The second part of the Queen’s Lost Family (Channel 4) propelled us into the political swamp of the early 1930s, doing a slightly better job of scene-setting than last week. “We don’t want no Royal parasites, give us food!” was a particularly striking rallying cry when spare-to-the-heir Prince Bertie (who later became King George VI) visited London’s impoverished East End at the height of the Great Depression. This at a time when his three brothers – Edward, Henry and George – were, as one contributor put it, “living the life of royal rogues”.
Juicy morsels followed regarding Edward’s efforts to rehabilitate George from drug addiction, and Queen Mary’s personal intervention when Beryl Markham’s infuriated husband threatened to expose her affair with the besotted Henry, guaranteeing Beryl’s silence with a lifetime pension.
The chief focus though, inevitably, was on Edward and the lead up to his abdication in 1936. Once again his straining against the restrictions of his role was achingly palpable and, as such, Wallis Simpson emerged here as less the seductive siren than his own very deliberate choice of a perfect excuse to misbehave. One fascinating detail noted how in 1935, when his father struck Wallis Simpson’s name off Henry’s wedding-party guest list, Edward took her along anyway, to the King’s absolute fury. Not exactly the action of a man with any intention to back down.
More shocking were the snippets regarding Edward’s infatuation with fascism and his determination not to remain politically neutral on his accession to the throne. One could easily appreciate why statements such as that reportedly made by him, just days after his father’s death, to a relative attending the funeral – “Who is the King here, Baldwin or I? If I wish to talk with Hitler I will do so”– would have been a source of extreme anxiety for the prime minister and his government.
In the end there was surprisingly little detail about the abdication itself, although the material relating to the British press’s initial gentlemanly silence on the matter of Wallis Simpson did offer a startling contrast to our own hyper-leaky, social media-driven times. Perhaps the most poignant moment came in an extract from Princess Mary’s diary recalling a family meal with Edward on the day of his abdication, describing it as “all too sad, as once he leaves here he may not return for some years.” One could still sense the pain and stress and awkwardness around that table, all these years on.