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The Crown: Bubbikins

John Armstrong in The Manchester Guardian: “It is a common staple of mother-in-law jokes that having one come to stay is a nightmare. But having this mother-in-law to stay can only be a blessing. For Princess Alice is that rarest of creatures, a member of a royal family that has suffered more than the rest of us, worked harder than the rest of us, and created more good than the rest of us.”

The episode opens in Athens, Greece, in 1967, taking us to what is an unusual picture: an elderly nun, who seems to be in charge of her dilapidated area, and who is also smoking like a chimney. Her concern is for her mission, which is suffering from lack of funds. The episode is coy, not explaining why we are watching someone in this out-of-the-way place. Of course, some viewers understand at once that the elderly woman, wearing a nun’s habit, is actually the elderly mother of Prince Philip. This is revealed in a later scene, after she has visited a jeweler, in an attempt to sell a sapphire to raise funds for her mission.

The scene then switches to Prince Philip in the US, who is on Meet the Press and is also displeased about a lack of funds (and the fact that he is not king). His wife, the Queen, hasn’t had a pay raise from the government in 15 years, which means they have been forced to sell a little yacht and he might have to stop playing polo. The interview is heard by a journalist in the UK, who publishes a scathing editorial. In general, they are not pleased with the cost of the monarchy, and Harold Wilson’s Labour members ask a valid question: Why are the taxpayers giving a family £2.5 million per year, when the average family lives off of £1067 per year?

Prince Philip’s solution is to do a documentary on the royal family – in reality known as Royal Family – which was supposed to make them more accessible. He recruits Princess Anne to assist in this. This is the first time for us to see royal offspring in quite a while, and I thought the actress did a fine job. The Duke of Edinburgh apparently has a lot of faith in her. (Where are all the princes?)

In the meantime, there are serious problems in Greece, and although Prince Philip is against it, the Queen overrules him and order the extraction of her mother-in-law – Princess Alice – from Athens. The frail, elderly woman arrives, still wearing her habit (something she wore until the end of her days) and still smoking like a chimney. Princess Anne is told to look after her grandmother, and one of the best scenes is when Anne and Alice are discussing how to raise funds for the mission back in Athens. Can’t they sell something, perhaps one of the clocks? There are so many clocks! The difference of plenty versus real poverty becomes obvious here. The Queen, although sympathetic, is not ready to start selling off palace goods, and suggests taking another route.

We see Prince Philip putting the making of the documentary before the safety of his mother, which is not just off-putting, but seems illogical. If you are trying to show the world how good and responsible you are, why on earth would you do that? Besides, many families have a few eccentric old relatives. I believe Philip and his mother were not close; he was very young when she was institutionalized, and his older sisters helped raise him, but Philip’s callous behavior is unbelievable. Fortunately, a check with the timing of events proves the episode is taking plenty of poetic license. Princess Alice was rescued from Athens in 1967; the filming of the documentary did not start until 1968; the timing does not work.

The documentary, although made, does not do the trick. It makes the royal family seem ordinary, making many who watch it wonder why they’re giving those people so much taxpayer money per year.

Prince Philip turns again to his daughter for assistance. He invites the reporter who did the scathing article on his own Meet the Press interview to speak with his daughter. Two disparate threads come together when Princess Anne arranges for her grandmother to meet with John Armstrong, reporter. Again, this strains credulity.

Princess Alice tells the reporter the story of her life – and, indeed, despite the fact that she was born in Windsor and died in Buckingham, a lot of the part between was pretty hard – and reporter Armstrong writes a piece called “The Royal Saint.” Only then does Prince Philip go visit his mother, as her self-sacrifice has restored the royal family in the eyes of the public.

I admit tears came to my eyes as we watched Prince Philip offering his arm to his frail, elderly mother, still dressed in a nun’s habit. Despite this pulling at my heartstrings, I didn’t accept much of the interpretation of past events even before I researched the timing and determined they were impossible.

Title musings. “Bubbikins” is Princess Alice’s fond name for Prince Philip. As Prince Philip and his relationship with his mother are the central matters to the episode, it’s a fair choice as the episode’s title.

Bits and pieces

Funny to see a Mother Superior smoking, and not just smoking, chain-smoking. But she’s also a princess, so I guess that’s okay!

I guess Prince Philip and his mother are both natural negotiators.

The documentary Royal Family wasn’t aired until 1969 (and the family viewed it before). It was also viewed in the US and in Australia (I don’t know about Canada). What is true is that it did not help the position of the royal family, and apparently it hasn’t been on the air since 1972.

Princess Alice was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, suffered from schizophrenia, and sheltered Jews during WWII. She is considered one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by the State of Israel.


Prince Philip: We had a small yacht, which we have had to sell. I shall probably have to give up polo fairly soon. And things like that.

Queen: My husband is quite taken with the idea of this documentary. And while I might not understand television, I do understand marriage, and when it is important to let someone shine.

Princess Margaret: This is really plumbing new depths of banality.

Queen: The thing is, we can’t be hidden away. We have to be in full view all the time. So what’s the answer? The best we’ve come up with so far is ritual and mystery. Because it keeps us hidden while still in plain sight.

Prince Philip: You’re the most thrifty, unpretentious, feet-on-the-ground royal we’ve got. If anyone can salvage this, you can.

Princess Alice: Find yourself a faith. It helps... no, it not just helps, it’s everything.

Overall Rating

An interesting take on two important events – Princess Alice’s coming to stay, and the documentary – but they were forced together in a way that seems implausible. Two and a half out of four sapphires.

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

1 comment:

  1. An interesting episode, even if it isn't entirely factual. I knew very little about Princess Alice before this episode and I thought the performances were particularly good. Especially that scene where Philip finally came to his mother's room and read the newspaper to her was quite moving.


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