Wallis on Film: Edward and Mrs Simpson, 1978

Fox and Harris as David and Wallis

The story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor has been told time and time again in newspaper articles and movies but there is one telling of the tale which remains the best known and is perhaps the most definitive. Edward and Mrs Simpson, first broadcast in 1978, is based on a somewhat controversial biography of the Windsors and yet it remains the most detailed and most accurate portrayal of their relationship. The seven part mini-series was made by Thames Television for ITV in 1978 and was produced by Andrew Brown. Brown had brought another American-born socialite’s story to the small screen four years earlier with Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill, which starred Thorley Walters and Joanna David as Edward VII and Queen Alexandra (as Prince and Princess of Wales). The production was overseen by Verity Lambert who had worked with Brown on the musical drama Rock Follies in 1976.

The series was scripted by Simon Raven (the man behind the popular 1974 adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Pallisers) and was adapted from a 1974 biography of the Duke of Windsor written by Frances Donaldson. Donaldson’s book, Edward VIII, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, won the Wolfson History Prize for it’s “insightful and measured account of the former King-Emperor, a man now immortalised as history’s greatest romantic – or biggest fool”. Donaldson’s book proved a best seller but it was not received well at the Windsor’s villa in the Bois de Boulogne. Wallis had hoped that James Pope Hennessy, Queen Mary’s official biographer, might write the Duke of Windsor’s official biography. When this failed to materialise, Donaldson was asked by the Duke’s solicitor if she would take the job. According to Hugo Vickers in his wonderful account of the Duchess’ last years, Behind Closed Doors, Lady Donaldson wished to write “an objective account without veto” and therefore declined the offer.  

By the time Lady Donaldson published her unofficial biography of the Duke, the Duchess of Windsor had engaged the infamous Maître Blum as her legal representative and general factotum. Blum advised the Duchess to sue Donaldson but the Duchess (who had not read the book) felt that doing so would give the work additional publicity. Blum later spoke to the press (and subsequent biographers) condemning Donaldson’s work as “largely fictitious” and “deeply unkind”. By the time the adaptation reached British television screens in 1978, the Duchess was seriously unwell and according to Blum, semi-paralysed and vague. But Blum later told journalists that Wallis had seen the TV series and had remarked, “I should have thought they’d have forgotten about that old, old story” . Vickers believes this to be a fabrication. Due to her ill health at the time of broadcast, it is unlikely that Wallis ever actually saw an episode of Edward and Mrs Simpson.

Harris and Fox
Cynthia Harris as Wallis with Edward Fox as David in this 1978 publicity still which featured in the November edition of the TV Times.

In casting the TV series, Thames approached an actor well known to Lady Donaldson to portray the Duke; her nephew, Edward Fox (Fox’s mother Angela was Frances Donaldson’s sister). Fox had just won a BAFTA for his role as Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks in A Bridge Too Far and his physical resemblance to the Duke of Windsor was striking, making him the perfect choice to play the Prince. Because of his close connection to Lady Donaldson, Fox was able to meet directly with friends of the Duke and Duchess who had contributed to Donaldson’s book. But interestingly, Fox had another unique connection to the Windsors. His first wife, Tracy Reed, was the granddaughter of Freda Dudley Ward, the Duke’s one-time mistress. Speaking to the TV Times shortly before broadcast, Fox said of the Duke, “He strikes me as a flawed man but also a considerate and sensitive one. I try to bring both sides of his character to the piece; the modernising reformer full of energy and enthusiasm and the lackadaisical, somewhat aimless young man looking for desperately for someone to love”.

To play Wallis, Thames insisted on casting an American actress amid concerns that a British actress would be unable to sustain a believable Baltimore accent. Their shortlist for the role included Michael Learned, best known for her role as Olivia in the long running series The Waltons, but eventually the part went to Cynthia Harris. Harris had worked with Edward Fox’s brother James in the 1968 biopic Isadora which tells the story of celebrated American dancer Isadora Duncan. Her most recent TV credit before joining the cast of Edward and Mrs Simpson was in the hit ABC sitcom Laverne and Shirley. “I see the Duchess of Windsor as a complex woman”, Harris said at the time of her casting, “I see her as an American in a strange land not particularly familiar with English customs or the ways of royalty at the time of this story, I see her as a strong lady, a lady of spirit, humour and sadness”.

Harris became something of a defender of the Duchess in TV interviews publicising the series, taking journalists to task when they predictably blamed Wallis for the abdication crisis of 1936. “She offered to step away right until the last”, Harris corrected one interviewer, “She always, always, insisted that he not give up the throne. Isn’t that a surprise to you?”. Harris’s research was clearly extensive in her preparation for the role and though she never met the Duchess, she manages to perfectly capture Wallis’ distinctive voice as well as her mannerisms. As with Edward Fox, the lookalike factor is hard to ignore and Harris herself was welcoming of the comparisons; “We have the same bone structure and so when you put me in a dark wig and block out the freckles, there is an uncanny resemblance”.

King and Queen
Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Marius Goring as King George V and Queen Mary.

With the two main roles cast, it was time to introduce the supporting players. These included legendary names from the world of stage and screen. Jessie Matthews, a musical performer from the 1920s and 30s dubbed “the dancing divinity” was chosen to portray Aunt Bessie whilst the role of Queen Mary went to that deity of the British stage, Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Cheryl Lunghi was to play Lady Thelma Furness, Patrick Troughton (the second incarnation of Dr Who no less) played Clement Attlee whilst the role of King George V was taken by Marius Goring, perhaps best known to royal period drama watchers for his role as Paul von Hindenburg in the 1974 drama series, Fall of Eagles. Other cast members included Sir Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Walter Monckton, Andrew Ray as the Duke of York and Patricia Hodge as Lady Diana Cooper. With the players now assembled and the script written, Thames invested a staggering £1m into the production, the equivalent of £7.6m today.

It is not hard to see where the money was spent. The sets are lavish and faithful reproductions of the settings “the greatest romance in history” were played out in. Safari scenes featuring the Prince of Wales and Thelma Furness were shot on location in Kenya, whilst the famous “Something Must Be Done” visit to South Wales in 1936 was recreated at the abandoned colliery where the Prince (then King) had actually made his controversial remarks. Uniforms and jewels were perfectly copied, special artwork was produced to feature portraits of Fox as the King and Ashcroft as Queen Mary and the production team even got permission to shoot exteriors at Fort Belvedere, the former private residence given to the Prince of Wales by King George V in 1929.  

Jessie Matthews
Jessie Matthews as Aunt Bessie.

The series begins with an in depth look at the relationship between the Prince of Wales and Freda Dudley Ward (played by Kika Markham) set against the Prince’s working life as a member of the Royal Family. There is a family atmosphere to these scenes that is touching, Freda and her daughter Angie (Caroline Embling) taking the Prince’s presence for granted and very much regarding him as a husband and father figure. David’s relationship with Freda isn’t often explored and there is genuine sadness when Freda later realises that she has been replaced in his affections. Cheryl Lunghi is deliciously camp as Thelma Furness with an exuberant charm but fierce temper.

Kenya provides a stunning backdrop for the African safari David and Thelma Furness embarked upon in the summer of 1930 and this provides a stark contrast with the drizzly Scottish moors where King George V and Queen Mary (Goring and Ashcroft) are first seen, doubting their son’s dedication to his work and questioning his playboy attitude. In this first episode (The Little Prince), there are two inaccuracies, one subtle but the other more structural. Wallis is shown smoking a cigarette, a habit she deplored but tolerated. But the more important discrepancy is the first meeting between the Prince and Mrs Simpson.

This meeting is depicted as taking place at Thelma Furness’ London residence in the Autumn of 1930 and this would fit with Wallis’ timescale of their relationship according to her 1956 memoir, the Heart Has It’s Reasons. However, the Duke (both in print and in interviews) insisted that their first meeting didn’t take place until the 10th January 1931 at Burrough Court near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. Wallis had a terrible cold and reflecting on this introduction, David said their conversation was “banal” and was mostly focused on the lack of central heating in English country houses. Burrough was the country home of Lord and Lady Furness (which may explain the confusion), however the important plot point remains that it was Thelma (then the Prince’s mistress) who introduced the pair.

The next two episodes (Venus at the Prow and The New King) are well paced and show the increasing dependency the Prince of Wales developed for Wallis. The well-known “club sandwich” debacle provides humour but also a reminder of how her growing importance in David’s life was being taken by those closest to him. He is shown berating the staff at the Fort for failing to treat Wallis as the mistress of the house, a role she has now usurped from Thelma and which the Duke and Duchess of York (Andrew Ray and Amanda Reiss) note with concern. The Nahlin cruise is a high point and Patricia Hodge’s performance as Lady Diana Cooper is witty and enthusiastic with all the glamour and sophistication one would expect. Simon Cadell is a welcome addition, providing the voice of caution as Major John Aird, the Prince’s equerry.

Harris & Cadell.
Wallis (Cynthia Harris) and Major Aird (Simon Cadell) aboard the Nahlin.

Whilst the characterisation of Wallis is for the most part wholly accurate, there are some notable omissions of traits of her personality that were important to the story of her developing romance. In one scene, Wallis is shown to argue with Ernest over the increased presence of the Prince of Wales in their life. From the Bloch letters however, we know that the Prince and Wallis had argued when Wallis told David to stay away and give her some time alone with Ernest to ease the pressure on the trio. She truly believed marriage to the King impossible and remained determined that if he gave her up, she would not be left alone. The Wallis in this series is more doe eyed, more gentle and subservient whereas in reality, Wallis was perhaps the only person able to discipline the Prince (supposedly part of her appeal to him). In other words, she put up a fight not just at the last.

There is a curious flash of tension in the Nahlin cruise scenes when the royal party have returned from a meeting with King George II of Greece and his mistress, Joyce Brittain-Jones. Diana and John make flippant remarks that George II can never hope to marry Joyce and remain King as she was a divorcee. David and Wallis have already intimated that they plan to marry and react badly to this judgement. And so the stage is set for the abdication crisis to play out. It does so over four episodes which are more political thriller than romantic period drama.

From this point on, the series has a tendency to lapse into legalese and officious to-ing and fro-ing. Some viewers may find this a little dull but for those interested in the constitutional crisis the Windsor romance caused, these episodes will prove essential viewing and go a long way to explain just why the King’s decision to abdicate was so monumental. One scene of note is a poignant moment at a dinner party when the departing King is giving his views on the welfare of the working classes. The Duke of York turns to Churchill (Wensley Pithey) and says tearfully, “And this is the man we’re going to lose”.

There are two performances which merit special mention. The first comes from David Waller as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (a role Waller would reprise in the 1988 tv film The Woman He Loved). Whilst this series is fairly kind to Baldwin and doesn’t explore his true feelings about the King in terms of political differences, there is much to this incarnation of Baldwin for viewers to enjoy. He is shown as a paternal figure, desperately trying (with great patience) to see the crisis through to a resolution which doesn’t destroy the monarchy in the process. However, we know that Baldwin was a critic of the King long before his relationship with Wallis became a political issue and perhaps the drama would benefit from a more rounded portrayal.

The other stand out star is Sir Nigel Hawthorne as Walter Monckton, Attorney General of the Duchy of Cornwall and legal advisor to King Edward VIII. Hawthorne has to deal with some incredibly complex legal points in very quick succession that could prove a little tedious in the hands of another actor. He has few emotional or dramatic scenes and instead serves as a kind of constitutional narrator, for example, exploring and explaining the finer points of what a morganatic marriage is for the benefit of the viewer who may be unfamiliar with the term. His scenes with Wallis are particularly good, especially that in which Wallis promises that her divorce from Ernest could not, would not, lead to any talk of marriage with the King. Monckton clearly knows this to be false and uses this to keep the tension building as the crunch of the decision approaches.

But it would be impossible to review this series without crediting Cynthia Harris for her complex and multi-faceted performance. Wallis is shown to be witty and smart but naive, easily impressed and materialistic but never greedy, trapped and scared but resigned to her fate. In the scene in the final episode (The Abdication) in which Wallis listens to the King’s wireless address, there is a tender and heartbreaking moment in which she softly lays down cradling a pillow with tears streaming down her face. She knows what is to come and that she will forever be hated for something people will always claim she was solely responsible for. The weight of that moment is brought to life by Harris in a way that conveys it’s historic importance whilst still remaining tear-jerkingly human. It is truly wonderful to watch.

Edward and Mrs Simpson is a masterpiece of British television from an era when period drama was unrushed and without gimmick. The script is tight but the story is allowed to develop slowly to allow the finer details and personalities of each character to contribute to the overall impressiveness of the piece. It is no great surprise therefore to find that it was incredibly well received by audiences with Fox winning a BAFTA award for his performance as the Duke. Cynthia Harris was also nominated for her role as the Duchess but sadly lost out to Francesca Annis for her portrayal of Lillie Langtry in LWT’s Lillie. Dame Peggy Ashcroft was also nominated for Best Actress, a joint nomination for both her role as Queen Mary and as Lady Gee in the Merchant Ivory motion picture, Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures.

The Wedding Scene
The Wedding, 1937, as depicted in the TV series.

Producer Andrew Brown said of the series, “By the end, you will be able to decide whether you should admire the man for giving up everything for the woman he loved or whether what he did was an abject dereliction of duty”. The opposition to the series expressed by Maître Blum caught the attention of the press and led many reviewers to suggest that it “was strongly opposed by the Royal Family” but this was not quite true. Edward Fox later revealed, “I think they liked it. I sat next to the Queen Mother twice at dinner and she was charming. She didn’t really mention it much, which I took to mean she didn’t think it was too bad”. And his opinion on the Duchess? “I spoke to a lot of people who knew her. They told me she was fun, hospitable and welcoming, and clearly made the Duke happy. But nevertheless, she found herself in a pretty impossible position. Sadly we live in harsher times today than when we made that series. Even when we don’t know the full facts, we tend to see the worst in people. We seem to have an insatiable appetite for figures that we can hate”.

Cynthia Harris has reflected on her performance since the series was broadcast and said that she found the opportunity to play Wallis “thrilling, exciting and strangely humbling”. “I don’t really know from her that she wasn’t keen to have it happen (the series), I’ve only heard that third hand but I would like she would be happy about it and I think if she knew how I really felt about her, she would be terrible happy because I admire her very much”. Regardless of Maître Blum’s staunch opposition to Edward and Mrs Simpson (she ensured it was banned from broadcast in France), there is little to object to. The series is a landmark in British television, beautifully produced, richly detailed and though there are minor flaws and a few inaccuracies, for anybody with an interest in the Duke and Duchess of Windsor this is essential viewing.

Cynthia Harris as Wallis listening to the Abdication speech of 1936.

Edward and Mrs Simpson is available on DVD (Region Two) from Amazon and is currently priced at £8.99.

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