And the gloves are off, literally and figuratively, for Elizabeth and Margaret. There’s a lot going on this episode – between Elizabeth and Philip, the Queen Mother and her widowhood, Margaret and Peter – but it all comes back to the two sisters, who only share snippets of screen time at the beginning and end of the episode.
George VI used to call them his pride and joy. Elizabeth was his pride, but (a significant ‘but’ that) Margaret was his joy.
It’s November 1953 when the show opens. A statue of George VI is about to be unveiled and the Queen Mother isn’t taking it well. Elizabeth agrees to step in and deliver the speech needed to commemorate the event, but Margaret wants to do it anyway. After all, she says, she was Papa’s favorite. And while bitchy, let’s not forget Peter Townsend is idling away in Brussels after Elizabeth was too cowardly (and perhaps petty) to let the two have a proper goodbye or address the issue head on. So, yes, Margaret is mad and this episode we see her acting out and trying to hurt her sister in the ways that she knows she can.
Margaret defers the decision to their mother as the head of the family. But not so fast, because Elizabeth is the head of the family now, as sovereign. You see, she too knows how to hurt her sister (and her mother, for that matter) in very specific ways.
From there the Windsor women scatter. Philip and Elizabeth are leaving for a five-month tour of Commonwealth countries. The Queen Mother decamps for Scotland. And Margaret, as a result, is left in London with the family’s public duties. The episode spans the entire five months, closing in the late spring of 1954 when the dust has settled and the women return home. No one is happy. Indeed, everyone is only growing unhappier. Except, perhaps, Elizabeth, who is truly growing into her role despite – and perhaps in spite of – the more “powerful characters” around her.
The tour is miserable. Jam-packed days of morning, afternoon and evening engagements. Foreign surroundings. Constant smiling and waving. No breaks. No days of rest. We talk a lot on this site about what lessons have been learned with relationships and the media, but not for nothing, a lot has been learned about how to handle foreign tours. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge get considerable flak for treating their abroad trips like vacations, but even the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall take the odd evening or afternoon off when traveling for longer than a week.
Philip is even more miserable and he spends most of the episode begging Elizabeth for a reprieve, not just for him but for her. At one point her nerves are spasming in her jaw from smiling so much, but she can’t stop smiling because her straight face looks to grim. (This is actually true and a factor the Queen has always taken care to compensate for her when appearing in public.) Anyway, instead of canceling or biting the bullet and appearing sour one evening she has a doctor inject a muscle relexant while he warns her she’ll need to take care with her soup. Philip is exasperated to say the least.
Things come to a head in Australia when he points out they’re doing 57 towns in 58 days. He tries to light a cigarette, a habit he dropped when they got married, but she knocks it out of his hand. He taunts her, asking her what it is she wants to hear from her father. That if she carries out this crazy itinerary – one he comments that George probably saw and then opted to die from cancer instead of carrying out – he’ll finally realize she was his favorite all along?
Well, in reality, she’s remembering what Churchill told her as she was departing – that this was her father’s grand scheme for keeping the Commonwealth together. He tells her to let George’s example guide her. “Never let them see the real Elizabeth Windsor,” he says. “The cameras, the television – never let them see that the crown can be a burden.”
But on a hot day in the middle of nowhere, Elizabeth responds to her husband’s comments by throwing things at him while screaming, “Get out! And never come back!” She chases him out of the house and on to the lawn where a group of reporters are standing, cameras rolling. The couple returns inside and Elizabeth reappears with gloves, a hat and a handbag – queen once more.
“I’m sorry for that interlude,” she tells them. “I’m sure it must happen in every marriage. Now, what would you like me to do? For your newsreel.”
It’s humiliating, but the cameraman takes out the reel and hands her the film. “Another gift, Your Majesty.”
When a security threat rears its head as the couple prepares to go to Gibraltar Philip attempts to override her and say they aren’t going. Elizabeth looks up coldly. “I am aware that I am surrounded by people who feel that they could do the job better,” she says without much inflection. “Strong people with powerful characters. More natural leaders, perhaps, better suited to leading from the front, leaving a mark. But for better or worse, the crown has landed on my head. And I say we go.”
Elizabeth – 1; Philip – 0.
When they return home at the end of the episode you see Philip rowdily playing with Charles and Anne in Buckingham Palace, overjoyed to be reunited with children. Elizabeth watches from another room and then leaves to meet with Churchill, who lauds her and then promptly orders her to deal with her sister.
Which brings us to Margaret. She has the rather different job of playacting queen for five months. She spices up her sister’s speeches, gossips on the phone with her boyfriend and dons the royal jewels because that’s what she thinks a monarch should do. Her theory is that Elizabeth is boring and her own charisma are better-suited for the position. Maybe – and indeed, she does win plaudits, applause and smiles. But she also offends half of her guests and then makes political remarks about men working in coal mines which the government doesn’t really want to deal with. Churchill takes her to task, puts her in time out and orders the Queen Mother home from Scotland.
In some ways, this is the only episode in the first season that delves into the Queen Mother, which I continue to find fascinating. She takes a holiday at some friends’ castle and during a dinner party acknowledges how difficult the transition from monarch to monarch’s mother has been. Or, as she refers to it as, the loss of a husband, a home, motherhood, purpose, the crown.
“Imagine 17 years experience,” she says, “Of being the head of a family. We lose him and precisely the moment they should be giving me more to do they take it all away and they put it all in the hands of a girl who is totally ill-equipped for it.”
A stunning moment of maternal love this is not. She tours a remote castle whose host doesn’t recognize her at first – it’s all very charming – and ends up purchasing it for a small sum before she’s summoned back to London. The castle was real – it’s the Castle of Mey. In reality, the Queen Mother purchased it at the end of 1952, not early 1954. She spent three years renovating it and spent every August through October from 1955 until 2001 there (she died in March 2002).
Today it’s open to the public for several months of the year and is used as a country home by the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall on occasion, who formally own it in a trust.
The real kicker is when Elizabeth hauls Margaret into Buckingham Palace at the end of the episode. They throw insults at one another, only it’s 1950s England so it all barely flies beneath the surface. If Elizabeth is as silent as Margaret claims it’s because it’s the “absence of noise.” It really comes down to the role of the monarch in the context of the monarchy, a thing Elizabeth understands but which Margaret does not. In theory, one could argue that perhaps Margaret understands the concept of modern monarchy better than her sister, but to be honest, we don’t know the answer to that yet. No one will until the crown passes to the Prince of Wales and we actually get a monarch about whom so very much is known, especially as compared to his mother.
Their conversation reaches the crux of the matter: they are both jealous of the other. Elizabeth gets the spotlight and Margaret gets the freedom. And worse, Margaret was their father’s favorite, which, despite the crown, is perhaps what Elizabeth wants most of all.