Oh, how I got my hopes up. I mistook the title of last night’s The Royal House of Windsor (Channel 4) for a new series of The Windsors, last year’s superbly daft sitcom about the royals that caricatures them all exactly as you would expect them to be – the memory of Prince Harry calling his sister in law “Puppah” still makes me laugh my leg off.
Instead we got another of those documentaries about the nation’s favourite ermine-sporters, of which the once-radical Channel 4 seems so inexplicably fond. Every year it appears to commission about 80 hours of historians once again taking us through those tricky George V-to-1945 years, full of jerky footage from Ye Not Too Olde Days, thrillingly informal snaps of the Windsors at play, and dry facts made more palatable by a smattering of unexpected talking heads, who take the national sport of vowel-stretching (it’s what you do if you’re too posh even for polo) to new levels.
The peg for this one was “access to some of the most closely guarded papers in the world”. A letter from someone blue-blooded to someone in their servitude in the blue-blood’s own handwriting never before seen on British television, you say? Revealing something that one suspects already counts as common knowledge to those who care about this kind of thing? Are you sure you couldn’t just bung us another series of The Windsors?
If you have missed the previous 79 hours, the story goes like this: the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas, as the Windsors were then known, are wrongfooted by the anti-German sentiment that attends the outbreak of the first world war. People were kicking dachshunds in the street. Even someone who believes he’s anointed by God can recognise this as A Bad Sign. George V reacted accordingly, changing the family name to Windsor and wriggling out of providing asylum to his beloved cousin Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family. It ended badly for the Romanovs. Olga Romanov, great niece of the tsar, lives in Kent now and was perhaps one of the most unexpected of the unexpected talking heads. She remembers family stories of the kindness George V lavished on Nicholas’s sister Xenia when she eventually made it to the UK (“which quayte put Queen Maaaary’s nyose ayt of joint”). Now she knows why.
Edward, Prince of Wales, was the golden boy, his younger, stuttering, ailing brother Bertie less so. The former wept uncontrollably on his mother’s shoulder when he became king after his father’s death in 1936. He watched the announcement of his succession from a window in Buckingham Palace with a mysterious woman by his side. “She treated him like dirt,” someone explains. “And he loved it.” Hi, Wallis. Welcome to the history books.
To marry her, Edward VIII abdicated and poor Bertie became king, weeping uncontrollably on his mother’s shoulder before knuckling down to do his duty till the day he died. Edward and Mrs Simpson flirted with fascists and were in effect exiled by the Windsors lest they irreparably damage the firm.
Are you sure you couldn’t just bung us another series of The Windsors? Or tempt Messrs Curtis, Elton and Lloyd back to do a Blackadder on this lot? Rowan Atkinson as Edward, Tim McInnerny as Bertie, Stephen Fry as George V and Queen Mary, Miranda Richardson as La Simpson and Miriam Margolyes as everyone else. You know it makes sense. Or as much as commissioning another hour of this in three months’ time.
In Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston’s Casebook (BBC2), personable presenter and real-life surgeon Gabriel Weston gave us brief case studies of six people with extraordinary – and extraordinarily rare – conditions. These include seven-year-old Virsaviya, whose heart is outside her ribcage, protected only by her skin; a woman, Jeannie, whose body is growing a second skeleton; and Ian, a quadriplegic man who is having his movement restored by a computer chip, invented by electrical engineers and plugged into him by a neurosurgeon.
If there was a hint of the high-class carnival freak show about the setup – whatever scientific progress the investigation into Virsaviya’s heart condition was bringing about, it couldn’t help but take second place to the astonishing sight of that organ beating, every line and ripple of it visible, under nothing more than skin – it was offset by the optimism afforded. The sight of people working together to make the world a better place seems a more fragile miracle than even Virsaviya’s just now.