Monarchy For Dummies
The life of a Queen is all but interesting in the second half of the 20th century and, one guesses, even less so in the first part of the 21st. But let’s not anticipate: it is December 1953 and a bad case of smog alerts first the National Meteorogical Institute, then the Labour Party, then the public opinion, then the Royal House, then finally the government, Sir Winston definitely not being the mood of adding the weather to the two subjects on top of his agenda: the Egyptian unrest and the fact that His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh takes flying lessons with Princess Margaret’s lover, Pete Townsend. The fact that we all forgot about the 53 fog and remember, however vaguely, Princess Margaret’s affair makes Churchill quite the visionary, but during this episode he’s seen as a leader losing his grip until he turns the table in a twist of fate, namely having the sun rising at a dramatic moment. Just so you know, this episode is bold about buttering heavy symbolism on black bread.
Paradoxically, the fog lifts the veil on a London hardly out of the Dickensian era, all derelict tenement houses and coin-metered heating, Churchill having ordered the factories at fault to burn excess coal to simulate a prosperity that hardly extends its reach beyond Belgravia, Kensington and, one guesses, the City. The Queen, filtered one inch to vanishing by the CGI fog permeating the Buckingham bubble, doesn’t have much to do but weathering (natch) Prince Phillip’s foul mood. To give once more credit to Churchill, His Royal Highness believes he can fly, but his heavenly endeavour is hampered by meteorology, so he frowns and bickers as if it was a State affair, which it could be, not counting fate in.
This episode is so far the most heavily dramatised of the series, hinging like it is on the fate of Churchill’s prefered ornament, his private secretary Viola, acting as a surrogate of common people paying the price of the absurd selfishness and disconnection of the English ruling class. Add to this a dark/light epiphany in a vestibule and you’ve got the essence of what this series pretends to: royalty for dummies. Peter Morgan, the writer of that thing, certainly doesn’t care about the common people, they’re just props in his Windsor puppet theater; the problem is, by extension, the Windsor, absorbed as they seem in lineage and protocol, appear like monsters by consequence. Not to say they’re not, but it’s interesting that such a lavish hagiography takes so little time in generating monsters.
Apart from poor Viola’s pivotal point, not much happens this time around apart one more excerpt from the Churchill’s compendium of bons mots, him calling the Labour leader “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”, and fortunately for the viewer, Queen Mary. One doesn’t know why while US series are so often unable to write interesting roles for ladies of a certain age, British series so heavily rely on them for both comic relief and sagacity, but here we are again after the Downton Abbey‘s Dowager Countess, watching in mirth an elderly British actress stealing the show in every scene she’s in and then some.
From her grammar lesson to an uncautious nurse (the “The Queen is here to see you, your majesty.” answered by a curt “Which one?” being the best dialogue so far, so faithful it is to the absurdity of the European Gotha) to her concluding “Chin up!” lesson to Elisabeth Regina, Queen Mary is the star of the show. “To do nothing is the toughest job of all”, she says, “it will require every ounce of energy you have.” Attempting to the same lofty goal, the series can only pretend to stately boredom and certainly not to sovereign aloofness.