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The Crown: Gelignite

“Picking fluff off a man’s jacket. That’s a gesture as intimate as a kiss. More intimate as it suggests the kiss has already happened.”


This episode finally covers the romance between Princess Margaret and the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend, from Princess Margaret’s asking permission to marry to his banishment to Brussels.


Visually, this episode was not as striking as some of the other episodes. Only a few shots wowed me: the switchboards, some of the crowds, and the old-fashioned typewriter. I also enjoyed the treat of visiting the gentleman’s club, which I’ve read about so often (besides simply not being a gentleman, I have to imagine that they have changed some in the last six or seven decades). I don’t think anything was inherently wrong with the other scenes; I may have simply been so caught up in the story that I did not notice. Because the story, which I was dreading – I was repelled by the original introduction of the romance, where Princess Margaret literally hid behind a curtain – was far more interesting than I expected.

I liked the opening scene, with all the people gathered to watch the royal couple drive by. We get to see the popularity, which has basically been restored by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. But a bomb is lurking. We move to the journalists – I suppose Fleet Street – speculating that Princess Margaret is in love with a divorced commoner. I really enjoyed the exchange about the bit of fluff – a perfect metaphor, because really, from today's point of view, this all ought to be fluff. Why shouldn’t two consenting adults be allowed to do as they wish? Especially as Margaret, although a princess, never expects to to be queen (Elizabeth already has two kids who precede Margaret).

The journalists are right: Princess Margaret, who is 23, wants to marry the divorced Peter Townsend, who is both a commoner and 16 years her senior. The couple invite themselves to have dinner with Elizabeth and Philip, and during the meal, Margaret announces their intention and asks her sister for permission. She has to do this, because she is near enough to the throne that she needs permission (until age 25).

Elizabeth’s reaction is multi-dimensional, and I appreciate the complexity. She is not particularly keen on Townsend, and of course the situation is awkward as she is the head of the Church of England, which does not permit divorced people to remarry while their ex-spouses are still alive — but she really wants her sister to be happy. So she suggests that the two marry in Scotland. Yet, over the course of the episode, all Elizabeth’s support of her sister is chipped away. Philip can’t see the difference between Princess Margaret’s proposed marriage and the marriage of the Duke of Windsor to a divorcĂ©e (although he wanted an American! Ghastly!). Philip’s attitude seems rather retro, as he was all for modernizing the monarchy with respect to televising the coronation in the last episode. Or perhaps, as he is finding the royalty business rather restraining, he wishes others to suffer as well?

Queen Elizabeth is also warned by several others – her mother, who believes the monarchy barely survived the most recent crisis – and Tommy Lascelles, who seems to be the paragon of protocol. Oddly, we don’t get a visit from Churchill, only a comment from him at the end of the episode. A pity. I would have appreciated some Churchillian perspective.

Finally the Queen withdraws her support, not even letting Townsend and Princess Margaret meet again. Princess Margaret is warned she will have to wait until she is 25, and she is, not surprisingly, very disappointed and angry.

The papers respond very negatively, and what they write is fair – but I have to wonder if they would have been contrary and taken the opposite point of view if the marriage had been tolerated. I also wonder how much the apparent popularity of Townsend influenced Queen Elizabeth. In the episode, the influence appears to be strong, but she should have understood that it would not last. Probably. After all, Diana's influence was long and strong so I may be wrong.

Title musings
. I confess I did not know the word "gelignite" and was expecting it to be something Latin, but no, it’s “gel ignite” – explosive material – and straightforward to pronounce. From the reactions of many others on the internet, they, too, learned the word and its meaning when this episode aired. The word obviously refers to the romance and how Townsend’s being a divorced commoner could blow everything up, but I want to compliment whoever came up with the title. Very nice.

Bits and pieces

We are told that newspapers used to treat some people with deference and respect – in other words, they skipped some major stories. Is the day and age of everyone in the fishbowl any better? I guess I'm relieved to be such a dull fish myself.

Queen Elizabeth suggests that Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend marry in Scotland, as Scotland was easier on divorced persons remarrying. Many years later Prince Charles would marry Camilla Parker-Bowles in Scotland (although Prince Charles’s first wife, Princess Diana was dead, Camilla’s ex-husband was still alive) and Princess Anne, also divorced, would remarry in Scotland too.

Princess Margaret reminds us that no one wanted Philip, whose sisters were married to German enemies.

The couple met while riding and managed a kiss away from the lenses of photographers. I doubt anyone would get away with that today.

We are again reminded of pre PC times with the reference to the white community in Rhodesia.


Peter Townsend: Thanks to the coronation, your sister is now the most famous woman in the world.
Princess Margaret: Yes. But I’m the luckiest.

Billy Wallace (journalist). Historically, when this lot brush up against divorce you end up with either reformation or abdication.

Princess Margaret: Do I have your permission? As Sovereign?

Philip: Has everyone forgotten the catastrophe that was your uncle already?

Philip: There’s no such thing as a blameless party in a divorce.

Journalist upstairs: This is not just inflammatory, it breaks all the rules.

Journalist: Do we let ourselves be used, or do we have our own independent voice?

Tommy Lascelles: I’m on my knees with gratitude.

The Queen Mother: Don’t mistake your current popularity for long-term security. Your uncle’s affair and abdication almost destroyed the monarchy.

Tommy Lascelles: Sometimes best intentions need to be reconsidered, Your Majesty. You can always blame it on me.

Princess Margaret: She’s the Queen! She’s fairly conspicuous.

Overall rating

I found it difficult to give this a fair shake, as I don’t like scandals of this nature, but the episode was far more interesting than I anticipated. They did a good job of presenting several sides, and we got to watch Queen Elizabeth II gradually yielding to pressure. Three out of four switchboard operators.

Victoria Grossack loves birds, math, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.


  1. Claire Foy does such a good job as Elizabeth. You could almost see in her eyes the moment she decided against Townsend marrying her sister, after he inadvertently upstaged her on the Northern Ireland trip and when he sat down with her and called her by her family nickname.

    Loved the switchboard scenes at the beginning and the end. Such an apt demonstration of Margaret and Elizabeth's restrictions and lack of privacy.

  2. Was anyone allowed to marry with an alive ex-spouse as a member of the Church of England, or was that just taboo for royalty? Seems like a good way to sponsor pre-marital sex to me. I thought Margaret was an immature, self-centered brat, a lot of the time. She was already sleeping with her guy and seemed free to do what she wanted to, most of the time. Enjoy your youth, girl. I bet if she had married him, she would have been bored with him very quickly.

  3. Mallena: I'm not the world's expert, but certainly divorced people with living exes could remarry in England - but that's a matter of a legal contract. Probably could not marry in the CoE - and as Elizabeth was the head of the CoE.

    I can't comment on the portrayal of the accuracy of the romance between Townsend and Princess Margaret, but from what I read about their futures, they did really love each other and never completely got over each other. The whole thing was tragic.

    Billie: I agree that Foy does a great job in the episode, but I wonder how accurate The Crown's version was - was Townsend's popularity the reason she stopped supporting the match? And if so, is her reaction petty, or justifiable as popularity is what keeps the monarchy safe?

  4. I thought the end of this episode was brilliantly done. Elizabeth has done what she believed she had to. As a result, her sister is furious at her and the press have turned against her. Just when she needs a friend the most, her husband goes off for a weekend house party. Nobody, including Elizabeth, believes it is "just gentlemen." So, we watch this woman walk off alone -- what a metaphor for the life she is leading.


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