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The Crown: Mou Mou

Mohamed Al Fayed: “And how did someone, forgive me, of your background know what the former King of England might need?”
Sydney Johnson: “I didn't. His Royal Highness taught me everything, with great patience and kindness.”
Mohamed Al Fayed: “Then, will you teach me?”
Sydney Johnson: “In which capacity?”
Mohamed Al Fayed: “As my personal valet. British society is the finest in the world. British manners and customs rule the world. With your help, I will become that rare thing, a British gentleman.”

Episode description: "In 1946, an Egyptian street vendor finds inspiration in the abdicated King Edward. Years later, he eagerly tries to integrate into British High Society."

I enjoyed this episode a lot. It opens in Egypt, when Mohamed Al Fayed was still a young man and desperate to make something of himself. There’s a football (soccer) match where he is selling Coca-Cola. He is also trying to win the heart of an attractive young lady, who will become the mother of his first son, Dodi Al Fayed. (Apparently they divorce, but we don’t see that.)

Repeatedly through this episode, we see Mohamed Al Fayed work to move up the rungs of society. Often he is dismissed initially, only to argue his way up afterwards. The brother of the woman in the first scene says he’s nothing, but then Mohamed argues his way up and then makes a difference. When he first offers to buy the Ritz in Paris, he is initially rejected – and for good reason, as at that moment, he has no experience in the hotel business – but then he wins over those making the decision. We don’t see his wooing of his second wife, Heini, but the Finnish model he admires in a scene does become his second wife.

When he buys the Ritz, he holds an opening night and sees a black man serving the guests. He gives into prejudice and tells Dodi to fire the man, a Sydney Johnson. Dodi takes care of it but – and often Dodi serves as the vehicle to widen his father’s views – Dodi tells him that he liked Sydney Johnson a lot and that Sydney Johnson was the personal valet of the late Duke of Windsor, the man who was briefly King Edward VIII. (This allows The Crown to bring back Alex Johnson as the Duke of Windsor.)

This information changes Mohamed’s attitude toward Mr. Johnson. He hires Sydney Johnson as his own personal valet, with the proviso that Mr. Johnson is to train Mohamed in what it takes to be an English gentleman.

We cannot help but notice the inconsistencies in Mohamed Al Fayed. He is willing to humor the prejudices of the British only to ignore them the next day. We can assume that both Al Fayed and Sydney Johnson, as dark-skinned men, have encountered more than their fair share of racial prejudice. We don’t really know what Sydney Johnson’s feelings were but we see that Al Fayed learns to value Johnson a lot, and treats him like a friend. On the day that Johnson learns of the death of the Duchess of Windsor, he is depressed, and Mohamed comforts him.

Al Fayed comforts him, but also recognizes an opportunity. He buys the Duke’s villa in France and offers the contents to the Queen. The Queen does not come herself, but sends one of her men, Fellowes, to go through the contents. Now, sending Fellowes makes perfect sense; he’s more up to the task, but it seems that she should have invited Al Fayed to tea as thanks. She does not, and even when he is the main sponsor at Ascot (after purchasing Harrods) she still does not sit with him, even though that’s the custom. Instead, she sends Diana (and we see Princess Diana get introduced to Dodi, a fatal encounter for Dodi).

I have mixed feelings about this. It’s hard not to have some resentment for Queen Elizabeth, who should have been more gracious to the sponsor (although Mohamed and Princess Diana get along really well). And the whole attitude toward rank and climbing in society seems absurd.

Yet this is how society works, or at least, how it has worked, for ages. If the monarch is not exclusive, then what is the point? I believe rank shouldn’t matter, but it does. In an ideal universe, Mohamed ought to be content with his achievements, which are remarkable, yet those achievements only exist because of his driving need to be accepted in high society. And the Queen keeps herself exclusive by being snobby.

Of course, my favorite character in the episode was Sydney Johnson, who seemed the most gentlemanly of everyone altogether.

Title musings. “Mou Mou” is the title of the episode, and it is what friends call Mohamed Al Fayed. A fair title, and nicely obscure, which seems to be a goal of The Crown episode titles.

Bits and pieces

The papers in the Duke’s villa included flirtations with Nazis, a reason the Crown would want to keep it out of the general news, and especially out of the hands of the French, who would have used it to embarrass the British.

We should remember that certain liberties may have been taken to improve the story.

Quotes

Sydney Johnson: Afternoon tea is not a task to hurry through, Mr. Mohamed, but a ritual to be savored.

Mohamed Al Fayed: So, this is a movie set? Where are the girls?
Dodi: The story's not about girls. It's about a young Jewish man...
Mohamed Al Fayed: A Jew? Couldn't you make a film about something else?
Dodi: ...who overcomes racial and establishment prejudice, runs the 100 meters in the 1924 Olympics, and wins gold.
Mohamed Al Fayed: Really? That's a movie?
Dodi: It's an inspirational story. Where the outsider ends up becoming an insider.

Sydney Johnson: Catalog numbers. All the duke and duchess' possessions, her jewelry, his clothes, his bureau, which contained papers of great sensitivity, including his diaries, is due to be put up for auction.
Mohammed Al Fayed: It doesn't go back to the royal family?
Sydney Johnson: No, sir. The fate of the house and its possessions is now in the hands of the French authorities.

Fellowes: Mr. Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods. And of Villa Windsor in Paris.
Queen Elizabeth: Oh, yes. I suppose I'd better sit with him this time. Might be nice. And, as the official sponsor today, he will have that expectation.
But she doesn’t, partly because an old friend of hers has come and she wants to sit with him.

Overall rating

I really enjoyed this episode. I expect there were several reasons. First, it covered something about which I knew so little, so everything was new. Second, by going over a much longer period, The Crown could pick and choose the best bits to make something entertaining. Third, Mou Mou is simply a fascinating character, as is Sydney Johnson. Three and a half out of four bottles of Coca-Cola.

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

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this episode too, but it felt more like a biopic that happened to use the same actors for the royal family as The Crown than an episode of the show.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I understand your point of view, although in a way it was interesting to see the royal family from the outside than the inside.

      Delete

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