by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 February 2018)

"Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs. Simpson stole our king."

I heard a girl reciting that doggerel during an idle moment in kindergarten one day in 1936. It took me a while to figure out the history and scandal behind the words.

Wallis Simpson, a twicedivorced American socialite, had an affair with King Edward VIII, the former Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor. She was not a suitable queen, so he abdicated, declaring he could not serve as king without the woman he loved at his side.

Of course we knew him as "our king." In Toronto we believed firmly in the British Empire and our place within it. Royalty mattered. When Edward's successor, George VI, toured across Canada with his queen in 1939, we were genuinely excited. I stood in line to see them pass in an open car but big kids blocked my view and I never got a glimpse. My compensation was the intimate account my journalist father brought back after covering the royal progress from sea to sea.

In those days no one, certainly not prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, was as important in Canada as the British monarch. But in the 1970s the status of the crown began to shrink. Britain lost its central role among Canadians and the British Empire lost most of its power across the globe. Imperialism in general began to look like a historic crime. A royal tour no longer seemed a remarkable and admirable event.

Then the young royals brought shame to the brand. Prince Charles and Diana separated and Charles took up with an old paramour, an odd replacement for the people's favourite princess. Divorce and debauchery became part of the everyday royal story.

In the 21st century, reallife drama turned from fact to fiction and the royals moved onto a different stage. Movies and television developed their own way to depict British royalty.

In 2006 Peter Morgan, a scriptwriter who turned out to be a key figure in this evolution, wrote a highly successful film, The Queen, starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth. At the centre of the story, as Stephen Frears directed it, is the Queen's response to the accidental death of Diana. The film convinces us that the Queen has to be manipulated, by public and political opinion, to mourn Diana as a lovable figure whom others (not necessarily the Queen) adored.

The script makes it plain that the Queen has been advised, for the sake of the public and the monarchy, to act in an appropriate way. Royalty, for the first time, is made a servant of the public, almost a victim of current opinion.

Two years later, another film, The King's Speech, explained that George VI (played by Colin Firth) had suffered from acute stammering that made it nearly impossible for him to give a speech. He's not exactly a victim here but he evokes our pity as he humbles himself with a speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) who solves the problem.

Peter Morgan, working on a much larger royal project, so far has written 20 episodes (with more to come) of The Crown, a $100-million Netflix account of the House of Windsor from Queen Elizabeth's marriage through the many crises of the 1950s and 1960s. This a richly watchable series, absorbing if you already know the history but fascinating even if you don't.

Claire Foy plays Elizabeth with force and conviction, though the script gives her perhaps too many opportunities to harangue the people she dislikes, including the Duke of Windsor and Anthony Eden. Matt Smith as Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, strikes a mean tone: he's a sourpuss and a know-it-all who clearly believes he, and not his wife, Elizabeth, is aware how to be a monarch.

But Morgan's point, and the basis of his success, is his decision to portray these people as a family saga complete with fierce marital arguments, sister-to-sister rivalry, and embarrassing relatives. As Morgan says, every family has a crazy uncle, and certainly the Duke of Windsor was crazy enough for anyone, even a queen. Television and movies have given us an entirely new cast of royal characters, as Morgan argues, a family complete with its share of shame and regret, failure and triumph. In the process, Morgan and his colleagues have given us a far more interesting royal house than we've ever known before.

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