This engrossing two-night glimpse into the British monarchy since World War I leads to one royally unpleasant conclusion: The Windsors, through the years, haven’t experienced just the occasional annus horribilus, they’ve had an undeniably horrible century. Which makes watching them such a common kick.
Produced by WGBH, Boston, and Brook Associates, London, for PBS. Executive producers, Austin Hoyt (WGBH), Philip Whitehead (Brook); producer-directors, Kathy O’Neill (parts one and three), Stephen White (part two), Annie Fienburgh (part four); The perfect dysfunctional royal family for our perfectly dysfunctional age, the House of Windsor, from its official start, has been a house constructed on shaky foundations. The throne may be fact, but the Windsor name is pure fiction, based less on imperial tradition than simple pap and circumstance.
The British royal lineage is actually rooted in Germany, a bad place to have germinated from if you happen to be fighting Germany — and your cousin, the Kaiser — which England, of course, was doing during World War I. So, in a public relations coup so imaginative studio flacks should still bow to its brazenness, the family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha merely redubbed itself Windsor. The heirs appear to have been paying for this chicanery ever since.
The Windsor woes begin with the colorless George V turning his back on another cousin, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, denying him exile from the Bolsheviks. Still, George was a popular king, a beloved symbol, and the first to use the modern media of radio and film to purvey his voice and image through the realm.
His death led to the ascension of Edward VIII, a lonely Nazi sympathizer, reckless in both his public and private lives. He nearly threw his nation into constitutional crisis when he fell in love with an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. The rest of their story is a modern fairy tale: He abdicated, married his American, became the Duke of Windsor and lived a perfectly irrelevant life. His colorless brother, meanwhile, became George VI, and he shored up his scandalized throne on the strength of the popularity and charisma of his wife, now the Queen Mother.
The continuing Peyton Place at the Palace saga covers the rule of the colorless Queen Elizabeth, the colorless adventures of her colorless husband, the tribulations of Princess Margaret and all the fun stuff we’ve come to expect from Charles, Diana, Anne, Andrew, Fergie and Edward, some of whom are actually colorful.
The real bad luck of the Windsors is not their dopey deportment but that it’s all played out before the cameras. Prick them, and we see their blood is not divinely blue but as earthly red as our own. It’s just that expectations remain of who they should be, built on a millennium of news blackouts and manipulation.
What separates “The Windsors” from every previous royal documentary is its wonderful wealth of interviewees. In its four hourlong segments, court attendants, private secretaries, former paramours and family members, including Lord Harewood (Elizabeth’s cousin and George V’s grandson), provide the marvelously real and, at times, touching insights and observations that come only from the inside looking out. They, in turn, free the outsiders looking in — the usual suspects who populate these things: biographers, historians and journalists (and they, too, are quite good here) — to offer perspective and analysis, relieved of the burden of propelling the narrative.
Naturally, the archival footage is wonderful, as is the noble (yet unobtrusive) voice of narrator Janet Suzman. Ultimately, “The Windsors” leaves you wishing that these particular royals were truly worthy of such splendidly royal treatment.