Stand down Margaret: The Princess (Lesley Manville) faces up to the truth
Did you know the Queen’s sister once very nearly married James Bond?
Well, okay, that didn’t exactly happen. But in this episode, the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret (the brilliant Lesley Manville) meets up with her first love, retired equerry, Group Captain Peter Townsend. And he’s now played by Timothy Dalton, who once famously played 007. You see what I mean? Dalton was, in fact, still officially cast as James Bond in 1992 the very year this episode was set. For all that matters.
It’s all quite poignant. As depicted in The Crown: Season 1, the official refusal to allow the young Princess and the divorced Group Captain (then played by Vanessa Kirby and Coupling star Ben Miles: both seen here in flashback) effectively wrecked poor old Margaret’s life. He went on to marry someone else, happily and successfully. She married too: disastrously, leaving her bitter, boozy and resentful. However, here they get to meet one final time. This apparently did happen but not in quite the way it happens here. Margaret is left shaken not stirred as he woos the living daylights out of her (apologies).
There’s some more dramatic licence here: we see Townsend listening to Margaret being interviewed by Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs as if this occurred, like the rest of the episode in 1992. In fact, as all true BBC Radio 4 fans will know, that particular episode was broadcast in 1981. Plomley died in 1985, in fact, so it is rather surprising to see him still alive seven years’ later.
Anyway, it becomes clear there is still some lingering tension between the Queen (Imelda Staunton) and Margaret over the issue although this all seems to be resolved by the end of the episode. Lesley Manville is great as ever as Margaret. You have to wonder if she was ever considered as a possible option to play the Queen herself
Talking of which, the Queen has a lot on her plate this time. Royal divorces are like buses. You wait ages for one and then three come along at once. First, Anne (Claudia Harrison) wants to remarry after her divorce. This provokes anguished complaint from Margaret. If she can do it, why couldn’t I? In truth, the situations are not actually identical. Anne is the daughter of the Queen not her sister. Anne is also the divorced one in this instance, not her proposed husband. Margaret has also now been permitted to get divorced herself and could presumably remarry if she wished. Margaret also was given the option of marrying Townsend if she was prepared to relinquish all claims on the throne. That said, none of these points are brought up here and Margaret is certainly justified in feeling aggrieved. For the record, Anne’s second marriage to Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence has now lasted for thirty years. It is the most enduring of any of the six marriages entered into by the children of the late Queen Elizabeth II.
Next up, the now disgraced Prince Andrew (James Murray) announces his marriage to the toe-sucking Fergie is over (no, not the football manager or the one from the Black Eyed Peas). Worst of all, the once and future king, Charles (Dominic West) confirms his marriage is over too. Then Windsor Castle burns down. If the 1990s was the worst decade of the Queen’s reign, then 1992 was the worst year. Perhaps of her entire life.
This prompts the famous Annus Horribilis speech in which the Queen admits that 1992’s been as Francis of Assisi might have put it “a complete and utter shitshow”. The Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) objects to the speech: in a touching scene Philip (Jonathan Pryce) and the Queen defend each other. None of the conversation apparently really happened. It doesn’t really matter: the speech undeniably marked a shift away from the stiff upper lipped attitudes of the past towards the “I feel your pain” approach of the post-Diana era.