We’ve spent the first three episodes focused almost exclusively on Elizabeth and Philip (with a little dash of the Suez Crisis), but now we turn to Margaret – a shift imparted to us by the score of “Princess” in the opening scene and Matthew Goode riding in on a motorbike. Fair enough. We’re at a country wedding that Margaret is attending sourly while the photographer, Antony “Tony” Armstrong-Jones, is snapping pictures of random hands and shoes. Look, if my wedding photographer pulled that crap, I’d probably end up quite annoyed.
The reception takes a turn for our favorite petulant princess when Margaret’s long-time friend, Billy Wallace, proposes marriage. Not out of love, but rather friendship and shared values. In other words, she wants to settle down and he’s willing to facilitate it.
She returns home to Clarence House and drunk dials her sister, who is sitting in bed with Philip at Windsor Castle discussing whether or not the host a “big party” to celebrate their 10-year wedding anniversary. She tells her sister of the engagement and Elizabeth, hoping to make her sister happy, agrees to announce it at their dinner. Philip’s response of, “Oh Christ,” when being told genuinely made me laugh out loud. Between the looming anniversary and everyone watching the launch of Sputnik soon after, we can surmise the episode opens in October 1957. (It is during this last bit that we are introduced to the marital dynamics of the new Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and his wife, but let’s put a pin in that for the moment.)
Margaret poses for her formal birthday portrait, dressed in piles of white tulle, while Cecil Beaton shouts poetry to strike the mood he wants – “fairy tales” according to Margaret. When she asks the Queen Mother why it always has to be Beaton, she responds that her last portrait was so well-received and everyone thought she looked pretty. “No,” Margaret responds. “They said that I looked like you.” The Queen Mother doesn’t get it.
Beaton goes on to tell the story of an average working woman struggling to make ends meet who picks up a newspaper, sees Margaret’s photo and for a brief moment is transformed and happy, prompted to save up for a neckerchief that will make her feel a little like a princess. To echo Philip, “Oh Christ,” indeed.
Getting ready for the anniversary party in which her engagement is to be announced, Margaret learns that Billy Wallace can’t join and was seriously injured. She goes to his home and finds him in bed, drunk, recovering from a bullet wound to the leg earned from a drink-fueled duel the night before. The show is ruthless in its depictions of Billy, juxtaposing his breezy “man of the world” tone to Margaret with him sniveling, crying and shaking in the flashbacks. All of it came about because his engagement to Margaret has made Billy seem like quite the catch – he blithely goes on to tell her that he had a “bit of a fumble at Blenheim” with a girl.
Margaret’s face, which we can see but Billy cannot, is hard to watch. The emptiness and vulgarity of this arrangement hits her, as does the reality that she doesn’t want this. Her anger towards him in the next moment, and her abrupt ending of the engagement, catches him by surprise for he apparently saw this as a true marriage of friends. But Margaret wants love and her dull rage that she could be humiliated by a man she saw as a glorified prop makes it so incredibly clear that she hasn’t forgotten Peter – that this compared with what she could have had is very near killing her.
In reality, there was a Billy Wallace who was briefly engaged to Princess Margaret in 1957. The relationship ended not with a duel, but with an indiscreet affair when he was traveling in The Bahamas. Let this be a lesson to those who cheat on members of the Royal Family – dramatic depictions will not be kind to you.
Margaret shows up to the dinner – after having a member of staff deliver a terse message to Elizabeth that there won’t be an announcement – and is forced to sit through Philip delivering a touching speech on a decade of marriage to her sister. It’s too much – she raises a glass and walks away from the table. That night a member of her household finds her blind drunk, dancing and stumbling around her room. The moment reminded me of the anecdotes of how horrible the real Margaret could be to her mother’s staff – perhaps understandable if she was in fact embarrassed half the time.
It is in the morning, when the Queen Mother cheerily comes in to show her the Beaton photos, that you realize how truly alone Margaret is. Her mother refuses to acknowledge her hangover, her sadness, the fact that she’s sitting dejectedly in bed smoking a cigarette. She can’t call Elizabeth. Her friends can only be let in so far.
So, we end up at a dinner party with a bunch of people who don’t know enough to stand up when a princess walks into the room. Here, of course, we meet Tony again. There is flirting, chemistry, etc., etc. And of course Tony is going to take another round of portraits for Margaret, except of course she apparently thinks he is gay.
The next day she tells Elizabeth that she likes him. She likes that there is a “contempt in him – for me, for us.” Yes, it will be a healthy, productive relationship.
The photo shoot that follows is a power struggle. He doesn’t care about the things that she does. They are both used to being in control. He leads a very foreign life to her, while to him she represents a unique sort of challenge, arguably not of her own making. Instead of taking her car back to Clarence House, he ferries her on his motorbike – images of them riding through London are then juxtaposed against images of Philip and Elizabeth as a dull, married couple, carrying out the duties of monarchy. When she arrives back at her home, she is once again drunk and dancing about her room, but this time happy and tipsy.
The portraits that eventually run show her shoulders bare with a tiara on her head so that she appears nude in the newspapers. Margaret’s birthday is in August, so I suppose we can assume these are meant to signify her 28th birthday in 1958.
Many people already know the real story of Tony and Margaret, so of course it makes all of this a little more tragic. The Crown has chosen to condense a timeline here, indicating that her engagement with Billy Wallace and the start of her relationship with Tony happened on top of one another. In reality, more time likely passed, but as with any relationship, we don’t necessarily know the ins and outs of how it all began. As for the dynamics of all of it, sure, yes, I don’t find this unbelievable. Margaret did spend time at his studio, above which he lived. He was, however, an established society photographer by then, who had already photographed members of the Royal Family, including the Queen and Prince Philip. As for the nude photos of Margaret, in reality those certainly did come later, but I appreciate the nod the series took – is it perfectly accurate? No, but it captures the spirit of what happened appropriately.
Back to the Macmillans and the scenario laid out in which Macmillan’s wife is carrying on affair out in the open with another MP – this is true. It was a bizarre situation that would probably not be acceptable in today’s media environment, but one which was an open secret back in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s hard not to feel bad for Macmillan, even if he is a bit of a mansplainer who interrupts the Queen.
As for Elizabeth, she’s a bit of a nonentity this round, which essentially functioned as a bottle episode for Margaret. Her presence was missed, but I will say I’d be willing to give up so very many other story lines just to get more of the hot mess that is Margaret and her failed relationships. I know Peter was the “dream,” but this is so much more interesting to watch.