Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: ENEMIES OF VERSAILLES: A Novel (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy) by Sally Christie

Title:   ENEMIES OF VERSAILLES: A Novel (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy)
Author:  Sally Christie
Publisher: Atria Books (March 21, 2017)
How Acquired: Net Galley/TLC Book Tours

Back Cover:  In the final installment of Sally Christie’s “tantalizing” (New York Daily News) Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, Jeanne Becu, a woman of astounding beauty but humble birth, works her way from the grimy back streets of Paris to the palace of Versailles, where the aging King Louis XV has become a jaded and bitter old philanderer. Jeanne bursts into his life and, as the Comtesse du Barry, quickly becomes his official mistress.

“That beastly bourgeois Pompadour was one thing; a common prostitute is quite another kettle of fish.”

After decades of suffering the King's endless stream of Royal Favorites, the princesses of the Court have reached a breaking point. Horrified that he would bring the lowborn Comtesse du Barry into the hallowed halls of Versailles, Louis XV’s daughters, led by the indomitable Madame Adelaide, vow eternal enmity and enlist the young dauphiness (this should really be dauphine, who wrote this back cover copy?) Marie Antoinette in their fight against the new mistress. But as tensions rise and the French Revolution draws closer, a prostitute in the palace soon becomes the least of the nobility’s concerns.

My thoughts:  This is the third and final volume of Sally Christie's absorbing trilogy about the court of Louis XV, and it does not disappoint. The story is narrated in alternating 1st person POV, divided between Madame du Barry and Madame Adelaide, one of the six daughters of Louis XV.  The story starts when young Jeanne is still a child. Her mother works for a courtesan in the kitchen, while young Jeanne dreams of a life of luxury and indolence. From the very first chapter, we meet a small child who is fun-loving, lives in the moment, not book-smart, who has a kind heart. She's also amazingly naive for someone who grew up so poor that she has to walk barefoot so that she doesn't ruin her one pair of shoes in the mud. Jeanne is sent to a convent where she is loved by the students AND the nuns, which has to be a first. She's effortlessly charming but hopeless at the whole employment thing until she's employed by an expensive boutique where she meets the Comte du Barry and her journey really beings.

Madame Adelaide is a different kettle of fish all together, and I have to say that her sections of the book were my least favorite in the beginning, probably because she's the complete opposite of Jeanne. Madame Adelaide is rigid, very concerned with her position and the etiquette of the court. She reminds me of that one co-worker who is a stickler for the rules, who reports even the slightest infraction, but who also gives unsolicited advice. The type of person who is always taking classes, and reading self-improvement books and tells you about them endlessly.  Her one saving grace is that she loves her family.  Her love for her father however is possessive, she wants to be his favorite. While she worries for his soul, and abhors his relationship with 'the fish woman' as she insists, she wants to be the one that he turns too. 

However, her chapter gives fascinating insights into the lives of the daughters of France, five of whom never married. They are the superfluous women of the court as they grow older, their influence waning over the years. It's rather sad, and it reminds me of the lives of George III"s daughters, many of whom also never married. The book can be divided really into 2 parts, Louis XV, and afterwards. The book loses steam a bit until it runs headlong into the revolution. 

Christie does an amazing job of painting a vivid portrait of court life at Versailles but also the two women.  While Madame Adelaide considers du Barry (and before her Pompadour) to be an enemy, du Barry basks in the love of the King and the friends she makes at court. Jeanne's character is as uncomplicated as Madame Adelaide's is complicated. Interestingly as the book went on, I found myself growing more frustrated with Madame du Barry and more understanding of Madame Adelaide who eventually grows and changes while Jeanne seems to stay the same fun-loving child.

One of the great things about the trilogy for me was that I knew very little about the court of Louis XV. I knew the names of Pompadour and du Barry but very little of what they were like as people other than Pompadour's libido couldn't keep up with the King's. Since I knew so little, I was able to come to the trilogy without preconceived notions of the characters which I think helped because I was able to turn off that internal historian that sometimes can get in the way when I read historical fiction, particularly about a period that I know a great deal about. You can see how the seeds of the French monarchy's destruction were sewn tighter by Louis XV.  If only he hadn't followed the model of his great-grandfather and been a more enlightened monarch.  Christie makes several comparisons in the novel between how the British monarchy evolved and the French monarchy didn't. 

Any reader who loves intrigue, royalty, beautiful clothes and a dramatic period of history should pick up The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

V for Victoria

Happy March everyone! Today is also the first day of Women's History Month.  I know it has been quite a while since I've blogged and I apologize profusely. It has been hard lately juggling a job with working on my own writing as well as blogging.  And I know that I still owe recaps of the last 5 episodes of The Crown! I thought I would kick off this month by talking a little bit about Queen Elizabeth's however many times great-grandmother Queen Victoria, the 2nd longest ruling monarch in British History.

This January saw the debut of a new series on PBS entitled appropriately enough VICTORIA starring Jenna Coleman as a young Queen Victoria in the first years of her reign.  Author Daisy Goodwin, who was the driving force behind the series, also wrote the novel VICTORIA which came out last fall. I had the privilege of reading an ARC of the novel thanks to Net Galley. And what a wonderful novel it was. While I enjoyed Goodwin's first novel THE AMERICAN DUCHESS, I was not quite as enamored of her second THE FORTUNE HUNTER. However, VICTORIA lived up to my expectations and more.  It was just the balm I needed after the bruising US election season. Reading this novel was the equivalent of being enveloped in a warm, fuzzy blanket on a cold day, with a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea.

The book opens with Victoria receiving the news that William IV is dead, and she is now Queen. Goodwin paints a vivid, vibrant portrait of the young Queen who is very much a teenager. She makes mistakes early on in her reign, most specifically with Lady Flora Hastings. She is impetuous, stubborn who likes to get her own way but she is also a young girl who has been starved of affection and dominated by her mother and Sir John Conroy. The bulk of the novel (and the series) concerns her relationship with her first Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, whose late wife Lady Caroline Lamb famously carried on an affair with Lord Byron which scandalized the ton during the Regency. Like Victoria, Lord Melbourne is lonely. His wife has passed away as has his only child Augustus. The two develop a father/daughter relationship with overtones of something more. I won't spoil it here but if you have seen the TV series, you know that Goodwin adds a dimension to the relationship that some have quibbled with. I have to say that I totally bought into it. It made sense that she would develop a crush on the first man to be kind to her who treated her as more than just a sovereign.  Melbourne guide and taught Victoria but he didn't try to dominate her. Instead, he tried to gently point out the errors that her stubbornness caused. For example, refusing to give up any of her Whig ladies when the Tory Sir Robert Peel became Prime Minister.

We also get to see the Victoria who loved dancing, singing and a good party. And we get to see the Victoria who was wooed by a succession of suitors before finally falling head over heels for Prince Albert when he finally arrives in the fall of 1839. There is nothing so satisfying as two crazy kids with mommy/daddy issues finding each other! I highly recommend this book. It is going on my keeper shelf along with the Jean Plaidy's Victoria series which encompasses 4 books.

Unfortunately, although I loved Goodwin's novel, I'm not quite as much of a fan of the TV series.  My biggest problem is that I really have no interest in what is going on downstairs at Buckingham Palace, mainly because there is so much good drama going on with Victoria learning the ropes of Queenship. And I wish that the TV series had given us a glimpse of Victoria's life before she became Queen.  Before I watched VICTORIA, I re-watched the film THE YOUNG VICTORIA with Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend.

One of the best things about that film is that we get a glimpse of Victoria's relationship with William IV and Queen Adelaide, as well as the antipathy that the King had for Victoria's mother Victoire. There were also several wonderful scenes between Queen Adelaide and Victoria after she became Queen, where Victoria looked to her for guidance. Also, I found it curious that Baron Stockmar, a very important figure in Albert's life, was missing from the recent TV series. The biggest problem that I have with the series though is the casting of Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne.

This is Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne:


And this is the real Lord Melbourne at the time of Queen Victoria's reign:


While Rufus Sewell captured aspects of Lord Melbourne's character, he was just too good-looking and youthful for the part. And not nearly quite as fatherly as I'm sure the real Lord Melbourne was. You can understand why Jenna Coleman's Queen Victoria wanted him around 24/7. Frankly he was so delicious as Lord Melbourne, that when Albert finally showed up in the series, he was a bit of a let down. It's no wonder they went for the 'I hate you, no I love you' scenario for Albert and Victoria in this series. And then after the wedding episode, Lord Melbourne disappears despite the fact that the real Lord Melbourne was still Prime Minister for another year.  The other weakness in this series (and this goes for The Crown as well) as that there was way to much mansplaining in this series. Victoria is not allowed to do anything without some man explaining things to her. It was fine with Lord Melbourne but now Albert is doing it, as if Victoria hadn't formed any opinions about anything before Albert came along.



On the plus side, I think that Jenna Coleman is doing a magnificent job as the young Queen Victoria. She's almost the right height for the role, and she comes across very much like a teenager in the early episodes, careening from one emotion to the next. David Oakes steals every scene he's in as Prince Albert's older, more louche brother, Ernst, and I can't say throw too many superlatives at Alex Jennings who plays Victoria's Uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, widower of the late Princess Charlotte.  Jennings is making quite the career for himself playing various members of royalty. So far he's played Prince Charles in Peter Morgan's The Queen, The Duke of Windsor in The Crown, and now King Leopold. Who is next? I still prefer Miranda Richardson's portrayal of the Duchess of Kent to Caroline Flemmings. Caroline comes across mainly as wan.  I have to admit that Tom Hughes as Prince Albert grew on me.  The chemistry between Jenna Coleman and Rufus Sewell was so amazing, that Hughes had huge shoes to fill. It doesn't help that Albert comes across as a bit of a pill in his first appearance. His personality seems to have come out more now that he and Victoria are married. Hughes is also incredibly sexy as Albert although once someone mentioned that he looked like Prince circa PURPLE RAIN, I had a hard time unseeing that whenever he came on screen!

If you have any interest in Queen Victoria, I urge you to purchase VICTORIA, the Official Companion to the series. There is a lot of really good information about the real life characters, particularly Skerrit and Francatelli. It is written by Helen Rappaport who is an expert on Victoria as well as the Romanovs. And there is a new biography out by Julia Baird entitled VICTORIA, THE QUEEN.

I have only read the sample that I downloaded from Amazon, but it looks like a winner. I would also urge people to find a copy of the early nineties miniseries VICTORIA AND ALBERT, starring Victoria Hamilton and Jonathan Firth (Colin's little brother). It is interesting to see what is included and what is left out when people are crafting a film or television series.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Crown Recap: Episode 6 'Gelignite'

gel·ig·nite
ˈjeləɡˌnīt/
noun
a high explosive made from a gel of nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose in a base of wood pulp and sodium or potassium nitrate, used particularly for rock blasting.


So QEII is finally crowned and we now get to the juicy part of the series, the revelation of Princess Margaret’s relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend. A reporter at one of the tabloids is working on a story speculating on the relationship between the two. See, he saw the Princess pick a piece of fluff of the Captain’s uniform at the coronation. The editor is not sold, but the reporter insists that where there is smoke, there is fire. Actually he calls the article 'gelignite' since it seems that the name of the episode has to be referenced at least once. Picking the fluff off a man is a gesture even more intimate than a kiss because it suggests that the kissing has already happened. When the owner of the paper is appalled that the editor is planning on running the story but he doesn’t put the kibosh on the story. Tommy Lascelles (played by Pip Torrens who is so brilliant and evil as George Warleggan’s Uncle Cary in Poldark) is miffed that the owner didn’t tell his editor to kill the story. In real life, the American papers were actually the first ones to report on Princess Margaret’s relationship, which is what also happened in the 1930’s with King Edward VIII’s relationship with Wallis Simpson. The British papers were late to the game in both instances. Tommy informs the Queen Mother who wants to issue a denial but is talked out of the idea.

We finally get to see the Queen at the races in this episode. She attends the Epsom Derby with Prince Philip. It’s nice to see the show finally acknowledge one of the great passions of the Queen’s life, her horses. We get a lovely scene of Margaret watching the coverage on telly while canoodling with Peter Townsend. One wonders if the Queen Mum was so worried about the relationship, why she left Margaret and Peter alone together so often! They talk about the Queen's popularity. Margaret says that she doesn't care because she has Peter and they are going off to Rhodesia on tour. Yes, the tour is really the Queen Mum and Margaret, but these two seem to be able to find lots of time to sneak off together. 

In case you were wondering, Philip is still being an alpha hole in this episode.  He’s spending time with his equerry Mike Parker at a lunch club where they drink a lot, ogle the waitresses and talk about current affairs.  Yes, really, we are treated to a short lecture on what is going on in Egypt with Nasser (which will come up in later episode).  Philip points out to Elizabeth all the unrest going on around the world that she should be aware of. Earlier Princess Margaret rings up the Queen to invite her to dinner and we are treated to the logistics of the effort it took to connect Clarence House with Buckingham Palace. It is a nice reminder of what was life was like back in olden times. Claire Foy managed to give a simple word like ‘Oh,’ any number of meanings.  At dinner, Margaret and Peter announce that they would like to get married. Elizabeth is taken aback that the relationship has gone this far. Elizabeth informs Margaret that she needs to take advice but that as her sister, she would never try to prevent it. (In real life, everyone knew about Princess Margaret's relationship with Peter Townsend at this point).


While Elizabeth isn’t enthused about the marriage, Philip is downright hostile. He finds Peter to be boring and dreary. He thinks the best thing would be for Peter and Margaret to forget the whole idea and for Peter to reconcile with his wife. The Queen suggests that Princess Margaret get married in Scotland where they could get married in a church (Princess Anne remarried in Scotland) since it is not possible to marry in the Church of England if the divorced person still has a spouse living. Margaret is overjoyed.  The Queen is brought swiftly down to earth however by the Queen Mother and Tommy Lascelles.  Apparently the Queen was not aware of what the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 actually entailed.  This another ham-fisted way that show shares information with the audience. It is incredibly clunky but whatever! Tommy informs the Queen that Princess Margaret has the Queen’s permission to marry if she is under 25 and given that the Queen is the head of the Church of England, it would be unwise. However, if Margaret waits until she is 25, then she no longer needs the Crown’s permission. They suggest that it would be better for Peter and Margaret to wait out those two years in separate countries given the media frenzy. Margaret is not happy especially since Peter will not be able to accompany her and the Queen Mother on their tour of Rhodesia (I swear the first time I watched this episode, I had no idea what country she was talking about! Her upper class accent was so hard to understand). We finally get another intimate scene between the Queen and her sister, unfortunately it is one where she is bringing bad news. It is a lovely scene but it makes one wish that there had been more of them. Peter is just happy that he will be in Brussels where he can at least be close enough to see his sons.

The Queen promises Margaret that she and Peter will be able to have a few days together when she returns before he leaves to take up his new job as air attaché. She also asks Peter to accompany her and Prince Philip on a tour of Northern Ireland.  Unfortunately, the press is more interested in the Group Captain, then they are in the Queen. Peter also sticks his foot in his mouth when he sidles up to the Queen on the plane and calls her Lilibet, her childhood nickname, used only by close friends and her family. When Tommy comes to see her, Elizabeth tells him to make sure that Peter has to leave early for his new job, despite what she promised her sister. When Peter is told the news by Tommy and Martin Charteris, he tells them that they are making a mistake, the press are on their side. Tommy ‘the moustache’ Lascelles will not be threatened by a peasant like Townsend.


Here is where I have a problem with this episode.  All of a sudden, Peter Townsend seems to have turned into some sort of smarmy bounder who is drunk on his own press. It goes back to the episode where he refused to leave royal service, despite Tommy’s best efforts. It came across than as rather self-serving and that is not the impression that I have gotten over the years in the various biographies I have read about Princess Margaret and the royal family.  Did he overstep by falling in love with Princess Margaret? Maybe, he was older and married, but I also got the sense that he was surprised to find that Princess Margaret returned his feelings. What the show does well is illustrate just how immature Princess Margaret is compared to Peter Townsend who has a much more realistic view of life. This is also an episode that could have benefited from some flashbacks to Prince Philip’s courtship of Princess Elizabeth as a contrast to Margaret’s relationship with Peter. Instead we’re just told about it.

Margaret receives a telegram in Rhodesia telling her that Peter won’t be in London when she returns. She is furious and yells that she needs to speak with her sister immediately. There is a bit of comedy as switchboard tries to locate the Queen at one of her many residences. She’s finally located at Sandringham where she is examining one of her horses. Margaret unloads on her, telling her that since the Queen didn’t protect her, she won’t protect the Queen. “You reap what you sow.” The episode ends with a montage of various people reading the latest article on the royal romance. We start with Philip and Elizabeth, move on to Churchill and Clemmie and end with the Duke of Windsor and Wallis practically crowing over the article. 

What this episode did well is demonstrate that Elizabeth is beginning to learn that there is a clear distinction between the Queen in her private life, what she might want and do, and the public face of the monarchy and sometimes they don't coincide.  It is a painful lesson and one the Queen obviously never thought she would have to face, at least in Peter Morgan's version. We get a brief scene of party-loving Princess Margaret at Clarence House instead of in a night club where it might have been more appropriate.  I'm amazed that the Queen Mother didn't stomp in and try to shut it down. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Crown Recap - Episode 5 'Smoke and Mirrors'

Finally we get to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. But first we have the obligatory flashback to 1937. George VI is rehearsing in his office when Princess Elizabeth comes for a visit. He immediately ropes her into playing The Archbishop of Canterbury. It is a lovely scene, not only between father and daughter but also between monarch and future monarch. Jared Harris is so lovely as he explains the word inviolate to her. I don’t know who the young actress who plays the 10 year old Princess but she certainly resembles the real Princess at that age. You can just feel the love between father and daughter. I love the flashbacks because we get to have a glimpse of what the Queen was like as a child and more of her relationships with others like her father. George tries on St. Edward’s crown and we cut to the Queen trying it on.  She asks if she can borrow it for a few days to practice and the man from the Tower looks flabbergasted that she would even ask. He points out that she has more right to it than anyone.  With the children trailing behind her, she goes to show off the crown to Philip who is off doing god knows what.


This scene is contrasted later with The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the present day, welcoming a reporter into their home outside of Paris. The article is clearly a puff piece as the reporter asks for their tips on entertaining and what makes a well-dressed man. There is a montage of the couple wearing one fabulous outfit after another. Someone on another blog pointed out that the Duchess seems to stick to a 1930’s silhouette in these scenes.  In reality, she did wear more current fashions. The point seemed to be that they were a couple stuck in the past while the Queen represents the future. The scene takes a turn when the Duke takes the reporter to his inner sanctum where he keeps one of the government red boxes, the one that held his abdication papers. The reporter shows her ignorance by asking why are there no photos of the Duke wearing the crown. He has to point out to her that he never had a coronation, hence no photos with the crown. It is a terribly awkward moment followed by another awkward moment when the Duke mentions that he plays the bagpipes when he’s melancholy for England. That night he tells Wallis, as they are lying in bed, that he has to go back to dreary England because his mother is dying. He then asks Wallis if she wants to have sex! That’s not the word he actually used but it was quite a leap to go from his mother to wanting sex, particularly since in real life at this point Wallis was hanging out with Jimmy Donahue.


Philip and Elizabeth are dressing to go to some charity premiere or something that requires a tiara. Apparently he was out all afternoon flying, trying to get his pilot’s license in the shortest amount of time ever. Yes, that is basically all Phil has going for him right now while Elizabeth is out ‘Queening’ as he puts it.  She tells him that she’s decided to make him head of her Coronation committee despite the fact that the Duke of Norfolk is normally in charge. Phil tells her not to ‘matronize’ him which had me rolling on the floor. He will only agree to the plan as long as he has full autonomy. Elizabeth tells him not to go mad.  She then has to inform everyone of this change in plan which does not go down well, particularly with Tommy Lascelles and his mustache of doom.

The Duke shows up to spend time with Queen Mary.  There is a somewhat poignant scene of him sitting on the bed with her, she asks him not to leave and he tells her he won’t, calling her ‘Mummy.’  Of course, it’s ruined by a voice over of his letter to Wallis where he is awful about his relatives yet again.  The Archbishop of Canterbury calls to set up a meeting. The Duke realizes that since he is no longer King, he has to go to the Archbishop, not the other way around.  Yet another reminder of what he has given up since he abdicated. The meeting, which includes Jock Colville and Tommy Lascelles, is basically to tell the Duke that he is persona non grata at the coronation and under no circumstances is Wallis invited.  Instead of acting like an adult, the Duke proceeds to insult the Archbishop by repeating a rather horrid poem that he wrote about his predecessor. He really doesn't know how to read a room. It has been 17 years since he abdicated, as the Duke points out, one would think that he would have gotten used to the attitude of the establishment. 

The meeting is called to a halt by the death of Queen Mary.  So we are treated to yet another similar funeral scene where Philip spends his time criticizing that fact and how Elizabeth’s coronation has to be modern and up-to-date and not stuffy and traditional. His timing is awful.  I know that Prince Philip was considered reckless and a bit coarse by the powers that be, but I sincerely doubt that he would spend his time critiquing his wife’s grandmother’s funeral.


Of course, the Queen gets a call from Churchill that Philip has gone made with the coronation, wanting it to be televised, and trying to do away with some of the pageantry.  The royal couple has a huge showdown in the vestry of Westminster Abbey. Philip manages to get his point across about televising the coronation but blows it by suggesting that instead of kneeling to take the oath, he stand beside her. Elizabeth is not having it. She is a traditionalist above all. The coronation means something to her and she is not willing to budge on this point. Philip pouts.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor are having a viewing party at their chateau (in real life they watched the coronation at a party thrown by a rich American acquaintance.) The Duke can’t resist revealing his inside knowledge to the crowd. Although he abdicated, he still respects the awe and majesty of the crown and what it means. The title 'Smoke and Mirrors' I'm assuming refers to the magic of the coronation, that the monarch enters the coronation an ordinary person but leaves anointed by God. When a guest asks him why he turned down the chance to ’be a god,’ the Duke turns to the Duchess and replies it was for love. Later, Wallis finds Edward on the veranda playing the bagpipes, tears streaming down his face.


I watched a documentary about the coronation after watching this episode and they managed to recreate it very well. Philip manages to kneel to his wife, although the look on Elizabeth’s face indicated that she wasn’t sure what he was going to do on the day. There is no indication of the lapse of time between their argument and the coronation, so the viewer has no idea if they made up later, if they have spent the past few days glaring at each other over their tea and toast. I would also have liked to have seen some behind the scenes from the day of the coronation such as the moment the Queen is about to walk into the Abbey and she tells her Maids of Honor 'Ready Girls?'. More intimate moments and not just the pageantry, although it is magnificent don't get me wrong. 


I know this series is called The Crown, not The Queen, but I think it is a mistake to focus so much on the institution. I would love to have seen more happy moments between the Queen and Prince Philip before she became Queen. Perhaps if the series had given us a glimpse of their honeymoon at Broadlands or more of their life on Malta before she became Queen, it would make the scenes of the distance in the marriage more poignant. I was hoping that perhaps the writers would treat us to some flashbacks of Philip and Elizabeth's courtship but alas it seems that all the flashbacks we are getting are simply regarding The Crown. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Crown Recap: Episode 4 ‘Act of God’


This episode was all about the Great Smog of 1952 which I had never heard, but was apparently a really big thing.  Having experienced a little bit of London Fog in my lifetime, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have to deal with the vat of pea soup that was served up in 1952.  I’m not going to lie, this episode felt like a bit of a placeholder, as if the writers wanted to hold off getting to the coronation as long as possible. I wasn’t sure where they were going with it.  What we got was a bit of a deeper glimpse at some of our main characters, particularly Sir Winston Churchill who does not come off very well in this episode.

We learn at the beginning of the episode that the whole thing could have been prevented.  Churchill was apparently warned by UK scientists that a great smog was a possibility. Instead, Churchill ignored the warnings by recommending that people continue to burn coal for fuel in an effort to boost the economy. Good intentions, bad idea.  Churchill is like the politicians who like to pretend that climate change isn’t really a thing. Unfortunately for Churchill, one of the government employees decides to go rogue and let former Prime Minister Clement Atlee know what’s what. He even throws Churchill under the bus by showing Atlee minutes from a Cabinet meeting that showed that Churchill ignored previous suggestions for precautionary measures or setting up a Clean Air Service.  Luckily for Churchill, Atlee tells Collins that they should sit on this information because they have no guarantee that the Great Smog is going to actually happen.  Cue smog! The entire city, not to mention the entire country, is blanketed in it.  The smog effectively grounded all the planes and halted any transportation save for walking It is so bad; they warn people to stay home because of the lack of visibility. A national crisis has arisen, and no one is prepared to deal with it.

Meanwhile Prince Philip is having a grand old time taking flying lessons with his new BFF Peter Townsend. This irks Churchill to no end. Instead of worrying about the smog and the damage it might cause, he spends an entire meeting with the Queen, informing her that Philip needs to give up his new hobby. The Queen puts her foot down and tells him that her family’s private lives are in no way a concern of the Cabinet.  Even the Cabinet wonders why Churchill is wasting their time on something so trivial.  They think the old man has finally lost his marbles. Meanwhile Atlee is still dithering about what to do. He’s totally in danger of throwing away his shot. Instead he prefers to wait for it (obligatory Hamilton references). This is why people get frustrated with politicians! It’s left to Lord Mountbatten to pay Elizabeth a visit, stating that no one has any confidence in Churchill anymore, not even his fellow politicians.  Unlike her father who refused to ask Churchill to resign, Elizabeth is made of sterner stuff, and is fully prepared to make the change.

In this episode, we spend a bit of time with Churchill’s secretary Venetia Scott and her roommate as they deal with the smog.  If this were any other series, Venetia would be our plucky heroine. She soldiers on to work every day despite the smog, while her roommate succumbs to illness and stays home. Venetia has a bit of a crush on the Prime Minister.  She finds a copy of one of her books and spends a delightful evening reading it.  I’m surprised that she didn’t sleep with a picture of him under her pillow, although she does gaze rather fondly at a photo of him as a young man at various points in this episode. She’s such an intriguing character, so of course, she doesn’t make it through the episode. Apparently I’m not allowed to have nice things.

Somehow the Queen manages to find her way through the fog on foot to Marlborough House to have a deep conversation with her grandmother Queen Mary. Elizabeth asks her grandmother if this smog is an Act of God, and what role the divine plays in the monarchy. Queen Mary gives her a speech about how “God Put Us Here to Give Ordinary People Something to Strive for.” Which is great in the long run but not very helpful in the here and now. It is a prime example of just how little actual power the Queen has. I suppose nowadays, her press people would have suggested that she do a broadcast or something to assure the people. 

Churchill must have been born under the luckiest star on the planet, because just when you think he is done for, he manages to pull a rabbit out of the hat.  After he learns about what happened to Venetia, he high tails it to the hospital and is appalled by what he finds.  London’s hospitals are understaffed and under equipped to deal with the influx of patients. He calls an impromptu press conference, writes his speech on a prescription pad, and delivers an uplifting speech to the nation, saving his bacon once again. It’s inspiring but one gets the sense that Churchill has just used up his last lifeline. The sad thing is, if Venetia hadn't died, would Churchill have done anything? The episode implies that he was so out of touch, that the answer might have been yes! Of course now the Queen can’t ask him to resign, but she does manage to get him to let up on Prince Philip and the flying lessons although he has to have permission from the Cabinet before he does anything crazy.

And like a miracle, just as Churchill and Elizabeth finish their meeting, the smog lifts.  I ended up liking this episode a lot after initially being like ‘WTH?’  It was a nice respite after the gloomy atmosphere of the past two episodes.  The viewer is left wondering, like Elizabeth, what would have happened if the fog hadn’t lifted when it did, if it had gotten worse before it got better? What if Atlee had acted on the information that he’d been given, instead of acting like a gentleman? One of the nicest bits in the episode is when Venetia quotes Churchill to the man himself, reminding him of who he once was.  I got the impression that Churchill felt that the people of England had survived worse during the war, so how much could a little smog hurt compared to the Blitz! In this episode, Churchill is clinging to power by his fingernails. I get it, he led the country admirably during WWII, only to be turfed out of office after the war.  And now, once again he held the highest political office in the land but times had changed and it is not clear that Churchill had changed with them. I wasn’t sold on John Lithgow as Churchill initially, he’s way too tall, but this was his episode and he knocked it out of the ballpark.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Crown Recap Episode 3: ‘Windsor’

This episode was slightly different from the previous two episodes with a focus on the Duke of Windsor.  We get a flashback to Edward VIII signing the act of abdication on December 10, 1936 with Wallis Simpson looking over his shoulder and then giving his radio broadcast to the nation. The Duke is played by Alex Jennings who played Prince Charles in the film The Queen (also written by Peter Morgan), as well as Anthony Eden in Churchill’s Secret. He does an excellent job of portraying a man who still acts like a small child even in middle-age, but it also shows some sympathy towards him, cut off from his family. He strikes a rather sad and pathetic figure. Historically, Wallis was not with the Duke when he made his radio broadcast, she’d decamped to the south of France to keep out of the line of fire. There are some lovely moments between the Wallis and Edward in this episode, and the actress playing the role is dressed divinely. 


Meanwhile the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret are freely playing with their parents, not aware yet of how their young lives are about to change. Flash-forward to 1952 and the Duke is heading to Britain for his brother’s funeral. This episode peels back even more layers of the onion by letting the audience in on exactly how the Royal Family felt about David’s decision to eschew his duty for love. It’s a nice bit of foreshadowing since later on in the series we will see Princess Margaret grappling with the same decision and making an altogether different choice. Things are still frosty between the Duke of Windsor and his family.  The Queen Mother blames the Duke for George VI’s early death.  Queen Mary is not feeling to warm towards her elder son either, she too blames him for George’s death and for shirking his duty.

They move on to the revelation of the Duke of Windsor’s secret nicknames for his royal relatives. The Queen Mother is ‘Cookie’ (ostensibly because of the rumors that Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was the daughter of the family cook. Lady Colin Campbell goes into these rumors in more detail in her rather nasty biography of the Queen Mother. Also for being fat and common which is rich given that he married a twice- divorced woman!) and the new Queen is “Shirley Temple.’ When confronted by Queen, the Duke tries to save face by telling her that it was because she was so sweet, and cute and good just like Shirley Temple. Nice save HRH! When the Duke finally meets up with his mother, she spends most of their time together praising his younger, brother. “So wonderfully thoughtful and caring, an angel to his mother, his wife, and children.  I honestly believe he never thought of himself at all. He really was the perfect son.” The implication being that Bertie was everything that David was not. His meeting with the Queen Mother, Elizabeth and Princess Margaret is just as cold. The Queen Mother can barely stand to look at him, let alone let him touch her.  Afterwards, he writes a letter to Wallis, calling his family “a bunch of ice-flamed monsters,” and that’s one of the kinder things that he says about them! Still the Duke has an ulterior motive, he needs to try and keep communication open, because of his allowance, which the Queen Mother was just as soon end.

He tells his mother, Queen Mary, a sob story about hard it is for them to make ends meet. Living at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and in a mansion just outside of Paris is expensive! He and Wallis need to be kept in the style to which they have become accustomed. It’s rather sickening to see the Duke pleading poverty when England was still going through rationing in 1952. While the Duke is trying to mend fences with his relations, Elizabeth is about to have her first meeting with Churchill. Before the meeting, Philip reminds her of two things: 1) The children will have his surname and 2) They will continue living at Clarence House.  After all, he spent so much time renovating it.
Of course neither of those two things get discussed.  Instead, Churchill and Elizabeth disagree about her coronation.  Elizabeth would like to have it sooner rather than later and Churchill thinks that 16 months from now is a grand idea.  “A long period between accession and coronation was of great value to your father.”  Elizabeth reminds Churchill that actually her father had 5 months since the date of Edward VIII’s coronation had already been set.  Later in the episode, Elizabeth brings up the two matters with Churchill who is aghast at both of them.


Meanwhile Lord Mountbatten is having a party where he exhorts his guests to raise a toast to the House of Mountbatten which is fairly cheeky and might smack of treason. Prince Ernst of Hanover (who is either the father or grandfather of the current Prince Ernst, husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco) scurries over to Queen Mary to tell her the news.  This scene is done partly in German as the Duke of Windsor listens in.  It was a nice reminder that not only Queen Mary but also the Duke were fluent in German. Queen Mary is also aghast that they should be drinking champagne when her son has just recently died! Tommy Lascelles tells Peter Townsend that the Queen Mother has asked for him to comptroller of her household.  He suggests not so subtly that Townsend should think about going back to the RAF. Apparently there are rumors that Townsend is a little too close to a certain brunette member of the household. Townsend basically tells him to stuff it. Later he informs Margaret that his wife is leaving him.

He tells her that it would be a grave mistake to change the name of the Royal House to Mountbatten. He reminds her that Prince Philip’s real last name was Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg of the Royal House of Greece and Denmark. Elizabeth is not one to be swayed, she may be a Queen but she is also a wife and a mother. Remember that she did promise to obey Philip at their wedding. Elizabeth is not dumb either, she knows that there are people who think that Churchill is past his prime and would like to see him resign, giving way to a young man like his nephew-in-law Anthony Eden. She tries to bargain with him, she will agree to the delay in her coronation, if he will support her in the matter regarding her husband’s name, and staying at Clarence House.  Good luck with that! The cabinet is totally not on board with either of those decisions.  Instead of telling the Queen himself, Churchill pawns off breaking the bad news to the Duke of Windsor.  In exchange, Churchill will push for Elizabeth to reinstate the Duke’s allowance.  Sneaky! Of course, the Duke has to ruin everything by trying to get Wallis the HRH.  He complains that it has been 17 years since the abdication, why are they still being so cruel to his wife? Edward really has no concept of what he did by abdicating, the lives he damaged. All he cares about his money and Wallis.

When the Duke meets with his niece, on the surface she is all smiles, but there is steel underneath. She gets her own digs in during their idle chatter, dissing his love of pugs and their gassiness and confronting him about the cruel nicknames like Shirley Temple.  The Duke realizes he has underestimated his niece, especially when she points out that he has never apologized to her for changing her life irrevocably. For the first time in the entire episode, The Duke is actually ashamed regarding his behavior.  He apologizes to her and then gently tells her that the two things that she wants (or really her husband wants) can’t be.  The House of Windsor will remain the house of Windsor and the whole clan must debunk to Buckingham Palace. The episode ends with the Duke heading back to his wife as crowds cheer him at the dock.  While his family may not love, the people still have some affection for him.

Philip is not please and acts like a whiny baby about the whole thing. “What kind of marriage is this? What kind of family? You’ve taken my career from me, you’ve taken my home, you’ve taken my name.” In real life, Philip remarked that he felt like a bloody amoeba. Upset by the whole drama, Philip convinces Peter Townsend to teach him how to fly.  See he really wanted to be in the RAF, but his uncle Mountbatten convinced him to join the Navy instead like his uncle and grandfather. Peter and Margaret had been having a rendezvous in his office when Philip arrives. Margaret hides but Philip notices a woman’s purse and teases Peter Townsend about it, not realizing that the woman in question is his sister-in-law.

This episode had pace and moved the story along nicely, as well as revealing more about the participants behind the scenes.  I still quibble with the portrayal of the Queen Mother, so far the portrait that we are given is of a very dour woman.  She has none of the joie de vivre that Helena Bonham Carter brought to the role in the Queen’s speech. Claire Foy is growing in the part as she assumes more of the mantel of responsibility.  The other big disappointment in this series thus far is also the portrayal of Prince Philip. Yes, Philip could stick his foot in his mouth, and yes being a Prince Consort had to suck at times, but I wish we could see more of him trying to find his footing in the role.  I mentioned this is my previous recap but Lord Mountbatten needs to be used for more than just a plot point. It’s real waste of Greg Wise, who thus far, has had little more to do than just show up and be handsome, which he does very well.

Other recaps: Tom and Lorenzo

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Crown Recap: Wolferton Splash and Hyde Park Corner (Episodes 1 & 2)


I have been waiting eagerly for new series The Crown to drop on Netflix ever since it was announced. November 4th couldn’t come soon enough for me.  I took it as a good omen that the premiere date was midway between my birthday (November 2) and Guy Fawkes Day (November 5th). So far I’ve watched the 1st five episodes of the series and I have mixed feelings about it.  After watching the episodes, I did a little research to see how close the series is to what we know historically.  Apparently the Palace was very anxious about the series, particularly since writer Peter Morgan declined their help. They have nothing to worry about, the series is quite reverential in many ways. Almost too reverential.

The production values are absolutely first rate, I have no idea how much exactly the series is costing, although there are rumors that it is over $100 million dollars.  If that’s true, most of it is on the screen.  If you have ever watched The Royals or Reign, you’ll have noticed that their budgets hover around about $5 for each episode. In the first few episodes, the series has shown us Buckingham Palace, Sandringham, Marlborough House, No. 10 Downing Street, Broadlands, Westminster Abbey (or the equivalents).  There is a sweep to the series that is missing from The Royals and Reign. The viewer gets more of a sense of how little privacy royalty actually have.

Although none of the actors remotely resemble their counterparts, the performances are uniformly fantastic particularly Claire Foy as Princess Elizabeth soon to be Queen Elizabeth II.  However, the 1st episode is very slow and not very engaging except for the very end. The first episode covers the years 1947 through 1951. In the very first episode, we get to see the eager young bride anxious to marry Philip. There is a sweet moment, where her fiancé manages to steal a quick kiss after the garter ceremony.  The series sort of squashes Prince Philip giving up his Greek titles and being made Duke of Edinburgh, etc. as well as receiving the Order of the Garter into one scene at the very beginning of the episode. There is no mention of the fact that it actually wasn’t necessary for him to have to do it.  Poor King George is coughing up blood in the bathroom and then lighting up a cigarette.  I admit those scenes gave me pause mainly because of how realistic they were. I’ve had relatives who’ve suffered from lung cancer who continued to smoke even after they on oxygen to breathe.  While Jared Harris a bit too robust physically for the King, I think that he aptly portrays a man who never wanted to be King but who once the mantle was thrust upon him, made the best of it. There is an interesting scene where he sings a rather dirty limerick while he’s getting dressed, it gives the viewer a glimpse of a man who was once a sailor just like his son-in-law.

The wedding scene is brief but spectacular, mad props to the costume designer who recreated not only Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress but also the dresses of the maids of honor.  Princess Elizabeth is tentative in her vows while Philip gives her subtle encouragement.  Winston Churchill, who is no longer Prime Minister makes a grand entrance into the Abbey, which is remarked up on by Anthony Eden. Also so commentary about how Princess Elizabeth kept the word ‘obey’ in her marriage vows. There is a telling scene during the taking of the wedding photographs, where Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth discuss how Elizabeth got her way in marrying Philip since so many people were against the marriage in the government.  I wish that we had actually gotten to see a bit of that instead of rushing into the wedding scene.  I think it would have done a lot to establish just how much of an outsider Prince Philip was from the beginning.  Queen Elizabeth also makes mention of the fact that Philip is very German which is hysterical considering the King’s background.  I should mention that none of Prince Philip’s sisters were allowed to attend his wedding because of their marriages to Germans.  The Queen also makes a very catty comment about Philip’s mother having just gotten out a sanitarium, calling her a Hun dressed like a Nun.  Making fun of Princess Alice’s mental illness was a low blow and did nothing to give the viewer any idea of who this woman was.

There is a lovely moment after the ceremony where King George gives Elizabeth a movie camera as a wedding present. This leads to a lovely montage of the births of Prince Charles and Princess Anne as the years go by and we are suddenly in 1951. Princess Elizabeth and Philip are having a jolly old time in Malta. There are scenes of Philip playing with Prince Charles and Princess Anne which is interesting given that Charles and Anne actually stayed in England while Philip was stationed in Malta. The Princess would go back and forth to see them and do fulfill her duties.

Churchill is now back in power and the King is not doing so well.  The blood coughing has led him to need surgery in the fanciest operating room in the country, the ballroom at Buckingham Palace.  Seriously, there are chandeliers in the operating theatre! The Princess and Philip have flown back to England just in case.  The King has one of his lungs removed (at this point no one has yet mentioned the word cancer). There is a bizarre scene where Philip wanders into the operating theatre while the doctors and nurses are cleaning up. Princess Elizabeth is of course anxious to get back to Malta so that Philip can go on doing his naval duties but she soon realizes that this is not going to happen.  The King asks Elizabeth to take over the Commonwealth tour since he hasn’t fully recovered.  Before they leave, the King takes Philip out into a boat to do duck hunting, basically giving him a pep talk about supporting the Princess yada yada, duty etc. what the Crown really means.  It is basically a metaphor for what the whole series is about.

In Episode 2, the series starts to pick up steam.  Despite his surgery, the King is still coughing up blood. When he questions his doctors, they tell him that it is nothing out of the ordinary (in real life the King was never told that he had cancer). Later on, his doctor informs him that there are malignancies in his other lung. He asks how long he has but the doctor doesn’t know. While all this is going on, Anthony Eden (played by Jeremy Northam) decides to make a power play.  He cozies up to the King during a shooting party and tries to convince him to ask Churchill to resign.  The King however declines, thwarting Eden’s ambitions for the moment.

In Kenya, Princess Elizabeth and Philip are having a grand old time. We finally get to see the Philip who suffers from foot in mouth disease, making politically incorrect comments about several of the natives that they meet. Poor Matt Smith, whatever hair dye they are using to try and approximate the Prince’s blond hair doesn’t seem to want to stick.  His hair ranges from sort of blond to chestnut depending on the scene.  However, he’s managed to capture the charm and the action man aspects of the Prince, chafing at having nothing really to do but support his wife.  You get a sense of the warmth and affection that these two have for each other which has sustained them in almost 70 years of marriage.

At a house party at Sandringham, there is a lovely scene of Princess Margaret and the King singing a duet at the piano.  It echoes an earlier scene where Princess Margaret drives her father while he gives her advice on her driving skills.  In these brief scenes, you get a sense of the relationship between father and daughter, that Margaret was his joy.  I wish that there had been more scenes like that. Anyhoo, the inevitable happens and the King dies in his sleep. There is a particularly awful moment where Margaret goes into see her father’s body as they are preparing him for embalming. Seriously, who would want to see their father with a large poker sticking out of his body? It was seriously gross and unnecessary.Of course, they have to let the Princess Elizabeth know that she is now Queen.

What The Crown does well are the small intimate scenes, Philip telling the Queen the news (we only see her reaction, we don’t hear what he actually said), Elizabeth getting dressed in her mourning clothes on the plane before she arrives in England, Margaret riding off on her horse and being comforted by Peter Townsend, Queen Elizabeth breaking down when she hears the news of her husband’s death (they slept in separate rooms).

There is very little of Lord Mountbatten in this series which is unfortunate. Churchill makes a comment about Mountbatten giving away India, and there is a scene of Mountbatten toasting the House of Mountbatten with champagne prematurely as it turns out. Both Philip and Elizabeth were very close to Mountbatten, they spent their honeymoon at his country estate Broadlands, but he seems like an afterthought in the series.

For another look at the 1st episode head on over to The Court Jeweller and Tom and Lorenzo