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Royalty Goes Full Circle

Ever since I was a toddler I have been a huge fan and follower of the British Royal Family. I respectfully studied the family and their history, and with the arrival of the “Princess Diana” years my task was made so much easier. Suddenly there was a glut of photos and stories, but by the early 1990s I realised the “feeding frenzy” the media had become, and returned to my old style of royal watching. In recent weeks the birth of a new princess and my viewing of a play and film about royalty, have made me realise just how little the “Royal Firm” has really changed.

The King’s Speech (play)

This was a terrific play that helped flesh out the probable reasons why King George VI as a boy developed a stutter in his cut-glass voice. His natural left handed tendencies were forcefully discouraged, his bandy legs put into painful splints, a negligent nanny who barely fed him left lingering gastric problems, and he lived in the shadow of his “dashing golden” brother David. Little wonder “Bertie” developed a stutter, and in later years his wife sought the help of speech therapist Lionel Logue. The bluff Australian therapist was effectively self -taught having had great success with shell shocked World War 1 veterans, and his reputation went by word of mouth. This didn’t go down well with the establishment when they checked into Lionel’s background, the same establishment that encouraged King George’s smoking to “relax his vocal chords”. That habit effectively put the King into an early grave! Thankfully King George VI stood by his therapist and with his help managed his speech impediment. At the end of the play when the King was giving a speech in Britain’s darkest hour, I could feel the King “grow into his sovereign role”. My emotions stirred I wanted to punch the air and shout Bravo when the broadcast light went off. I recalled watching the film in the cinema and everyone there spontaneously standing and applauding as the credits rolled.

The remoteness and aloofness of the Royal Family was evident throughout the play. The first scene had the King dressed head to foot by valets for a ceremonial function, whilst tea was provided by footmen. Lionel Logue failed to recognise the wife seeking help for her husband as a member of the Royal family, the press being much less intrusive and more reverential in those days. On meeting “Bertie” for the first time Lionel burst the “pomp & circumstance bubble” in treating his client the way he treated others. Bertie was horrified at the offer of a handshake (no touching) and aghast at the over familiarity of “first name terms” and disregard for rank and status. But gradually the two men came to mutually understand each other and even became friends.

One thing in the play, and not in the film, was that the demise of King George V had to occur at a time suitable to make the morning headlines in the RIGHT newspapers. He could not be allowed to linger in case the less illustrious afternoon papers scooped the news. This shocked me and yet it showed how the Royal’s in the 1930s were beginning to be held hostage by the power of the media.

A Royal Night Out (film)

It is a known fact that the Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) and her sister the Princess Margaret enjoyed the celebrations of VE Day. What is NOT known is exactly how the two princesses celebrated, and this film is a fictional conjecture of the event with a streak of comedy. I can well believe that Princess Margaret given the chance would have “lived it up” in the fullest sense, and that Princess Elizabeth would have followed behind picking up the pieces. It is also feasible that the Queen may have arranged a suitable gathering in a respectable establishment with chaperones. In the film both scenarios occur and the familiar themes of cut-glass accents, lack of recognition, reluctance to touch and the air of remoteness are evident. There is the whiff of the total lack of understanding for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the back story of the lead male character, who reluctantly accompanies Princess Elizabeth for most of the film. A particular scene that really struck me was when he took Elizabeth to his Mum’s house, and the princess was looking around the small living room, probably the size of a coal bunker in the palace. Above the mantelpiece was a framed picture of the King and on it a small photo of the son and a Coronation postcard. I could well imagine the thoughts of someone more used to classic works of art adorning palace walls, as the air of naivety and dislocation from the realities of everyday life was palpable.

Prince Charles was born just three-and-a-half years after VE Day to a home schooled mother destined to be Queen, and a grandmother born in Victorian times used to Edwardian grandeur.

Charles, William & George

Charles and William thankfully have been allowed to keep their left-handedness and have been sent to school and university. George VI was terrified of his father and that terror went back generations, but “Bertie” broke that tradition to ensure his daughter enjoyed a loving parental relationship, and as a result Charles and William directly benefitted. The arrival of Diana, Princess of Wales, certainly brought about a much more open and “hands on approach” to many aspects of royal life. It also brought an influx of press intrusion that got completely out of hand. Prince William’s belief that the media effectively killed his mother has given him an intense dislike of the spotlight, and has resulted in a far more traditional approach to Prince George’s interaction with the media.

Until the release of baby Princess Charlotte’s photo with her brother  no one knew what George (almost two years old) looked like. From a security point of view that’s no bad thing, and nobody wants the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to give their children a Facebook upbringing. But we all knew what William and Harry looked like as toddlers, so it’s obvious a radical turnaround has occurred in the House of Windsor. The way photos and press releases are staged today is becoming ever more reminiscent of the 1940s era. The young royals are also dressed in a “timeless/ageless” style that could easily sit alongside 1900s pictures. Certainly you want a traditional quality in royal photos and nothing ages a snapshot more than a gimmicky slogan. But the royal dress sense does mark the children out from the rest of us. Young George wore a blue outfit at the 2015 Trooping of the Colour, an identical one to Prince William at the same event in 1984. And having studied enough royal pictures in my time, I know Prince Charles wore the same style outfit (different colour) in a 1951 family photo. All I will say is look out for the frock coats next!

The morning after Prince George was born in July 2013 the BBC News Channel aired a report, “How to Dress Your Nursery in Royal Style” for at least twenty minutes (I switched off then). I was absolutely appalled as the first thing mentioned was a £3000 crib and we were in a recession! The “news report” was more suited to a household reading “Horse and Hound” and “The Lady” rather than “The Sun” and “Woman’s Weekly”. To say I was incensed is an understatement and I was reminded of the same feeling when Lady Diana, the daughter of an Earl was described as “common” upon her engagement to Prince Charles in 1981. At the time I was 11 years old and I thought “if Diana is common, what does that make me, muck”. I know in the realms of the British class system Lady Diana was considered common, but it is also a telling tale of how the rich elite view the rest of us poorer folk. The British class system is well and truly alive and kicking in the twenty-first century.

The other day I watched Prince Charles talk about getting portraits commissioned for 12 D-Day Landing veterans, and I thought that only someone in his position could have pulled that off. To my surprise though I also thought “dinosaur of a bygone era”, he sounded just like the old Pathe news bulletins with the BBC clipped voices. I was genuinely shocked to have this reaction and bless him Charles cannot help being a product of his upbringing. But at that moment, to me, our future King did not seem like a man of the people, but a relic of previous generations of royals more distant from the common man. Alas, I can see the same thing happening with Prince George already. The remoteness has returned and the aloofness will probably come, meaning a 21st century born prince will have the social compass of his Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian forefathers. I can’t see how much good that will do the British people.

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TESTAMENT OF YOUTH Film Review

This film is based upon the memoir of Vera Brittain, an upper-middle class young woman fighting for the same opportunities available to her younger brother in pre World War One Great Britain. The story begins in the springtime of 1914 and we then progress through to around 1920, seeing events unfold through the eyes of Vera. It is a beautifully shot film and incredibly evocative of the time with a much slower pace to the story, a more romantic theme than a war one really. Anyone used to seeing movies with all out shooting, mass explosions and in your face armed combat should not go and see this; frankly such a viewer would probably feel rather bored by it all. What this film does have is heart and a deeply felt poignancy for an era and way of life that no longer exists, mainly because of the outbreak of The Great War.

At the start Vera is desperately trying to persuade her father to let her try for the Oxford entrance exam, whilst enjoying spending time with her brother and his chums on their last spring school holiday. Due to her gender and class, Vera’s parents expect her to be nothing more than educated and cultured enough to run a good house when she marries well. Vera’s fury toward this is palpable and she is only allowed to try for Oxford, after her brother Edward intercedes on his sister’s behalf. The university acceptance letter for Vera arrives on the day her brother and his friends leave Uppingham School. All the boys enjoy a passing out parade as members of the school Officer Training Corps (OTC). Ominously the newspapers report the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

As soon as war is declared Edward Brittain and his fellow OTC pals immediately volunteer and sign up. Being only 18 and not at the age of majority, Edward needs Vera to petition their father to be allowed to join the army, and she is persuasive. So we see Vera travel to Oxford in the autumn of 1914 to begin her studies, with all the boys who should have gone along with her, going into uniform instead. This includes Roland Leighton, who through family connections is accelerated through training and onto the front, at his behest. Despite his obvious growing love for Vera, Roland feels an over-riding compulsion to do his duty for king and country. His class, upbringing and education have moulded Roland into feeling honour-bound into being of service to his nation. All the other boys in Vera’s social sphere feel exactly the same, and it is only when Roland gets his first leave home, do you glimpse that the realities of war are not as glorious as Roland was taught.

Realising the gravity of the war situation, Vera decides on becoming a nurse, feeling her studies are somewhat frivolous under the circumstances. She undergoes her training and then proceeds to tend the wounded soldiers sent back to England. Vera then transfers to France to feel nearer her brother and to nurse the injured behind the front lines. Ironically she finds herself attending to German soldiers’ wounds, but is also instrumental in returning her brother to full health as well. Vera’s recall from frontline nursing is very indicative of her class status and undoubtedly exasperates her. Whilst at home news comes of her brother’s death in Italy, where she thought the fighting was less intense.

Vera makes good on the promise she made to her brother at their final parting and returns to Oxford. Initially she does not thrive weighed down by all the ghosts around her. At the end her healing begins with a powerful statement at a demonstration and her personal resolve to ensure that those whom she loved and lost would not be forgotten.

I have not read Testament of Youth but if the film is a reasonable interpretation of it, then I think Vera succeeded in her quest to remember those lost in battle. The overwhelming sense I got from the film was that of a very innocent almost naive generation within Vera’s class in society. They were from another world where privilege cushioned members from a harsher reality. Women had servants to run the home, so were always immaculate and genteel and virtually a social adornment for the men, whose stiff upper lip was highly evident. The war shattered the illusionary world that Vera inhabited and became a great leveller of society in some respects. Officers from the upper classes fought alongside the sons of the working class. They faced the same bullets, barbed wire, shells and mustard gas and were wounded and killed in the same awful way. With her own wartime experiences Vera kicked against and helped bring down her world and the etiquettes she despised.

Vera Brittain’s book has been described as the voice of a generation and I can see why as the film is full of service, honour, loss and the futility of it. It is one person trying to comprehend and live with the aftermath of war and find some meaning to the ravages of conflict. This film (and presumably the book) espouses a generation of men who sacrificed their youth, vigour, optimism, hope and lives to fight for a cause that was bigger than them. In that respect they are the Glorious Dead and should be honoured and remembered for paying the ultimate price for our freedom. But as I listened to Vera’s impassioned statement at the end of the film, I was reminded of a poem I learned about in school which still affects me deeply. Dulce et Decorum Est is from Wilfred Owen a voice from the trenches, who I suspect came from a similar world to Vera Brittain. In those lines the hideous consequences of war are laid bare and show the utter lack of glory in drowning in your own bodily fluids after a gas attack, and every nationality on the battlefield faced the same horrific fate. Each new battle and counter-attack perpetuated a cycle of revenge with hardly any gain for either side. Vera Brittain came to realise this as did Wilfred Owen who implored future generations with this plea:

“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori”. (my translation-to die for one’s country is a great and noble thing).