculous 1950s Hollywood film was made about someone claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, her teenage cousin who’d been brutally murdered?  Even the film version of Downton Abbey gave a very inaccurate impression of the relationship between Princess Mary and the future Earl of Harewood, which I don’t suppose their family were very pleased about.  Less soapy stuff, where real people are concerned, and more programmes like this one, please!

Anne: the Princess Royal at 70 – ITV

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I would love to be like Princess Anne.  Nothing seems to faze her: she just gets on with it.  She also seems to be completely comfortable in her own skin.  She doesn’t moan, she doesn’t use annoying buzzwords, and she never seems to be feel that she needs to prove anything.  I thought that she came across really well in this documentary – every bit as hard-working and no-nonsense as she always does, and also very good-humoured and with an excellent sense *of* humour.

Like everything else this year, this didn’t go to plan.  The original idea was for the cameras to follow around for a year – but then, of course, lockdown put the kibosh on that.  However, it was typical of Princess Anne that that wasn’t allowed to mess the programme up; and, instead, it was turned into an opportunity to discuss her life at Gatcombe Park, and for her to talk about spending time with her grandchildren and joke about offering to help with home schooling as soon as people were allowed to meet up with those outside their own households.  There was even a brilliant clip of her trying to explain to the Queen how to use Zoom.

A lot of it had been filmed before lockdown, though, and we got to see her in a range of different situations – royal visits, charity work, investitures, acting as colonel-in-chief of military regiments, and also relaxing on a boat with Tim Laurence.  It was great to hear from Tim Laurence, because he’s normally so low-key.  We heard from Peter and Zara as well, and they all came across brilliantly – very natural and very affectionate.

We even heard from the Prime Minister, and there was a brilliant moment when a sculptor who was producing a bust of Anne showed her a bust that she’d made of Boris, and Anne joked about how difficult it must have been to get his hair right.  It’s hard to imagine any of the other Royals actually saying that!

Most of it was about her life as it is now, but there was also plenty about her life up until now.  It’s certainly been eventful – from the kidnapping to the Olympics.  It was nothing we hadn’t heard before, but it was still fascinating.  I particularly enjoyed hearing her say that going away to boarding school was her idea.  She actually asked to go, just like a princess in a school story!

I remember the period during which Princess Anne got a rough ride from the press, but I don’t think anyone has a bad word to say about her these days.   This programme didn’t have anything negative to say, but it wasn’t even remotely sycophantic: it was just honest.  And that’s Princess Anne all over.  There never seems to be anything fake about her.  She just tells how it is, and gets on with whatever comes along.  As I said, I wish I could be like her!   And I wish certain other members of her family could be like her.  She’s great, and this programme was great!

Three Royal documentaries – Our Queen At War (ITV), Prince Philip (Channel 5), Princess Anne (Channel 5)

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Three Royal documentaries – Our Queen At War (ITV), Philip: the King without a Crown (Channel 5) and Anne: the Daughter who should be Queen (Channel 5).  None of them said anything we haven’t heard umpteen times before, but they were all quite interesting, especially so as I think they must have been filmed after lockdown – the first “lockdown era” documentaries I’ve seen which haven’t actually been about coronavirus issues.  The opinions of the “experts” were either just given by voiceover or else given over video links from their homes.  I think ITV had tarted theirs up a bit, but the Channel 5 ones were clearly home videos made on Zoom or Tik Tok or something similar.  And the ITV one used animated graphics, which was something different.   I’m not sure how the Queen’d feel about her teenage self being shown as an animated graphic, but I’d like to think she’d be quite amused by it!

With no live sport, soaps on ration, and no way of filming new episodes of most programmes until the end of lockdown, TV channels couldn’t be blamed too much if they just showed a lot of repeats – but they’d gone to the trouble of making these new programmes, and they deserve some kudos for that.

The one about Prince Philip was on first, and this really was largely just recycling old stuff.  Out came the video clips of Charles and Diana’s wedding, Diana’s funeral, etc etc, for the umpteenth time!  I’d really have liked to hear more about Philip’s early years, which aren’t discussed nearly as much – but, to be fair, the title of the programme made clear that it was about his role as consort.  The family stuff, whilst interesting, had been said a million times before, as had the sorry tale of his having to give up his naval career, but I enjoyed the discussions about his work, especially the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme.  It was an hour’s decent watching, anyway.

The one about the Queen’s wartime experiences followed a few days later.  Again, a lot of this was, whilst interesting, same old same old – the speech that she made from Windsor in 1940, and the bombing of Buckingham Palace, and she and Princess Margaret mingling with the crowds on VE Day.  I rather enjoyed all the romantic bits, though.  One of these days, history will see the Queen and Prince Philip’s relationship as one of the greatest royal romances of all time.  Walking round the grounds at Windsor hand-in-hand when he was on leave from the Navy.  Bless!   And, as the programme said, having a boyfriend (for lack of a better word) who was on active service gave the then Princess Elizabeth a greater understanding of what so many other women at the time were going through.

The general point of the programme was to emphasise the fact that the Queen, despite her privileged position, shared many of the wartime experiences that other people did, and how the war years shaped her; and it did a good job of that.  For one thing, we were reminded that she and Princess Margaret actually saw a flying bomb going overhead, before it landed very close by, at Windsor Racecourse. There were even some bits I don’t think I’d ever seen before, such as shots of evacuees from Glasgow on the Balmoral estate.  And I loved seeing the film clips of the Queen driving a truck whilst she was in the ATS!   Those clips aren’t often seen.  This was a very good hour’s TV, especially at the moment with the wartime generation proving such an inspiration during the coronavirus crisis.

Just as a slight aside, though, the fact that they’re now the oldest members of society means that the wartime generation have been hit very hard by this horrible virus.  It’s very sad to read about war veterans or Holocaust survivors, who’d come through so much, having their lives finally ended by this awful, awful thing.

Finally, we had the programme about Princess Anne.  I don’t know whether the title was just meant to attract attention or whether someone genuinely thought it was a valid statement.  I can’t imagine for one second that Princess Anne even wants to be Queen, and there’s certainly no “should” about it: she’s not the eldest.  And, whilst I think she’s amazing, it’s probably a job for someone a bit more tactful!  She is great, though!

One of the “experts” mispronounced everything from “primogeniture” to “governess” which was rather annoying, but it was a very good programme otherwise.  We went back through Anne’s early years, and how the media were quite negative about her in the early 1980s, and she was overshadowed by Diana and Fergie as well as by Charles, but how she earned huge respect because of her work with Save The Children and other charities.  There was also quite a lot about her equestrian career.  It didn’t mention A Question of Sport 🙂 , but it did mention her being Sports Personality of the Year in 1971, and competing at the Olympics on 1976.  It also emphasised the fact that she’s often been the first British Royal to make overseas tours to places which are sensitive for one reason or another, notably the Soviet Union – a very good point.

I remember the negative press she used to get, and was very pleased that this programme was almost entirely complimentary about her hard work and no-nonsense attitude.

She does a sterling job!   As do all the other senior royals – and they’ve been doing what they can in these difficult times.  Thank you to them, and thank you to ITV and Channel 5 for taking the trouble to make these new programmes.  I enjoyed all three of them.

Inside the Crown: Secrets of the Royals – ITV

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Watching this was like spending an hour reminiscing with old friends – some laughs, some sighs. They had a nerve calling it “Secrets of the Crown”, though. What secrets?!  At one point, they produced a document from the archives, and announced that … ta-da … it had cost £50 to hire all the chairs for the Queen and Prince Philip’s wedding. Hold the front pages!   And they must have spent a good five minutes discussing the creases in Diana’s wedding dress. I wasn’t really expecting any great revelations, though, and it was easy watching. And they kept going on about what a wonderful team the Queen and Philip make, and how theirs is the longest royal marriage in British history. Bless 😊.   Unsubtle use of “the Crown” in the title.  I haven’t got a Netflix sub, so I’ve never seen “The Crown”, but I’ve never been sure that I want to.  But I do like things like this.

This was supposed to be about balancing love and duty. A few bits had clearly been hastily shoved in at the last minute, after Harry and Meghan jumped ship, but I assume the rest of it had been filmed a while ago and that the timing was just a weird coincidence. Out came all the old stories! Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, and whether or not they sympathised with the Nazis. The establishment not being overly chuffed with Princess Elizabeth wanting to marry Prince Philip, and how she stood her ground. Was she ringing Philip from the telecommunications carriage on the train, during the 21st birthday tour of South Africa?  No idea, but I hope so. The much-told stories of how Queen Mary mistaking the traycloth that Gandhi sent them as a wedding present for a loincloth, and how people sent Princess Elizabeth their own clothing coupons – proving how wrong those grumpy MPs who said that people weren’t in the mood for a big royal wedding were. Never trust MPs!

The one part of the programme where they deviated from the traditional view of things was whilst discussing Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend.  Most people take the view that Princess Margaret decided she didn’t fancy giving up her royal status, but this showed documents agreeing that she could keep her royal status, and her Civil List income, and generally carry on as before, and that all she’d have had to give up was her place in the line of succession, which was irrelevant anyway because Prince Charles and Princess Anne were ahead of her. Their interpretation of events was that she just decided that Peter Townsend wasn’t Mr Right after all.   Who knows?  I don’t think anyone buys all that “mindful of the teachings of the church” stuff, though!

Then they brought up all the speculation in the late 1950s that all wasn’t well between the Queen and Prince Philip.  See, all the Royals get hassle from the press.  Remember all those headlines about “the Duchess of Pork”, “Sophie and the Fake Sheikh” and “Waity Katy”?  And it’s not just here – it happens to the royal families of other countries too.  How Harry and Meghan can be so self-obsessed as to make out that the media are picking on them in particular is beyond me.  Look at all the grief Camilla’s had to put up with.  It must be horrendous, but keep calm, be dignified, carry on, and it passes.

They were very even-handed, in this programme, with Charles and Diana, which I was impressed with – it annoys me when people try to vilify one or the other of them.  Can we just accept that it was a bad match?  They’re hardly the first people to have made bad choices of partner, and, if they’d been any other couple, they’d have split up very soon after the wedding.  It’s sad, though.  Easy to be wise after the event, but, looking now at the pre-wedding interviews, it was so obviously a disaster waiting to happen.  I’ve seen better chemistry between complete strangers.  Oh dear 😦 .

Finally, the latest generation of royal couples. High, and well-deserved, praise for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and especially for the Duchess. As for the Sussexes, enough’s been said about them over the last few weeks, and may they stay out of the headlines like they claim they want to.  But it was the Queen and Prince Philip who were the stars of the show.  As great royal romances go, theirs is right up there.

So, like I said, it was like reminiscing with old friends.  But there were definitely no secrets revealed!

Downton Abbey

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This was great fun for a wet Sunday morning.  Don’t be expecting anything too deep and meaningful – a lot of the plotlines were more Enid Blyton or Nancy Drew/ the Hardy Boys than serious period drama – but it was always entertaining.  As everyone will know from all the adverts, it revolves around King George V and Queen Mary paying a visit to good old Downton.  It involves various near-disasters, a lot of sitcom stuff involving feuding staff, a sub-plot with some long-lost relations, and one of the Downton family inadvertently sorting out some royal personal traumas!   The Dowager Countess and Cousin Isobel play off each other brilliantly; and there’s also plenty of romance, with Mr Barrow finally finding a nice boyfriend, Tom finding a new girlfriend, Daisy deciding she definitely wants to marry Andy, and Miss Baxter growing closer to Mr Molesley.  There is a bit of serious stuff about life both upstairs and downstairs in there too, and there’s a sad twist in the tale which I won’t give away.  It won’t be winning any Oscars, but it’s certainly a must for Downton fans … and so, in case anyone’s reading this, I won’t put any major spoilers 🙂 .

Other than Lady Rose and Atticus, pretty much the whole cast is involved, with those who’d moved away from Downton Abbey coming to visit/coming out of retirement for the occasion.  The King and Queen are going to be spending a night at Downton, en route from Raby Castle (which I sincerely hope did not have horse manure all over the car park, as it did when I went there) to Harewood House (which I must visit again some time).  Cue all sorts of excitement in the village, where the local grocer declares that this is the pinnacle of not only his career but his life, and all sorts of panic at the house.  Needless to say, things do not run entirely smoothly, as the boiler packs up, Edith’s new ballgown goes missing, Daisy makes republican remarks, Tom thinks he’s being suspected of being a terrorist, and everyone worries because one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting is a cousin of the Dowager Countess’s, with whom she’s long since fallen out.

Then the royal staff, including a comedy French chef who wouldn’t be out of place in ‘Allo ‘Allo, insist that they’ll be doing everything, putting the Downton lot’s noses completely out of joint.  However, thanks to a sleeping draught, a hoax phone call, two people being locked in their bedrooms and the Queen’s dresser being caught pilfering (see what I mean about Enid Blyton?), the Downton staff get their moment of glory after all.  Hooray!

Meanwhile, the cousin turns out to have a big secret.  And, speaking of plots involving long-lost relations, I see that ITV are doing an adaptation of Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia. I hope it’s better than the book!  Tom unearths a dangerous plot which he bravely foils by running through the streets, with Mary chasing after him (see what I mean about Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys), and rugby-tackling the villain.  It’s also suggested (inaccurately) that Princess Mary, who featured strongly in The Queen’s Lost Family , is having marital problems … which Tom also, albeit inadvertently, sorts out!   And Edith is sad because she thinks that noblesse oblige means that too many demands are being made on her husband, but Cora gets the Queen to sort it out.  As you do

On a more serious note, poor Mr Barrow is caught up in a police raid on a gay jazz club – having only just found out, to his sadly soon suppressed delight, that there are gay clubs.  However, he’s rescued by one of the royal valets, and the two of them later get together.  Yay!  And share an off-screen night and an on-screen snog.  Tom and one of the visiting maids, who is part of the cousin’s mysterious secret, also share an on-screen snog.  Daisy and Andy do not snog, but agree to get married, after he proves his love by, er, vandalising a boiler pump.  Miss Baxter and Mr Molesley do not snog either, but meaningful glances are exchanged.

There’s quite a bit of pageantry, with the King reviewing the Yorkshire Hussars, and there are some glamorous ballroom scenes.  And a lot of food.  And some absolutely glorious shots of Highclere Castle and its grounds.  What a gorgeous place … although not as nice as Edith’s new home, filmed at Alnwick Castle!

It isn’t all escapism.  Reference is made to the General Strike.  The pilfering dresser talks about how unfair it is that there’s so much disparity between the lives of the haves and the lives of the have-nots.  And, whilst Robert and Cora don’t seem very bothered about the future of Downton Abbey, Mary wonders whether it’s worth going on … when running a stately home and a country estate is all so stressful.  Never having run either and never likely to be running either, I’ll have to take her word for that!  But it’s a fair point – a lot of upper-class families did end up selling their homes, or handing them over to the National Trust.

Then, as I said, there’s a rather sad twist in the tale … but it all ends on a positive note, with Carson saying that Downton Abbey will still be standing in a hundred years’ time, and that the Crawleys will still be there in a hundred years’ time, even if Mrs Hughes/Mrs Carson isn’t entirely convinced.  Who knows?  I like to think that they’re still there, raising some of the money for the upkeep by opening up the gardens to members of the public, and, hey, maybe hosting pop concerts in the grounds!   I don’t know if this is the last we’ll see of the Granthams, but they’ve given us a lot of entertainment over the years, and, nearly four years after the TV series ended, it was good to see them back.

The Queen’s Lost Family – Channel 4

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The title of this programme was very misleading – none of George V’s children were “lost”, with the arguable exception of Prince John, whom the programme never even mentioned – but it was quite an entertaining hour of serious talk about the changing role of the Royal Family, combined with a fair amount of gossip and scandal. OK, it didn’t really say anything new, despite making a big deal of having access to the newly-released letters and diaries of Princess Mary, Countess of Harewood, and it jumped around a lot; but still, I do love a bit of royal talk! It also made some good points about life in the Britain of the 1920s in general. It was too light on the gossip element, though: it never even named any of Prince George (the future Duke of Kent)’s alleged celeb lovers!

I’m not entirely sure what it was aiming to do, especially given the confusing title. Explore the relationships between George V’s children? It was lovely to see, from the letters, how close Mary was to her brothers, and especially to her eldest brother. She’s known to have been quite supportive of him over the Abdication Crisis. Make a point about how all George V’s children suffered from his strictness? I think he gets a bit of a raw deal, TBH. Many fathers of his class and generation were quite remote from their children – although he does, to be fair, seem to have been exceptionally strict. If they were trying to do that, they should really have said more about Bertie’s stammer: it wasn’t mentioned once. Nor was Prince John, which really was weird. There was just no reference to him at all, even in passing. Trace the lives of each of the children (well, except from John)? Maybe. Very little was said about either Mary or Bertie after their marriages, but I think it was focusing on the more glamorous and more scandalous siblings. It was a shame, really, because both Bertie and Mary did a lot of charity work, much of it in unglamorous places, and I think they deserved more attention than the programme gave them. But I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour. Minus adverts.

Or was it meant to be about the changing face of the Royal Family in the 1920s? That was certainly how it started. With the Romanovs murdered, and the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs sent packing, the newly-renamed Windsors must have been more than a bit worried – and it’s to the eternal credit of King George V and Queen Mary that the British monarchy came through this period so strongly.  The programme made it sound as if the country had gone straight from the pre-1832 world of only the upper-classes being able to vote to the post-1918 world of all men and most women being able to vote, which was hardly accurate; but the general point that Britain in 1919 was a very different world to Britain in 1914 was fair enough. The independence movement in India was also covered, although, for some strange reason, Ireland wasn’t mentioned at all.

There were clips of the princes and princess carrying out royal engagements in all sorts of different places. Edward/David got to go on tours of the Empire: Bertie got to visit factories at home. There was also some interesting talk about Mary, and how she was stuck at home whilst her brothers were away at school or naval college, not really allowed to do anything and with no hope of escape other than marriage. Being a princess sounds so glamorous, but it really wasn’t … until Princess Margaret came along, and showed that princesses could go living it up on the town just as well as princes could! A good point was also made about how it was Mary’s wedding, the first time the daughter of a sovereign had married in Westminster Abbey since Edward I’s time, that set the tone for modern royal weddings, with huge crowds in the streets and widespread coverage in the media.

Edward/David missed it, because he was away on a royal tour. He came across as being incredibly annoying. There’s this image of him as the people’s prince, because of his “something must be done” talk after the famous visit to mining areas of the North East, but comments he made after the 1922 General Election and during the General Strike make it pretty clear that he wasn’t actually that keen on “the people” at all. And he did a lot of moaning about how hard his life was, but was quite happy to be a prince when it came to getting into all the best nightclubs and pulling plenty of attractive women. He even moaned about being expected to return from a tour of Kenya when his father fell seriously ill. Bertie, meanwhile, was living a life of eminent respectability, and genuinely trying to help the working classes by running his Boys’ Camps – which the programme didn’t mention.

Henry, Duke of Gloucester, is usually seen as the one who kept a low profile, but he created a bit of scandal of his own, getting involved with an unsuitable woman and installing her as his mistress in a house close to Buckingham Palace – whilst she was heavily pregnant with someone else’s child. He did make a career for himself in the Army, though. And then there was George, who ran wild. The programme was very unsympathetic towards him – OK, he did run wild, but saying that it was “irresponsible” to have homosexual affairs and get addicted to cocaine was a bit much!  “Irresponsible”?!

It was all very bitty, and the title was very silly, but there was some good stuff in it, both about the Royal Family and about the social and economic issues facing post Great War Britain.  Also, whereas the BBC would have spoilt this by shoehorning in their own political agenda and making a load of irrelevant references to modern political events, Channel 4 just talked about the period that the programme was about, and I appreciated that.   Not bad at all!