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domingo, 13 de setembro de 2015
What happened when a Princess went walkabout?
There’s more to Princess Elizabeth’s VE Day adventure than a new film presents, says Sarah Bradford
Bel Powley as Princess Margaret and Sarah Gadon as Princess Elizabeth in 'A Royal Night Out'Photo: Ecosse Films Limited
By Sarah Bradford
It was the Queen’s great friend, Lord Porchester, later her racing manager, who first revealed to me the detail that is the premise for the new film, A Royal Night Out. In 1989, I interviewed “Porchy”, as the Queen called him, for a biography I was writing of her father, George VI. He let slip how he and another Royal Horse Guards’ officer had chaperoned the future Queen and her sister, Princess Margaret, as they mingled incognito with the teeming crowds on VE Day 70 years ago next month.
He had been having dinner at Buckingham Palace that evening and, as he recalled it, the suggestion came up that the two young princesses might join the revellers outside. They had lived very sheltered lives for much of the war at Windsor Castle, their only contact with men of their own age being at dinners given by her parents and attended by what were known in court circles as the “Flirts”, young Guards officers such as Porchy.
Despite being the one responsible for the story ever being known of how the future Queen spent VE Day, Porchy doesn't even get a name-check in A Royal Night Out. When the King (who is well played by Rupert Everett, although he is too fit in every sense of the word to capture George VI) gives his daughters permission to escape the confines of royal protocol for one night, they are entrusted to two daft, nameless officers.
So daft, indeed, that the princesses soon give them the slip. Nothing of the sort happened. Here are the facts, as Lord Porchester (later the Earl of Carnarvon) recounted them to me.
“At a certain time we were going to be with the crowd outside Buckingham Palace and everyone started to say, 'We want the King! We want the King! We want the King!’, and they [the King and Queen] came out on the balcony. We were mixed up in the crowd. No one recognised Princess Elizabeth or Princess Margaret, and we went round up Whitehall, up Piccadilly, into the Ritz Hotel – I used to have a little room there – and back through Hyde Park Corner, down the Mall.”
Such are the historical details of an evening that the Queen’s cousin, Margaret Rhodes, later was to describe as “Cinderella in reverse”. If anything more happened, there is only one person alive who knows about it (Lord Porchester died in 2001) and she is certainly not going to talk, though I can’t help wondering if the Queen might be tempted to see the film and have a laugh at everything it invents.
There are some traits in her screen self that she might recognise, if not the setting. So the film involves Princess Elizabeth hurrying back to Buckingham Palace the next morning, driving an open-top Daimler at high speed. The Queen is certainly someone who likes to drive - drive very fast - and prides herself on her knowledge of cars, gained when she served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service during the War. But the idea that she would invite Jack (played by Jack Reynor), the young airman she befriends, back to the palace for breakfast is simply rubbish.
If I was concentrating as I watched the film on the bigger, historical picture, my husband, who came with me and a group of Chelsea Pensioners to see a preview, kept an eye on the detail. He rated it a load of entertaining twaddle.
When Princess Elizabeth goes on a bus, with the nameless airman (to visit his Royal-family obsessed mother!) they use the wrong sort of tickets. There is a taxi with a post-War number plate, and for some reason the crowds sing “God Save our King” rather than “God Save the King”.
On the plus side, I noticed that Jack’s mother’s modest home – the décor, the mantelpiece – could have been taken from one of the illustrations in David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain.
I did, however, have reservations over the casting – rather than the acting – of the two young women who play Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. Sarah Gadon, as the future Queen, is perhaps too beautiful for the part, and needed to reflect her character’s real life shyness more.
And Bel Powley, as Princess Margaret, is just the wrong shape and the wrong look for the Queen’s younger sister, who was a great beauty, but only 14 at the time of VE Day. Though the actress captures Princess Margaret’s terrific joie de vivre, it is hard to imagine the King’s daughter being taken to a “knocking-shop” on her night out as the film suggests. Emily Watson, as Queen Mother- to-be, famously described as “an iron fist in a velvet glove” does, though, come across as credible.
Bel Powley as Princess Margaret and Sarah Gadon as Princess Elizabeth (Photo: Ecosse Films Limited)
But perhaps I am reacting too much as a historian and royal biographer, when A Royal Night Out is impressionist rather than factual. It never claims to be history, but instead is well acted, well photographed, as well as full of dramatic liberties.
In one wider aspect, though, it is accurate. Lord Porchester recalled, in his conversation with me, the atmosphere that evening. “Everyone was very jolly, linking arms in the streets and singing Run Rabbit Run, Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line, Roll out the Barrel, Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree – all those sorts of things…”
This is something the film accurately and sometimes movingly conveys about VE Day. For those like me too young to have experienced it, this film conveys the popular emotion of that day in May 1945. “We all roared ourselves hoarse,” recalled Noël Coward, who was among the crowd. “I suppose this is the greatest day in our history.”
But once the immediate euphoria of VE Day subsided, harsh reality took its place. VJ Day, marking the Japanese surrender, was celebrated but with less enthusiasm. Less than a fortnight later Britain was faced with unpleasant economic reality when the United States cancelled Lend-Lease, the financial support that had helped the country through the War, precipitating austerity Britain.
The patriotism which had inspired the frantic explosion of joy on VE Day – the fireworks, singing, drunkenness captured so well in the film – evaporated into sullen disappointment, but was briefly ignited again for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in November, 1947, described accurately by Churchill as “a brief flash of colour on the weary road we have to travel”.
A Royal Night Out will, inevitably, be compared to other recent award-laden films – Helen Mirren in The Queen and Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. I rate both of these more highly for accuracy than A Royal Night Out. The King’s Speech, in particular, was based on papers that I had wanted to see when I was writing my own biography of George VI, but the Queen Mother would not let me. I think she had a residual reluctance about discussing her late husband’s defects.
The Queen may have added nothing new historically, but it was well-done and authentic, especially in charting the relationship with Tony Blair. And A Royal Night Out? It is an enjoyable fantasy but, for this cinema-goer at least, it was not unmissable.
'Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in Our Times’ by Sarah Bradford is published by Penguin, priced £7.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk. The film 'A Royal Night Out’ is released on May 15