This was a strange episode, but one whose point, I think, was captured in its final moments. Philip and Elizabeth face off at Balmoral for yet another Come to Jesus, only this time a little older, a little wiser and by far more tired. It’s a parallel, presumably, to the opening scene of the series, one whose ending we finally saw in the third episode, during which the two strike a deal for how to stay married – elevate Philip’s rank and, apparently, give him control of the children.
But let’s back up to the beginning when we’re in the full swing of the Profumo Affair, a full-blown sex scandal that erupted in 1963 and severely damaged the reputation of the British government, its institutions, the upper class and, God help us, the Royal Family. The short summary of it is that Lord Profumo, Secretary of State for War, engaged in a brief affair with a young woman, a relationship facilitated by “society osteopath” Stephen Ward. Profumo first denied the affair and then admitted it, but only after Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had come to his defense.
In the midst of the investigations and Profumo’s resignation, Ward committed suicide by way of overdosing. Per the episode’s account, a portrait of Philip is found among his belongings and the Palace goes to extreme lengths to capture any related images and keep them out of the press. In the middle of all of this, there is a photograph running in the press in which a man’s back is turned to the camera – neither the police nor the media can identify him, but one rumor is that it’s Philip himself.
We, the viewers, know that Philip visited Ward in the spring of 1962, and we know that Ward invited him to a party. What we don’t know is whether Philip ever took him up on that offer in the year since.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, learns that she is pregnant with her fourth child, but it’s more complicated than her previous ones. When Macmillan tries to resign after shaking public confidence in her government, she turns him down, telling him that she expects him to lead and unite because she is taking a long absence from her public duties.
It is from Balmoral that she learns from her private secretary that Philip’s portrait has been found among Ward’s belongings. And by then we know what purpose Ward served for upper class men – in Elizabeth’s own words he was a “procurer of women.” And Profumo, the one who brought the entire charade to light, has been accused of perversion and soliciting prostitutes.
The cherry on top of the [not ideal] sundae for Elizabeth is learning on the train back to London that Macmillan has resigned. She meets him at the hospital where he, quite strongly, insists on his resignation and urges her to summon Alec Douglas-Home as his successor. The iciness of her response, “Is that an order?” is a precursor to the verbal lashing that she delivers next. She has been on the throne for barely 10 years and has had three Prime Minister, none of whom “could stay the course.”
“Ambitious men, clever men, brilliant men,” she calls them, who deserted because they were “too old, too ill or too weak. A confederacy of elected quitters.”
In contrast, of course, is her, the unelected monarch who cannot quit, who will not quit. She summons Douglas-Home, though we aren’t shown it, and is then accused by the press of taking the advice of a man no longer in office, a man who happens to be a close family friend. On the heels of the Profumo Affair – or rather, in the midst of it – it’s a tone deaf move at best.
Philip bumps into Margaret and Tony at Buckingham Palace, but Elizabeth is gone, or so Margaret icily tells him. (What’s her problem exactly? Nobody knows, but we do know via Tony that the marriage is already in shambles.) Tony asks Philip where he’s been and when Philip responds he calls him careless in an empathetic sort of way, clearly believing him to have been cavorting about with someone. “Just use me next time,” he says. “I’ll always cover for you.” Cool, cool, cool.
Philip goes to take his medicine at Balmoral, but Elizabeth isn’t interested in slapping him on the wrist. She’s exhausted and disgusted and tired of being lied to. Faced with direct accusations of infidelity – that miniature of the ballerina from earlier in the season makes another appearance – Philip offers a mea culpa. “I’m yours,” he says, “Not because you’ve given me a title or because we’ve come to an agreement, but because I want to be. Because I love you.”
Sure, but here’s the thing: Lisbon was seven years ago.
The two apparently make their peace. Prince Edward is born, except unlike Andrew’s birth, Philip is in the room. It’s a re-birth for the father by the looks of his face. The final scene is the entire Windsor clan struggling to pose for a photo before Cecil Beaton until Philip finally shouts, “Take the photo!” Elizabeth responds by putting a hand on his leg. End scene, end season.
So, accuracy: this episode, much like the last, has drawn the ire of some for its insinuation that Philip was wrapped up in the Profumo Affair. Was he? Probably not, but mainly because when you hear hooves it’s usually horses, not zebras. The truth is, Philip’s portrait and Margaret’s portrait were found among Ward’s belongings, only the latter bit has been left out of the episode. Later on in the scandal’s life, the Daily Mirror ran an article referencing a rumor involving Philip and called it a lie – they did not disclose the nature of the rumor. So, was the Royal Family implicated? Yes. Was the nature of that implication what was depicted? Not as far as we know, hence the outrage.
As for the last moments, in which Philip is present for Edward’s birth – that’s true. The one and only time he was there for his children’s births was the last. If Andrew’s birth in 1960 was meant to be a second act for Elizabeth as a mother, and Edward to symbolize Philip’s renewed commitment to his marriage, well, maybe there’s some truth in it. Andrew is reportedly the Queen’s favorite child, while Edward is Philip’s. Then again, it’s also worth noting that the practice of childbirth radically changed in the 1960s, including the normality of fathers being on hand. Who’s to say what the motivation was?
I’ll leave a final post on the season as a whole for next week. In the meantime, we’re going to slow down the volume of posts for now and return to some history, as well as end of the year news from the real RF.