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.