[2 November 2008]
In Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, Hal, the dissolute and naughty Prince of Wales (aren’t they all?) becomes king and immediately reforms himself. He disavows his old partners in vice, (even has one hung) kicks his wenches to the curb, puts on armor and proceeds to slaughter a lot of Frenchmen at Agincourt. He dies a well-loved and respected king.
In John Gorrie’s Edward the Seventh good old Teddy becomes king, puts his partners in vice on the payroll, establishes the “Entente Cordiale” with the French and his Queen brings his favorite mistress to his deathbed where he dies a beloved and respected king. It’s almost enough to make one believe in human progress.
Edward the Seventh is a superb tale of a man who, as a young boy, looked in awe at the Duke Of Wellington and as an old king had to deal with those young pups, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. There are two strands to this story. The first is how a boy who impressed no one grew up to be a man who disappointed everyone, yet as an old man became a beloved king known as “The Peacemaker” and “The Uncle of Europe”. The second strand is the tale of the monarchs of Europe during the Victorian and Edwardian era.
Gorrie tells this story straight and while not ignoring Edwards’ vices he doesn’t let them take over the story. There’s a reverential quality to the mini series that seems dated at first but seems more fitting as Edward (Timothy West) comes into his own. This isn’t a heroic tale, but the triumph is well deserved.
The second child and the eldest son of Queen Victoria (Annette Crosbie in a BAFTA winning performance) and Prince Albert (Robert Hardy) was not in for an easy time of it as a boy. Victoria could barely stand him, “I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder” and Albert loved him intensely, but not well. Edward was kept away from children his own age and from the age of seven was subjected to an educational program so rigorous that it almost caused him a nervous breakdown. He was set up to fail and fail he did.
Somehow surviving into adolescence, Edward studies reluctantly for University, yet dreams of going into the Army. He eventually gets to receive some military training in Ireland, but meets an actress there who gives him an entirely different and far more appreciated education.
Prince Albert dies of typhus shortly after the resulting scandal and Victoria blames Edward. As a result, he is trusted with only the most trivial duties and Victoria hopes that his marriage to the beautiful Alexandra of Denmark (Helen Ryan) may reform him. In this, she is perpetually disappointed so Edward gets no real responsibilities until he is crowned at the age of 60.
So how does Edward pull it off? Throughout the miniseries Edward is always polite, good-hearted and well meaning. He always sincerely wishes to please and believed that everyone should be treated well. “I can not stand to be thought of as being deliberately rude!” he storms when an emergency operation on his appendix delays his coronation.
On a trip to India he voiced what was then a revolutionary sentiment, “Because a man has a black face and a different religion from our own, there is no reason why he should be treated as a brute.” He also had no trace of the then prevailing anti-Semitism. He would not only do business with Jews but was criticized for inviting them into his circle of friends.
This boyish good heartedness and lack of mean spiritedness covered a multitude of sins and was probably the only thing that saved his marriage with his long suffering wife, Alexandra. He had considerable charm and was an accomplished diplomat. Edward could also be surprisingly practical as his backing of Army and especially Naval reforms showed.
If Edward were a lesser man, the First World War may have turned out very differently. In fact at the beginning of the First World War, Kaiser Wilhelm was heard to exclaim, “Alas! The dead Edward is stronger than the living I!”
All of this is brilliantly unfolds during the 13 episodes, as does the dynastic politics that made him “the Uncle of Europe”. One of his nephews was Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Neame), who loved Edward intensely but saw him as an enemy who constantly plotted against him. Wilhelm comes off as an ass and an insufferable boor except for two brilliant scenes where he reveals an intense if befuddled nobility. The effect is stunning, leaving the viewer to wonder, “Who is this man?”
Another nephew was the unfortunate Czar Nicholas II. The plight of Nicholas’ mother, the Empress Marie (Jane Lapotaire) as she goes from a happy Danish princess to a haunted and hunted Russian Empress is an amazing metamorphosis.
Strangely, the best performances are between Victoria and her Prime Ministers. These are subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) duels for power at the highest level and they make for fascinating viewing. Victoria is near powerless but her position is permanent. She’s no rocket scientist but her purpose is certain and she is the moral paragon of the age. A man may be quick witted and ruthless enough to become a Prime Minister, but he hasn’t really been tested until he tries to get around Victoria!
The best match ups are between Victoria and Disraeli (John Gielgud). He’s a shameless flatterer and she loves it, but there’s a delicious tension beneath the pleasantry. Victoria comes out of it pretty well since the Albert Hall gets built and she’s made Empress of India. The scenes with Gladstone (Michel Hordern) and Palmerston (Andre Morell) are almost as riveting. It all contributes to one of the best historical series that has ever been filmed.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/edward-the-king1/