Sunday, 4 August 2013
Edward & Mrs Simpson (1978)
There's a self-awareness to the casting which tempts the informed viewer to see Edward &Mrs Simpson as something of an inside job, an emanation from the slightly raffish side of the British establishment, paying its way by commercial breaks. Edward Fox, playing Edward VIII, was the nephew of Frances Donaldson. His first wife was the granddaughter of Freda Dudley Ward, the most enduring of Edward's mistresses when he was prince of Wales, infamously dismissed with the words from the palace switchboard "I'm sorry, but I have orders not to put you through."
Appropriately for a drama leading up to an event which interrupted and accelerated hereditary succession, Edward & Mrs Simpson draws on a wider sense of theatrical genealogy. Several of the older historical figures are personified by actors whose careers were already well under way when Edward VIII left the throne in December 1936. Peggy Ashcroft plays Queen Mary; Jessie Matthews, Wallis's aunt Bessie Merriman; Maurice Denham, Cosmo Gordon Lang, archbishop of Canterbury; Marius Goring, a fatalistic George V. Sibyl Colefax is played by 1920s and 30s comedienne Elsie Randolph. Andrew Ray, as the Duke of York, was the son of 1930s radio comedian Ted Ray. These decisions make Edward & Mrs Simpson not a detached historicisation of events or fictionalised reinterpretation like many more recent television dramas, but an extension of the dance suggested by the title song, Ron Grainer's arrangement of Herbert Farjeon's I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales. Many of the key participants in events were very much alive in 1978, with Mrs Simpson herself, the Duchess of Windsor, a haunting presence not that near the back of the minds of the royal family and household, however fragile she seemed in her house in the Bois de Boulogne.
No conclusive psychological portrait is drawn of the eponymous subjects. At best, both lie outright to those closest to them, but neither are clear what their goals are or can admit as much to themselves. Perhaps Simon Raven was as baffled as Stanley Baldwin professed to be by the king's decision. Much depends, for the viewer, on observation of carefully rehearsed body language and facial expression. Early in the first episode Edward, still Prince of Wales, is the focus of a round of For he's a jolly good fellow in a regimental sergeants' mess. Edward Fox's face is that of a man who doesn't believe it's possible that he can be jolly good. Edward's self-doubt is ignored by his parents and managed by his two mistresses, responsible big sister Freda Dudley Ward and naughty little sister Thelma Furness. Both Kika Markham and Cherie Lunghi endear in these roles - it is their subjects who might grate - and it's a pity, though absolutely necessary to the storytelling, that we never see either of them after the first episode. Though the script and Cynthia Harris's performance suggest that the audience is at first expected to warm to Wallis in episode one, after she shows no enthusiasm for Thelma's safari tales (which follow extended film sequences of animals being slaughtered for fun by Edward and Thelma in East Africa), her appropriation of a vulnerable man is gauche and based upon partial misreadings.
Drama which draws on non-fiction while still being drama is prone to rearrange matters. The stammering but resolute Duke of York tells his wife that "I'm only a naval officer," and not (as historically) his cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten. The impression is left that Edward meets Wallis for the first time in London and not in Melton Mowbray, more fitting perhaps for a man who sought refuge in a metropolitan smart set.
Director Waris Hussein was by this point extremely adept at realising pasts recent and remote both on film and video and he makes use of the mixed media television drama format well. Wallis's jewellery sparkles in the grey reality of studio-London flats and Suffolk beaches; the yellows of Fort Belvedere suggest a golden fantasy from which Edward could never quite be awakened. There is a particular shot, in soft focus, of Edward and Wallis walking through a field, romantically framed through flowers, which then crashes back into the hardness of politics: studio lights, video cameras, portrait shots of visibly ageing men talking. There's a desolation to the final shot of Edward and Wallis being driven away from their wedding across a sterile gravel road: how much energy has been expended for an unproductive future.
Edward & Mrs Simpson is available on DVD in the UK from Network.While my secondhand copy looks like the image above, the release has since been rejacketed as right.
 Colefax's inclusion in the narrative is cunning: the socialite and decorator was a niece of Walter Bagehot, who famously defined the powers of the British monarch as the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn.
 The song was mentioned on camera by the Duchess of Windsor herself in A King's Story (1968). Thanks to Jim Smith for this reference.