Wallis on Film: Royal Wives at War (2016)

Every pantomime needs a Prince, a villain and a fairy godmother. Nobody could ever suggest that the romance between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson was that of fairy tales but following the abdication crisis of 1936, the British establishment seized control of the narrative and decided that it was time for a little recasting. The greatest romance of the 20th century was now a Brothers Grimm myth complete with a wicked witch who swept into the party and stole the heart of a handsome Prince. Naturally there had to be a hero; that was the easy part. The Second World War propaganda machine had already worked its magic on King George VI who was cemented in the hearts of the British people as a slave to his duty. But what of a fairy godmother?

She naturally presented herself in the shape of Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). This frothy matron in her floral prints and pink chiffon seemed to bring happiness back to the Kingdom, charming the people and never once thinking of herself at all. It was a perfect remedy to paper over the cracks that 1936 had inflicted on the British Crown. Nonsense it may be but it was a nonsense that until very recently was told and re-told as if non-negotiable fact. In 2016, a docu-drama decided to challenge the fairy tale; Royal Wives at War proved controversial but for Wallis watchers, it marked a turning point in the way the Duchess of Windsor is portrayed on film.

Left: Emma Davies as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Right: Gina McKee as The Duchess of Windsor

Directed by Tim Dunn and written by Lindsay Shapero, Royal Wives at War plays out it’s story against the backdrop of a royal reunion many thought could never happen. In 1967, a plaque to the memory of Queen Mary was unveiled at Marlborough House (Queen Mary’s home in her widowhood) complete with all the pomp and pageantry of a right royal do. The entire British Royal Family were to be on parade and there were to be no exceptions. Only two of Queen Mary’s children were alive in 1967; the Duke of Gloucester and the Duke of Windsor. In the opening scenes of Royal Wives, the Queen Mother suggests that “Lilibet wanted [the Duchess of Windsor] there. She said after all these years, it was time to bury the hatchet”.

This is worthy of note because a Guardian review of the docudrama used this to cast doubts on the accuracy of Shapero’s script. The “hatchet” quote is attributed not to Queen Elizabeth II but rather to Lord Snowdon who used this reasoning to arrange a brief meeting between Princess Margaret and her Aunt Wallis in New York in 1974. But this is nitpicking and it would be unfair to suggest it renders the rest of the script fantastical in any way. Indeed, the majority of it comes directly from letters in the public domain (via Michael Bloch’s published collection of Wallis’ letters to David and William Shawcross’ official biography of the Queen Mother) or from the Duchess of Windsor’s memoirs; the Heart Has It’s Reasons.

Departing from the docudrama for just a moment, Wallis’ presence at the unveiling of Queen Mary’s plaque was historic. It marked the first (and last) time she would be seen publicly with the Queen Mother but also, the first time she would be photographed with the British Royal Family en-masse. The second time would be at her husband’s funeral in 1972. It was only natural that the Duke of Windsor be invited to the ceremony and by now, the Palace must have assumed what his response would be; “Not without Wallis”. This is not conjecture, indeed, there had been frequent invitations for the Duke to attend family functions since his departure from England in 1936. All were rejected if the invitation could not be extended to his wife. The Queen would no doubt have realised how bad the optics of such a ceremony would be if the Duke of Windsor was not present and therefore, Wallis’ presence (though hugely significant) was almost certainly accepted as inevitable from the moment the ceremony was proposed. Royal Wives suggests reluctance on the part of the Queen Mother to meet with Wallis and whilst we have no evidence of this, it’s certainly a reasonable assumption.

Wallis (Gina McKee) prepares for her reunion with the Queen Mother in 1967.

When we first meet the Queen Mother (played by Emma Davies), she is resplendent in her own carefully confected iconography which so many of us associate with her. The simple three strands of pearls, the Barbara Cartland pink frock, the ever present gin and dubonnet and of course, the corgis. She sits before a television set dreading the events of the day but remains regal in her palatial surroundings. By stark contrast we are now introduced to Wallis (Gina McKee), a kind of Norma Desmond character complete with turban and kimono, who is totally in control of any nerves she may have. The first bitchy barb is launched; “I wonder what she’s wearing? Probably some kind of flouncy furniture cover”. The Queen Mother is referred to only as Cookie by the Duchess, a nickname she gave her whilst Elizabeth was still Duchess of York. Supposedly it referred to her diminutive plump stature which resembled that of a cook but it has also been suggested it referred to a rumour that Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was in fact the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and his cook.

And so, the battle lines are drawn. Elizabeth dubs Wallis “the lowest of the low” and repeats the mantra which she clung to until her dying day; “That woman killed my husband”. This is a curious smear and one which the British press were happy to adopt as fact following King George VI’s death in 1952. I have my doubts that the Queen Mother could ever truly believe this but perhaps the reality was too hard to bear and this explanation of his death at the age of just 56 provided a focus for her frustrations. It is a ridiculous suggestion of course. King George VI was a chain smoker who died from complications arising from lung cancer and arteriosclerosis. Whilst the stress of his position as King during war time no doubt took it’s toll, the idea that it would not have inflicted the same stresses on others in his position who outlived him by many years, or that his heavy smoking played no part in his premature death, is extremely naïve. Nonetheless, the fact that the drama includes this oft-repeated slur of the Queen Mother’s is important as it sets up a direct challenge to the established hagiography of George VI and his consort.

The drama side of this programme teeters ever so slightly on the verge of being a little too camp. There are lines which would not seem out of place in Ryan Murphy’s Feud with a Crawfordesque Wallis proclaiming; “A friend sent me some face powder from America called Duchess of York pink. You can imagine where I put it”. And yet it is pulled back from the brink by the interjection of panel discussions comprised of authors who have documented the Windsors and/or the Queen Mother. In the first group are the authors Lady Colin Campbell, Andrew Morton and Anne Sebba. In the second are those who have not only written about the Duchess of Windsor but those who knew her personally. These panels discuss the theories and statements raised by Davies and McKee but are kept separate in that the actresses only use words that can be directly attributed to the women they portray. Any conjecture or controversial opinion is solely the domain of the contributors in the panels.

Wallis (Gina McKee) at a party at Fort Belvedere in 1933,

This is important to point out as Royal Wives was the subject of harsh critique before and after it’s broadcast. The most prominent naysayers were two Conservative politicians; Andrew Bridgen and Norman Tebbit. Bridgen told the Daily Mail; “The BBC really has hit a new low by making salacious slurs against the memory of the much-loved Queen Mother” whilst former Margaret Thatcher ally Norman Tebbit said, “It sounds to me as if someone is making up fairytales. It’s not just that it’s hurtful, it’s just that it deposits a story of historical events which was just not so”.

Both of these comments were made before the programme was aired which of course makes them nothing but reactionary twaddle but what is important is that so many decades after the event, there are those in positions of authority who cannot bear the official version of the abdication crisis to be challenged. Moreover, there are even those who have a strange obsession with coating the Queen Mother in icing sugar and preserving her as a sweet and saintly matron who quite possibly walked on water in between days at the races. The reaction to Royal Wives proves it’s importance. It does not present theories. How could it? It uses the words the two protagonists of the tale actually wrote. But it does challenge the established facts.

From 1967, we are taken back a series of recreated meetings between the younger Duchess and Queen Mother. The first of these is in 1933 when the pair have been ice skating with the Duke of York, the Prince of Wales and the Prince of Wales’ then-mistress, Thelma Furness. The stark differences between Wallis and Elizabeth are immediately obvious. Elizabeth is dowdy but comfortable in country tweeds. In later scenes she makes snooty jibes about David’s modern ideas about fashion and fast cards. Her exact opposite, Wallis is glamorous and elegant, witty and slightly brash.

She displays a taste for all things new and exciting and finds the strict etiquette of court life a bore. John Julius Norwich, Kate Auspitz and Hugo Vickers form the second panel who offer some unique insight into these differences. Viscount Norwich suggests that the two were destined to be rivals, Elizabeth representing as she did the “Sunday lunch and walk in the park” world that most Britons aspired to, whilst Wallis was “not that sort”. As he says; “Wallis sharpened people up, she brought out in the best people”. McKee’s Wallis drawls one last dig at Cookie; “She had no sense of humour” with a (slightly inebriated) Queen Mother hitting back; “Poppycock!”

Were this to be the total sum of it’s parts, Royal Wives at War could become a little stale and repetitive but the panels move the narrative forward to cover some fascinating ground. There is a suggestion that the Queen Mother may have been jealous of Wallis; not because of her slender frame or quick wit as Lady Colin Campbell insists but because Elizabeth actually had strong feelings for David. This has never been a secret and again, the Daily Mail’s objection to the programme was focused on this theory which it declared “outrageously insensitive”.

But as Hugo Vickers explains, many people saw the young Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and the Prince of Wales together and (not unreasonably) assumed a romance was in the offing. Elizabeth rejected the Duke of York’s marriage proposals twice before finally accepting him. Was she holding out for another Prince? We know that, like many girls of her age, class and social circle, Elizabeth did have a soft spot for the Prince of Wales. And that is where the drama leaves the hypothesis. The only person to absolutely assert this as truth is Lady Colin Campbell. At the risk of being uncharitable, I think that just about covers that particular theme.

Emma Davies in costume as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

One tongue in cheek highlight is the Queen Mother’s assertion that she “never wanted to be in the limelight”. Emma Davies delivers this line perfectly, almost as if she believes it to be true. Davies’ Queen Mother is so rounded, so nuanced, so three dimensional that it doesn’t take long to get the measure of her. She is a curious mixture of sugary and genteel regal martyr and calculating, ambitious, self-righteous dullard. Davies does not shy away from her flaws, neither does she fall into the trap of trying to right old wrongs by tipping the character on its head completely. What results is a very balanced Queen Mother that is very reminiscent of Victoria Hamilton’s Elizabeth in Season 1 and 2 of The Crown. This Queen Mother is real. She is no fairy godmother. As Hugo Vickers says, “There was only one Wallis, what you saw was what you got. But there were many, many Queen Mothers”.

Though naturally we’re more concerned here at World of Wallis with the Duchess, it must be said that without Davies’ pompous and puffy Queen Mother, there could be no tension. McKee’s Wallis does not have the same physical resemblance to the real thing as Davies’ Elizabeth enjoys but McKee more than makes up for this in her performance. The trademark Baltimore drawl is there, the imperious bearing that melts away with the delivery of a punchline, the waspish bitterness but above all, a sense of fun and of a zest for life is ever present. She is a little spiteful perhaps, as unfair to Elizabeth as Elizabeth is to Wallis and yet the two performances are so good that they form a special bond through which a great story can be told. In fact, you become so enchanted by the two performances that Lady Colin Campbell’s interjections are something of a burden to the proceedings. Fortunately, Anne Sebba is on hand to restore order and if I have a complaint about Royal Wives, it’s that we didn’t get nearly enough of a chance to hear more from the author of the definitive Wallis biography. In my humble opinion of course!

The use of archive footage of the major events of 1936 is a great addition. In particular, the footage from the Nahlin Cruise is glorious to see and shows the clear break from tradition David represented as King. Though I can’t claim to find most his work on this subject to be without bias, Andrew Morton offers an important reminder that; “This is a story about two weak men who were very much led by two strong women”. Images of a topless King Edward VIII sunbathing on the Nahlin are contrasted with footage of King George VI in the dark days of the Second World War and whilst context is everything, both Viscount Norwich and Hugo Vickers suggest that David had many faults which are often left out of the official version of events.

I agree with their thoughts. The hereditary system depends on the notion that anybody who may happen to wear the Crown is a) worthy of it or b) is qualified to it. If there is the slightest hint that the hereditary lottery may occasionally produce a weak link, people may wonder at it’s stability for the future. There can be no doubt that there are serious questions relating to the Duke of Windsor’s credentials to be King. But such discussions are dangerous to the institution of monarchy and so would it not be better to find a scapegoat? The failure would then not lay with the institution (or even worse, the individuals who occupy it) but rather with outside sources who intrigued their way into positions of influence. In other words, Wallis took the fall for David’s shortcomings.

The Royal Reunion of 1967: (L-R) The Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, The Duke of Gloucester, The Duchess of Gloucester, The Duke of Windsor and The Duchess of Windsor

This is very much the theme of the remaining dramatic scenes. Elizabeth is insistent that Wallis was totally unsuited to the role of Queen consort whilst Wallis is emphatic in her view that David represented a new modern era for Britain, one it was woefully ill-prepared for and therefore was always going to reject. With respect to our dear Duchess, I have to say that statements like these confirm what the author James Pope-Hennessy believed of the Windsors as a couple; that they were painfully naïve. This immaturity is brought home in the programme with recreations of David and Wallis’ conversations during his accession and reign which seem to be entirely based on Wallis’ memoirs The Heart Has It’s Reasons. The memoirs are now performed verbatim as the programme heads towards the abdication crisis but there’s one vital piece of the puzzle which comes from letters and transcripts of telephone calls which shines a light on a more sinister aspect of the King’s character.

A tearful Wallis explains that having seen the foreign newspaper clippings about their relationship (their affair was kept from the British public via a gentleman’s agreement with the newspapers barons), she attempted to leave the King. He reacted badly, threatening to cut his throat. This was not the first time David had made such a threat. He had employed similar threats and emotional blackmail during his relationships with Freda Dudley-Ward and Thelma Furness. But it was the first time had used this against Wallis.

Whilst not explored in depth in Royal Wives, we do know that David had begun to use his position to control Wallis. When she escaped to Paris for a few weeks following his excessive attentions (including obsessive telephone calls which lasted for hours), he had her followed and demanded reports on those she spent time with. There is no doubt that by the time the news of their romance broke in the British press, Wallis was essentially trapped, her fate decided for her. This is an important moment in Royal Wives as it is the first time this side of the story has been presented to a wider audience. Again, the docu-drama offers a challenge to the established viewpoint which is very welcome.

The plaque which inspired the reunion.

Royal Wives is without doubt a triumph but it has a few weak moments along the way. The first is the rather unnatural sounding long excerpts from Wallis’ memoirs and a letter from Queen Mary. Whilst their place in the script is essential, the quotes selected go on a little too long and even the superb Davies and McKee cannot make them seem new and fresh. There is also a slight inaccuracy regarding Queen Mary when Elizabeth suggests that the redoubtable consort of King George V was “terrified of having to receive Wallis”. I cannot imagine Queen Mary being terrified of an asteroid smashing through Windsor Castle and so I doubt a meeting with her son’s beloved would have raised an eyebrow. And in fact, Queen Mary (whilst admittedly never formally receiving Wallis), had two brief encounters with her future daughter in law before the abdication crisis. The first was at the celebrations for the wedding of Prince George, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark. The second was during the festivities to mark the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935. Queen Mary survived. But this really is small fry and perhaps too much detail (though welcome to royal watchers) may slow the narrative for those with only a fleeting interest.

Before closing this review, there is one person without whom Royal Wives could not be nearly as successful: the costume designer Joanna Beatty. Beatty’s attention to detail is truly staggering and she went to enormous lengths to produce accurate wardrobe choices for both Wallis and Elizabeth. For the plaque unveiling itself, Beatty not only recreated the dark blue dress coat with white fox fur scarf which Wallis wore for the ceremony but also reproduced the pink coat and typical Queen Mother flower pot hat in painstaking detail. Even the jewellery worn by the two ladies on the day of their meeting was copied with Wallis sporting the diamond and sapphire panther brooch by Cartier. Watching Davies and McKee walk in the footsteps of Elizabeth and Wallis is remarkable enough itself but the costumes truly add a level of accuracy that would be sorely missed otherwise and watching the original footage from 1967, you’d struggle to find many differences.

Peace at Last? The Queen Mother greets the Duke of Windsor with a kiss. She did not extend the same greeting to Wallis, neither did Wallis curtsey to Elizabeth.

We may never know the true feelings Wallis and Elizabeth held for each other but what we do know is that there was a thaw in later years. In 1976 when the Queen Mother was due to visit Paris, it was suggested that she might visit the Duchess of Windsor at her villa in the Bois de Boulogne. Wallis was too ill to receive her sister in law but Elizabeth shocked those closest to her by extending an olive branch. She sent the Duchess of Windsor a bouquet of roses with a card on which she wrote In Friendship, Elizabeth R. For anyone who has ever wanted to be a fly on the wall for historic moments such as these, Royal Wives at War will prove essential viewing.

It’s balanced approach and blend of drama and opinion brings to life a story within a story and finally challenges the official account of what happened and why. Successive dramas have chosen to take up this approach too and with the ability to challenge ingrained perceptions, perhaps now we can enjoy depictions of the Duchess of Windsor (and the Queen Mother) which are no longer conjured from the sycophantic flattery of the men in grey suits but which break the rules and strive to show us the true personalities behind these iconic women who still captivate today.

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