TV Review: The Coronation with Her Majesty the Queen (BBC1)

The last time Britain saw a coronation was in 1953 and to this day this country remains one of two in Europe (the other being the Vatican) where the head of state is enthroned in a centuries-old ritual steeped in religion and tradition. The build-up leading to and what happened on 2 June 1953 has been told and re-told several times and this documentary could have been like previous ones but this has a unique twist.

Two in fact. For arguably the first time, the Crown Jewels and regalia were filmed in close range and using high definition cameras which meant that viewers could see the detail and workmanship of each crown and regalia featured. Secondly and more importantly, the viewers have Her Majesty the Queen as their guide. Watching both official and home footage, the Queen shared her memories of the event and whilst she has not seen the footage from her own coronation for 65 years, she recalled that it was “a very long day. When you’re taking part in something you don’t see it.”

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This was a far cry from the coronation of her father George VI in 1937 where despite it being held over 70 years ago, she can still remember how it all unfolded:  as she cheerfully admits that she didn’t have a role in the ceremony, she was only present to sit and watch. George VI wanted his daughter to be prepared when her time came and insisted that she write down her memories of the big day and the result now resides in the Royal Archives – an impression of a sacred ceremony through the eyes of an 11 year old.

The Queen’s coronation is significant as it was the first to be televised and aware that more people would be watching the ceremony than in any previous coronations, the stakes were high – no mistakes on the same scale as those that plagued Victoria or George VI’s coronation were to be allowed. Sixteen months were given in order to prepare and rehearse for the ceremony itself, and Lady Anne Coke (now Lady Glenconner) who served as one of the six maids of honour and James Wilkinson, one of the 400 choir singers who took part, were on hand to share their memories of the build up to and during the big day.

Juxtaposed too with the footage of the actual event was the Queen talking through two of the most important pieces of the regalia – the two crowns she wore for the ceremony. For the first time in 65 years Her Majesty was reunited with the St Edward’s Crown which weighs five pounds and was made in 1661 for the coronation of Charles II. “Is it still as heavy?” she wondered as the crown was placed in front of her. “Yes, it is,” she nods picking up the crown. “It weighs a ton!” The documentary mentioned a little-known fact about this crown – only the sovereign, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Crown Jeweller are permitted to touch it.

More manageable was the Imperial State Crown which weighs around three pounds but as the Queen herself observed she has to be careful while wearing it especially during the State Opening of Parliament while she’s reading her speech: “You can’t look down in it, though, or your neck would break. And it would fall off.” While the Imperial State Crown might be the newer of the two crowns, it is studded with historic gems from the Black Prince’s Ruby (actually a spinel) reportedly worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt to the sapphire from the ring of Edward the Confessor and the pearls that belonged to Mary Queen of Scots and which were purchased by her cousin Elizabeth I. The latter’s namesake mused as she held the dangling gems in the palm of her hand: “Pearls are sort of living things. They need warming up and these have just been hanging here. Quite sad, really.”

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Discomfort was also the order of the day. Not only did Her Majesty have to contend with two heavy crowns and sit through a five hour ceremony, even her mode of transport was uncomfortable as well. The Gold State Coach made in 1760 for George III had been used for every coronation since 1821 and despite its magnificent appearance never endeared itself to the monarchs who have had to ride in it. Victoria was not a great fan of its “distressing oscillations” and William IV himself despite having spent much of his life in the Navy described riding the carriage as like being tossed about a rough sea. Count the present Queen then as also not a fan as she told Alastair Bruce: “Horrible! It’s not designed for travelling in at all. It’s only sprung on leather, you know.”

While the focus of the programme was the Queen, the regalia took centre stage as well. In the capable hands of narrator Keeley Hawes and former Historic Royal Palaces curator Anna Keay, the commentary was informative and concise as they took the viewer through the history and significance of the regalia and the ceremony itself, with a few significant anecdotes along the way – such as how the Cullinan diamond was sent to Britain (via ordinary mail) to the Crown Jewels being hidden during the Second World War. The Queen mused about how lucky it was that the one person who knew where they were hidden didn’t die before the war was over and the jewels could be retrieved.

However the weak link in the documentary was Alastair Bruce, he’s described as an expert on royal ceremony but he added nothing new or insightful about the ceremony or the regalia and his conversation with the Queen sometimes bordered on the fawning. But that’s one quibble; the real star of this documentary was the Queen herself – smiling, giggling, looking in awe at her younger self and as sharp as ever. For Her Majesty alone, watching this was a privilege and worth it!

 

The Coronation with Her Majesty the Queen was telecast on BBC1 on 14 January 2018

 

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TV Review: Victoria Christmas Special (ITV) – Comfort and Joy

Bloggers’ note: We apologise for the delay of this review. This is what you get when being out of the country when the special is aired and afterwards real life gets in the way

 

Titled “Comfort and Joy”, there’s not much of one or the other during the programme’s two hour run. Albert is busy recreating what in his mind was the perfect family Christmas (until Ernst tells him otherwise) while Victoria is keen to forget Christmases past and isn’t amused when Albert invites her mother to the festivities without consulting her. Christmas also brings two unwelcome visitors – King Leopold who is still plotting to marry off Ernst, this time to Princess Gertrude of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Nina Pavlovic), and the Duke of Cumberland (now King of Hanover) demanding the return of a suite of jewels belonging to his mother Queen Charlotte that he claims was left to him.

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Apart from Albert’s obsession that the celebrations should be pitch perfect, the other main story line of this special is Victoria receiving an unusual present from King Gezo of Dahomey (Derek Ezenagu), in the form of a girl rescued by Captain Forbes (Ben Lamb) and christened Sarah (Zaris-Angel Hator). He recounts to the Queen and the court how she came to be a slave – captured with the rest of her family during a tribal war, she was earmarked for human sacrifice while her parents and siblings were all slaughtered. Captain Forbes persuades King Gezo to hand the girl over to the “Great White Queen” and thus Sarah’s life is spared.

Upon meeting Sarah, Victoria recognises right away that the girl is of royal blood and is impressed by the Captain’s reports of how Sarah is a quick learner and has blossomed under the care of his wife (Catherine Steadman). Despite being repulsed at the idea that the girl is given to her as a gift, the Queen invites Sarah to stay with her and the rest of the family at Buckingham Palace. Albert isn’t too sure about this but Victoria over-rules his misgivings: especially as he’s invited her mother for the festivities without telling her.

The rest of the special consists of little storylines that tie up those from series 2 – Harriet finally learns of Ernst’s syphilis, and Lord Alfred, who is still in mourning for Drummond is touched by maid of honour Wilhelmina’s attempts to comfort him and finally proposes marriage to her. Downstairs, Mrs Skerrett has come into an unexpected windfall from a distant relative and the inheritance will be more than enough for her and Francatelli (who has also proposed marriage to her) to set up home and the bed and breakfast business that they have dreamed of.

While this special does tie up a few storylines from series 2 and gives us a preview of what to expect for a series 3, the narrative over all felt a tad disjointed; the two main storylines – Albert’s zeal with his preparations for Christmas and desperation to believe that Christmas was the one bright spark in an otherwise unhappy family life as well as Victoria’s wish to forget her unhappy childhood and finding a kindred spirit in Sarah do seem to complement one another. But the other storylines particularly downstairs were simply fillers and while one might care for Ernst and root for his happiness, it’s hard to feel the same with the others – Penge’s little storyline as well as Skerrett and Francatelli’s feels forced and crowbarred into the narrative.

Hovering in the background is the of course the history. Although it’s now established that the first Christmas trees were brought into Britain by Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III in the 18th century, it is still generally assumed that it was Prince Albert who was the first to introduce them into this country. However Prince Albert does deserve credit for popularising Christmas trees as following illustrations and accounts of the royal family’s Christmas celebrations, the idea of having a tree inside the house decorated with baubles and lights eventually supplanted the old sprigs of holly, yew and mistletoe that were a staple of Christmases past.

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The Duke of Cumberland’s claim to the jewels on the other hand was not resolved in the simple way that the special would lead us to believe. Victoria held on to the jewels until 1858 on the grounds that they belonged to the British crown, while her uncle claimed that Queen Charlotte left them to a male heir – which after the death of King William IV meant him. A settlement was finally reached with the Duke’s son George where the jewels were handed over to him and Victoria began a new collection which she designated as Crown property to avoid a repeat of the fiasco over Queen Charlotte’s pieces.

Apart from Albert’s role in popularising how we now celebrate the festive season, this Christmas special also explores the issue of slavery. Although the slave trade was outlawed in 1807 and slavery itself was abolished in the 1830s in Britain and its empire, it was still widespread in other parts of the world and the Royal Navy was deployed in stamping out the practice and freeing slaves. Sarah herself was none other than Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880): her maiden surname coming from Captain Forbes himself and his flagship HMS Bonetta. After her rescue, the real Sarah was indeed presented to Queen Victoria who agreed to serve as her godmother and pay for her upbringing and education. Sarah and the Queen did enjoy a close relationship and the former was frequently a guest at the various royal residences and played with the royal children. Upon her marriage to a businessman James Pinso Davies, they had three children, and the oldest Victoria Matilda was named after the Queen and as she did with Victoria’s mother the monarch was honoured to act as the girl’s godmother. In the special there are touching scenes between Victoria and Sarah and sadness is palpable as the Queen grants Sarah’s request that she would like to return to live with the Forbes family. Yet again as we have seen in series 2 and in real life, this story line depicts Victoria’s lack of racial prejudice and what were for the time very enlightened attitudes. However while the relationship between Victoria and Sarah is moving, the parallel storyline of Skerrett’s inheritance which turns out to be 20 slaves (she learns that the uncle she has never met was a slave trader) doesn’t ring true at all and feels very disjointed from the main narrative. I would have preferred to have seen more of Sarah’s personality and interacting with Victoria and her children all of which are documented in the accounts of Captain Forbes and the Queen herself.

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This Christmas special is a feast for the eyes as Buckingham Palace and its gardens are transformed into a winter wonderland and we are treated to a panorama of the way the royal family celebrated Christmas, which would have a considerable influence on how we observe the festive season to this very day. It also taps into the universal and perhaps timeless desire to relieve and create happy memories and a happy home, as exemplified by Albert’s obsessive preparations and stubbornness in the belief that his childhood Christmases were as magical as he thought they were. However I wished that Daisy Goodwin stuck to the main elements of her narrative rather than to muddle it further with various indifferent and clearly forced subplots that either lead nowhere or are resolved so quickly that no-one cares about them.

Somewhere in this two hour special is a decent drama that did touch on historical issues and family dramas which could have been so much better had the writing stuck to the core story lines. Hopefully we’ll see a much tighter and coherent narrative in series 3 but perhaps I’m too optimistic.

A Country House Christmas: Remembrance of Christmases Past

Originally titled Treasure on Earth and published in 1952, this small book was written by Phyllis Elinor Sanderman (born the Hon Phyllis Legh) and is a thinly disguised account of the Christmases that she experienced at Lyme Park, the Legh family residence in Cheshire. It’s a charming and affectionate look at Christmases past and would not look out of place as a Downton Abbey Christmas special with the big house being readied for Christmas, as well as the rituals and traditions that underpin Christmas at Lyme. The narrative is written in the third person, and while a few names have been changed Lyme is renamed Vyne Park while the author’s parents the 2nd Baron and Baroness Newton are Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne, but it’s easy to pick up that the author is describing her parents and home.

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However while what we see in Downton Abbey’s celebration of Christmas is pretty much a pastiche, A Country House Christmas while short delves into detail about how Christmas was celebrated in a house like Lyme Park before World War I. There are the family theatricals, the visiting relatives, the exchange and giving of presents: not just between the family but the annual distribution of beef to the tenants and presents for their children presided over by Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne. Phyllis’s anticipation of the big day jumps off the pages of the book as does her passion for the house and its history and contents. There are more than enough descriptions of the house which despite the absence of any photographs allow the reader to imagine Vyne Park and its inhabitants, upstairs and down.

Apart from the description of the house and the rituals associated with the festive season there are affectionate portraits and characters sketches of the servants: Truelove the butler, Fraulein Thur the governess, Perez the chef and Mrs Campbell the housekeeper. These sketches are woven into the descriptions of the preparations for Christmas and the acknowledgement that the servants are the engine that keep the house running. Prominent among the servants of course is Truelove – defined by Phyllis as “unquestionably the ‘Eminence Grise,’ the power behind the throne, holding the reins of government; with the ear of the queen, the confidence and (albeit reluctant) admiration of the reigning monarch, and with both titular rulers dependent on him and knowing it.” There is also a description of the wider community outside the confines of the house and the relationship between the Vaynes and the estate as demonstrated by Sanderman’s description of the present giving to the children of tenants presided over by Lady Vayne:

“When the children of the estate employees came up on Boxing Day to have tea and receive their presents, it was he [Truelove] who acted as master of ceremonies. After tea in the servants’ hall, it for the occasion with Chinese lanterns, they would troops upstairs in the Long Gallery, where the tree in all its glory for the second day in succession provided, except for the blazing fire, the only light in the room…..Then when everyone had walked around the tree and admired it thoroughly, Truelove would read out from a list, not the children’s names but their parents’ names and their respective ages – a nice distinction.

‘Jim Bowden’s little girl aged six years’ – and a small girl in her best frock and button boots would clatter across the shiny boards to where Lady Vayne stood beside the tree, received her gift with a bobbed curtsey and clatter back again……the same ceremony again, till from the youngest to the eldest they had all their presents. Then Truelove would make a speech.

It was the same every year – ‘I’m sure we’re all very grateful to Her Ladyship for providing this beautiful tree and presents. When I was a boy and Christmas came round I was pleased if I got a monkey on a stick. But of course times have changed. Now I want you all to give three hearty cheers,’ etc.

There was always the loyal response. Then the gallery would resound to the blowing of tin trumpets and whistles, the clicking of pistols and popping of crackers, and the broad North Country accents of excited young voices.”

The narrative is set in 1906, five years before the passage of the Parliament Act and eight years before the outbreak of the First World War; both of which would deal a death blow to the power and prestige of the aristocracy. Superficially, this account can be seen as a paean to aristocratic life with its unchanging routines, deferential servants and tenants, dressing up for dinner and the entertaining demanded of a house like Vyne but it goes deeper than that, as there is also the self-awareness that this aristocratic world and lifestyle could vanish.

And vanish it does. The narrative fast forwards to and ends in 1946, when as an adult Phyllis returns to Vyne again as the house has been given to the nation because the Vaynes, harassed as they are by rationing and rising taxes, can no longer afford to keep the house as it was during that Indian summer before 1914. One would have thought that Sanderman would be nostalgic for the “good old days” but clearly she isn’t as she writes in the introduction to the 1981 reprint of her book:

“The hard fact must be accepted that houses such as Lyme are now anachronisms, no longer able to fulfil their original function, namely that of dwelling-houses for the leisure class. They must either fall into decay or be turned into institutions – hospitals or schools – or become museum pieces, visited and enjoyed by the public at large.”

I would highly recommend this book, not just as a charming story of Christmases past but also a more thorough look at how the festive season was celebrated in a country house in a way that period drama such as Downton Abbey have never quite managed to capture.