Edward the Seventh Review

Not long ago George, the Blue Peter tortoise, died. When George was born, I don't know, but a tortoise owned by Captain Cook is thought to have outlived the great sailor by 190 years. So it is a fair bet that George was the only television star of the 1970s who had lived through the real-life events portrayed in Edward the Seventh. He was also about the only television star of the 1970s not to appear in it. This may have been just as well, since he could certainly have run faster than the plot.


History time
Edward the Seventh is a jolly example of that lost television genre, the 13-part historical pageant: we are talking happy, not glorious, and if we want the great triumphs of television past then we should now be pre-ordering War and Peace instead. An earnest series, filmed from a biography and made after more than a year of exhaustive planning and historical research, Edward the Seventh must have cost every penny in the coffers of ATV, one of the middle-ranking ITV franchises of the day. It offered a sumptuous set of interiors and a nearly 100 per cent turn-out of the repertory company of English television actors. It did a bit of good for the careers of Timothy West and Felicity Kendal, and then it sank without trace. Perhaps posterity will be kinder, given the unexpected DVD release, but I have an uneasy feeling that this 'posterity' business may be just me. I didn't feel the need to reserve this title in advance in case other DVD Times reviewers got there before me, for instance. Oblivion suits Edward VII quite well. The nearest postbox to my house has his flamboyant, curlicued cypher on it, a great swirling E incorporating a great swirling VII. His Danish wife Alix left her name on London's Ally Pally and on some naval hospitals, notably the Queen Alexandra in Portsmouth. But that is about it. Not even Edward's surname survived: Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, whom God preserve, gets her middle name from Alix but her dynastic name from a castle. Reigning from 1901 to 1910, Albert Edward Saxe-Coburg-Gotha left no real mark on history and the most that can be said is that he knew a lot of interesting people. His one distinction is having had to wait longer for the throne than any King in English history, and even that footnote looks unlikely to stand in the history books - in 2008, Charles will presumably break his record.

Victoria (Annette Crosbie) and John Brown (William Dysart), who may or may not have been her main squeeze. The view of the Isle of Wight from Osborne House is a different backcloth in each episode: today it's on the coast
Edward was either a dissolute wretch with no sense of responsibility (his mother's view) or a misunderstood patriot abandoned by his appalling harridan of a mother to a flutter now and then, a bit of food and drink, a little female company (his own view). He indulged recklessly, even by the standards of rich Victorian men. Like many wronged wives, Alix was not particularly perturbed when he picked up music-hall actresses for sex. It was when he adopted titled ladies as alternative consorts - going on holiday with them, taking them to dinner parties - that she began to howl, privately and to no effect. "Bertie" (nobody called him Edward) was a charming companion and, of course, he was Prince of Wales, always a social trump card when the Queen was so unapproachable. We have seen him before on television, in the background of other costume dramas: in Upstairs Downstairs he was a dinner guest, while the cook-heroine of The Duchess of Duke Street implausibly became his final mistress - he paid her off handsomely enough to buy a hotel, thus launching her series. And, though this isn't television, here's an appearance in Alan Bennett's classic play Forty Years On:
Schoolmaster: And what do we know of Edward VII? Who haven't I asked... anybody?
Crabtree (a pupil): He was fat, sir.
Schoolmaster: No, Crabtree, Edward VII was not fat. He was very fat. Not all the art and device of the tailor could disguise the fact that Edward VII was an enormously fat man... Each year upon the anniversary of his birth he was weighed in potatoes, which were then fried and distributed to the lower classes... A loyal subject wrote in to suggest he attach balloons to his elbows to take the weight off his legs.
Not, then, a very likely candidate for a bio-pic, and so far as I am aware Edward the Seventh was his one and only appearance under the limelight in his own right.

Our hero
Does he withstand scrutiny? Timothy West labours to make Edward seem a man of substantial thinking, and the script-writers try their darnedest to find valuable contributions which Edward could just about be said to have made. Their take is that he was the last meaningful King of England. A more realistic view is that he was the first meaningless one. Victoria was effectively cut out of politics by her ministers in the 1860s, but she at least remembered the old days and would angrily reassert her 'rights' now and then, sometimes getting her way and if nothing else making waves. Edward never did. In the final episode we see him with his ministers, Churchill, Lloyd George and Asquith: Edward is inescapably the minnow among big fish. The script-writers make him out to be sympathetic and helpful to the Liberal government's welfare state and to their dismantling of the House of Lords as a power base. Actually he was opposed to them, but weak, indecisive and unsure of his ground.

Victoria and Edward not getting off to a good start
To make a hero of Edward you have to make a villain of Victoria, and here she is played fortissimo by Annette Crosbie as the nation's jealous, unmanageable great-aunt. All this monstering is a trifle unfair, and we see only the somewhat comical moral devotion to husband Albert - not the thoroughly sexual love. She goes mad for Germany and all things German, even it seems the atrocious German accent put on by Robert Hardy as Albert. Later she goes mad for Scotland and all things Scottish.

Robert Hardy. No, really
No costume drama would be complete without Robert Hardy, and he does not let us down, swaggering across the screen. Hardy makes a decent attempt to take Prince Albert seriously. He is really the central figure of the first three episodes - the outsider breaking into English society, who will never be King himself, but whose son, whose son... Albert wants to bring up a new race of princely supermen to govern Europe, perfect in word and deed. Therefore Edward must have no schoolfriends and must bone up on Latin and Greek under a glowering tutor (played to a treat by Terrence Hardiman) from dawn till dusk. Unfortunately he is a dullard, nothing like as capable as either of his parents. Eventually they let him go to Cambridge, then join the army, but always under what amounts to house arrest.

Mr and Mrs Kaiser
But at that point, after three slowish episodes, the drama comes to life as the royal family goes international. I never quite got the family tree straight, but never quite minded. The bad guys are very much the Germans. Edward's sister Vicky (Felicity Kendal) marries into the German Imperial family, where the court is simply beastly to her. She becomes mother to Kaiser Wilhelm - the last Kaiser, of World War I fame - who is played by Christopher Neame with a demented glint in his eye and a German accent almost as wide-screen as Robert Hardy's. Willy and Edward have a love-hate relationship, much like their countries, and this provides sorely needed tension as the drama runs on. And on. And on. My iMac will fast-forward DVDs at 32x speed, but these scenes still lasted ages when I was scavenging for screenshots to accompany this review.

Gladstone (Michael Hordern)
I have been name-dropping 1970s character actors already, but the list also goes on and on. Victoria's prime ministers alone include Michael Hordern (Gladstone), John Gielgud (Disraeli), Andre Morell (Palmerston) and Richard Vernon (Salisbury). Aristocratic hangers-on include such unlikely pairings as Derek Fowlds (Basil Brush's right arm, or rather, vice versa, and later Bernard from Yes Minister) with Gareth Thomas (the eponymous hero of Blake's Seven). Should you ever want to see real chutzpah in the acting profession, the scene which Derek Fowlds tries to steal from John Gielgud just can't be beat. Nigel Havers, Edward Hardwicke, Geoffrey Palmer, etc., etc. Despite having been only eight at the time, even Samuel West gets a part in it: which, in spite of his commanding talents, I think we may ascribe to nepotism. The gals include Jane Lapotaire (name wrongly spelled on box), Carolyn Seymour (ditto), Rula Lenska (this one they got right), Francesca Annis and, leading the mistresses, Hannah Gordon. She is anything but scarlet and reprises her role as the saintly wife from Upstairs Downstairs. (Vice is decorous here: no bedroom scenes, and Timothy West is at most portly. Nobody attaches balloons to his elbows or measures out his weight in potatoes.) One would like to know more about Edward's women - who were they, and what were their other lives like? - but the show is resolute in sticking to Edward's own personal experience, an unfortunate consequence of its having been adapted from a biography. This is one reason why it lacks urgency. Biographies are the stories of people slowly getting older.

Disraeli (John Gielgud)...

...and Lord Randolph Churchill (Derek Fowlds)
Carlton's DVD release of this long-forgotten saga makes up for iffy picture quality - probably not their fault - with a rather sumptuous set of extras. There are US trailers for those who care, and the two monarchs (Timothy West and Annette Crosbie) are joined by the director, John Gorrie, for commentaries on three of the episodes. They have a relaxed and often informative chat, related tangentially at best to the images on screen. Mr Gorrie seems keen to put his old series back on the map again, and good luck to him. He was the better of the two script-writers as well as being a safe pair of hands with the direction. The same team also comments on the picture gallery. If I make this sound like a television drama whose chief interest is technical - a chance to see the actors of a bygone age strutting their stuff, and who cares what for - then that is probably fair. Timothy West is unquestionably excellent, and all of the principals are good. But royalty is not interesting in itself. You could write a fascinating drama about Gladstone and Disraeli, battling it out for the soul of the country, but this isn't it. Or about the collapse of European diplomacy as it swirled into the vortex of the First World War. But this isn't it. Or about the birth of British democracy in the mid-nineteenth century. But this isn't that, either. As television drama, Edward the Seventh is surprisingly enjoyable, but it makes one fatal mistake: it follows Edward VII, when the decisive action is always going on in the room next door.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
5 out of 10
Audio
5 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

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