Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Royal Wives at War (British TV/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 10 p.m. last night I watched an odd show on KPBS, Royal Wives at War, obviously shown as a “filler” because their usual programming schedule was screwed up by the Presidential debate. It was an oddball take on the British royal crisis of 1936, when David, a.k.a. King Edward VIII (an unwittingly funny bit in the show depicts his investiture as King and features an announcer reading off his entire list of given names, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David), decided to abdicate the throne because “I could not faithfully discharge my duties as King without the help and support of the woman I love,” and his younger and considerably less charismatic brother, Bertie a.k.a. King George VI, took over. As the title suggests, the show was about the confrontation between the two women involved, American divorcée Wallis Warfield Simpson, Edward’s inamorata, with whom he started an affair in 1933 while she was still married to husband number two; and Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, George VI’s wife, who since she lived to be 101 (she died in 2002, 50 years after her husband) and her daughter, also named Elizabeth, assumed the throne, became known as the Queen Mother to distinguish her from the other Queen Elizabeth who’s the current reigning monarch. This was one of those peculiar modern semi-documentaries which alternated talking-heads footage of three biographers who’ve written about various members of the Royal Family — including Andrew Morton, Lady Colin Campbell (her birth name was Georgia Arianna Ziadie) and Anne Sebba (whose over-permed blonde hair gives her an odd look, sort of a combination Dolly Parton and one of the Trump bimbos) — with dramatic re-enactments of the key incidents in the story, with Nick Waring as Edward VIII, John Sackville as George VI, Gina McKee as Wallis Simpson (she does a considerably more convincing American accent than most British actors who attempt one) and Emma Davies, formidable as all get-out, as Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Davies even looks much like the current Queen, enough that she’s quite credible as her mother. The modern biographers analyze the abdication and the political pressure that forced Edward VIII to choose between his fiancée and the throne almost exclusively at face value and ignore the more recent scholarship that suggests the crisis was largely stage-managed behind the scenes by Winston Churchill, who was less afraid of Edward VIII’s infatuation with Wallis Simpson than of his infatuation with Adolf Hitler.

The show includes footage of Edward and Wallis, created Duke and Duchess of Windsor but without the right to use “H.R.H.” in front of their names (a bit of protocol that was insanely important to the Queen Mother; according to the Wikipedia page on Edward VIII, George VI was originally inclined to let Edward and Wallis call themselves “H.R.H.” but his wife was fiercely opposed to it and spent decades making sure they didn’t), visiting Germany in 1937 (after their wedding in France had been attended by only seven people because the Queen Mother had decreed that anyone who went to it would never be received by the Royal Family again) and getting himself photographed with Adolf Hitler. It’s also well known that in 1940 Hitler sent emissaries to Edward, then uncomfortably ensconced in his appointment as governor-general of Bermuda, which he hated, to see if Edward would be interested in returning to England as nominal monarch if and when Hitler conquered it; Edward was noncommittal, though this show suggests he sounded out friends to ask them if the British, who had turned him down as king, would accept him as ruler, but of course the Nazis never invaded, much less conquered, Britain, so the whole thing remained academic. What the show didn’t acknowledge was that as part of his “forward-looking” approach to governance and his lifestyle, which embraced American women (whom he found generally freer, more assertive and generally more fun than the comparatively strait-laced women of his homeland), American clothes and American jazz music, Edward was also interested in fascism and was one of the many conservative Brits of his day who looked upon regimes like Mussolini’s and Hitler’s as the coming thing. For his part, Hitler never wanted a war with Britain — he regarded the Brits as the other half of the Aryan “master race” along with the Germans, and he wanted them on his side against the “inferior” Slavs in general and Russians in particular — though he got stuck with one, and he seemed to think that it was the abdication and the political machinations of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (and of Churchill, who in the 1930’s was nominally just another back-bench M.P. but who had formidable aristocratic and government connections as well as a secret line to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt — because Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty and Roosevelt Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, their letters to each other were addressed “Former Naval Person” — because Churchill knew Hitler would have to be stopped and an alliance between Britain and the U.S. would be necessary to stop him) that made Britain one of his enemies instead of one of his allies in World War II. Hitler saw Edward VIII as a potential friend and ally, and because of the abdication he was replaced by the anti-Nazi George VI instead.

In fairness’ sake I’ll quote the last part of the Wikipedia page on Edward VIII, which seeks to challenge the idea that the abdication was brought about by political pressures and Wallis Simpson’s status as a divorcée was simply an excuse by Baldwin and Churchill to bring down the fascist-sympathizing Edward: “In the view of historians such as Philip Williamson, the popular perception today that the abdication was driven by politics rather than religious morality is false, and arises because divorce has become much more common and socially acceptable. To modern sensibilities, the religious restrictions that prevented Edward from continuing as king while married to Simpson ‘seem, wrongly, to provide insufficient explanation’ for his abdication.” Since then we’ve seen this same prissy Royal morality (remember that the monarch of England is also essentially the “pope” of the Anglican church) in the current Queen Elizabeth refusing to let her son Prince Charles marry Camilla Parker-Bowles because she had been divorced, and insisting he marry Diana Spencer instead — a choice she no doubt later regretted big-time! (Both Andrew Morton and Lady Colin Campbell have written biographies of “Princess Di.”) And even when Charles was free to marry Camilla after all following Diana’s divorce and death, Elizabeth insisted — as her mom had with Wallis Simpson — that she could not use the “H.R.H.” title if and when Charles became King. (Given how much longer-lived the Windsor women have been than the Windsor men, I’m convinced that Charles will predecease his mom and his older son with Diana, Prince William, will be Britain’s next monarch.) Still, given that America stands a good chance of electing a twice-divorced man as its next President (after having had only one once-divorced previous President, Ronald Reagan), and also given that the narrators described both Edward and George as relatively weak men married to relatively strong women (a charge that was often made about Bill Clinton when he was President), it was ironic indeed to be watching this just two hours after the conclusion of the first Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump!