Gelignite, in case you are wondering, is an explosive gel. How does that fit into an episode wholly devoted to the relationship between Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend? Well, presumably the gelignite in this case is the insertion of an “inappropriate” romantic relationship within the institution of the monarchy because, historically, those have a way of blowing everything up.
It’s a point underlined in the opening scene when a reporter brings to his editor the story of Margaret picking “a bit of fluff” off Peter’s jacket at the coronation (true story), which caught the media’s eye as an intimate moment. The whole thing frankly freaks me out because I’m now running through scenarios in which I’ve done something similar and wondering how many inappropriate pseudo engagements I’ve been a part of without knowing. Dozens, I reckon.
Anyway, the editor brings the story to the publisher who brings it to Tommy Lascelles who brings it to the Queen Mother. She blinks and stares back at her former private secretary. “Should we deny it?” she asks. “All due respect, ma’am,” Tommy answers, “It’s a little late for that.”
Indeed, because in the middle of all of this Margaret summons Elizabeth and Philip for dinner with her and Peter and formally announces the relationship. More than that, she asks for Elizabeth’s permission for an engagement at some point in the future. And Elizabeth grants it – in subsequent conversations with Margaret she brings up the possibility of the two of them marrying in Scotland because marriage isn’t a sacrament there and it’s less likely to be an issue that Peter is divorced. That divorce, by the way, is the whole crux of the issue, much more so than the fact that Peter is a commoner. His wife had an affair and left him, so while he is “blameless” in the divorce he is also not an ideal candidate to marry the Queen’s only sister. As the reporter points out in the opening scene, when the monarchy bumps up against divorce it usually leads to reformation (Henry VIII) or abdication (Edward VIII).
The initial dinner invitation from Margaret to Elizabeth is one of my favorite scenes from the episode, mainly because the pitch of Elizabeth’s “Ohs” speak volumes and Margaret knows that – “Oh?” “Oh!” “Oh…” The last one is an unspoken “Oh shit…” because Elizabeth knows very well what is coming.
A runner up is the dinner scene itself in which Margaret anxiously (and rudely) dismisses her staff from the dining room and Philip immediately picks up his soup spoon to begin eating before realizing Elizabeth, Margaret and Peter are still sitting with their hands in their laps, waiting for the shoe to drop. He hastily shakes his spoon off and puts it back down, “Excuse me,” he whispers and, I don’t know, it just struck me as hysterical. Faux pas by soup and such.
After the story hits the papers it’s clear the entire situation strikes Elizabeth a bit differently in black and white. Tommy and the Queen Mother visit her to express their strategy for putting an end to the scandal. At face value, they want to separate Margaret and Peter for two years, until Margaret reaches 25 years of age and no longer has to ask Elizabeth for permission per the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. And for those who remember the story of Maria Walpole, she’s referred to as an “illegitimate shrew” by Tommy during this scene. Fun, fun.
But, long-term, it’s abundantly clear that what the Queen Mother and Tommy are really banking on is that in two years’ time the relationship will end and the situation will sort itself out.
Margaret is livid when she finds out, but she’s also cognizant of the sensitivities around the situation and confident in Elizabeth’s overarching support. While the sisters get into an argument, Margaret is eventually brought around with the understanding that she will have time to say goodbye to Peter once she returns from her overseas tour of Rhodesia with the Queen Mother. Elizabeth, for her part, throws the couple a bone by inviting Peter to join her for a mini-tour of Northern Ireland, which she carries out in the first days of July 1953 (thus placing the episode).
But then it’s Peter who really messes it all up. The media now knows about the relationship and, sniffing about for a fun scandal or at least another royal wedding, his star is such that it’s rivaling Elizabeth’s and she does not like that. Elizabeth watches a newsreel about her visit with Tommy and Philip and while she’s all smiles when they’re praising her, she is emphatically less happy when the clip turns to Peter and the romance of the star-crossed lovers. To be fair to her, part of the problem is that the entire situation threatens to eclipse the actual work she is carrying out, but on a pettier level, it’s also a rather mundane PR risk. Elizabeth is supposed to be the star of the show, not her father’s former equerry.
Now, if Peter had handled this with some level of skill, he might have been okay. But he doesn’t. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he lets it go to his head, because that’s not wholly fair, but he’s clearly new to the game and he thinks public opinion has given him a level of power and protection that it hasn’t. As he boards a plane after Elizabeth and hears the crowds cheering his name he turns around and waves LIKE A REAL IDIOT. On the plane, he asks to speak to Elizabeth refers to her by the family nickname of “Lilibet” LIKE HE HAS A DEATH WISH.
With that, Elizabeth coldly gives Tommy the orders for his execution. Well, not literally, but he is to be summarily dispatched to Brussels without the opportunity to say goodbye to Margaret. And while that might have felt right to Elizabeth in the moment, it’s less comforting when her sister learns of it in Rhodesia and frantically calls her sister.
“You failed to protect me; I will fail to protect you,” she tells Elizabeth icily. “You reap what you sow, Sister.”
And while her anger is understandable, do bear in mind it comes a few minutes after delivering a speech in which she uses the phrase, “Primitive Africans.” One has nothing to do with the other, but I certainly wasn’t going to leave that little tidbit out.