Comedy of Scale: Andrew Billen on Why Poliakoff's Story of the House of Windsor Is His Best Work Yet. (Television)
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
Truth to tell, I never knew that King George. V, our monarch during the Great War, was a small man. Played by Tom Hollander in The Lost Prince (BBC 1, last Sunday and this), he was very small indeed -- even the telephone on his desk seemed to dwarf him. This suited the writer-director Stephen Poliakoff well. Smallness was the surprising and original metaphor he arrived at to describe the whole of what was to become, for wartime PR reasons, the House of Windsor.
Set against momentously huge world events, the royal view from Sandringham becomes, in this drama, a comedy of scale. The Tsarina is shocked by how small Sandringham is when she visits. The snobbish Asquith finds the cramped villa in the Sandringham grounds in which George V and his wife live appallingly suburban. Inside, the princes play with toy soldiers and, when the real war comes, all the king can do is make small gestures too, serving small portions at his banquets while outside his queen forages for chestnuts, miniature food, to feed the troops. Later, she visits some of those who have returned mutilated from the front. One soldier, his legs unevenly amputated, looks, almost comically, foreshortened, like a glove puppet.
There was nothing intrinsically small-scale about the House of Hanover: the branches of its family tree overhung all of Europe. They were Germans -- we knew that -- but the Russian Romanovs are also cousins, so when George reneges on his promise to give them sanctuary after 1917, it is a family betrayal. His small-mindedness, combined with his neurotic neatness, is hinted at by his hobby, stamp collecting, but he is also agoraphobic. He exclaims to his man Stamfordham (played with knowing restraint and patience by Bill Nighy): "Small rooms -- always pleased to be in small rooms. Absurd things these palaces are." Yet in the palaces, the chief of staff and the politicians, the big men of history such as Ron Cook's nauseating Lloyd George, seem perfectly at home.
In the second episode, King George's mother, Alexandra (Bibi Anderson), greets the monarchas "my other tiny, little one". She has just had an audience with her grandson, Johnnie, the semi-autistic, epileptic prince who is at the centre of the piece. Johnnie, played beguilingly by Matthew Thomas (for once, the prep school accent and awkwardness of the average British child actor are appropriate), is King George's youngest child and dies aged 14 in 1919. Significantly, however, he is not small but clumsily big. Perhaps because of his unapologetic size, he can command a troop, albeit a household cavalry of gardeners and maids, and also a room. In a very touching scene near the end, he plays the trumpet for his family and when the king, who is keeping his prime minister waiting, makes to leave, Johnnie tells him to stay put. …