TELEVISION / History refuses to make a tragedy out of a crisis

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The Independent Culture
TO THE best of my knowledge P G Wodehouse never wrote a tragedy. Had he done so it might have looked something like the story of the Duke of Windsor - a sort of King Lear in garish plus- fours, in which the courtiers are Cole Porter, Noel Coward and Fruity Metcalf, and the kingdom is abandoned for tartan suits and a frightful pash on an American divorcee. Tragedy would be pushing it, in truth. The measured view might be that one self-indulgent person met another and they lived a privileged but dappled life, the sunshine of loving devotion shadowed by a sense of wasted opportunities and failed duty. The Other House of Windsor (BBC 1) showed you the realm in which this narrative was played out, the Paris home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, newly restored by Mohammed Al-Fayed and exclusively shown to the BBC in return for the sort of forelock- tugging acknowledgements normally confined to the pages of Hello] magazine.

My first thought was that Lucinda Lambton might not be the best guide for this excursion. As she bubbled on about the 'endearing domestic minutiae' of the one-time king, I was muttering beneath my breath - something along the lines of 'Bet she doesn't mention the grace and favour trips to the Berchtesgarten - nothing very endearing about that'. But I was wrong and, even if there were times when she seemed to suggest that an immaculate sock-drawer was fair compensation for a life of idle uselessness, she couldn't be accused of fudging the issues. 'Immaturity became irresponsibility,' she noted briskly, as if she didn't want to dwell on the regrettable failings of the Duke.

And, once your republican or monarchical bristling had subsided (the Duke was unusual in exciting both), her sympathetic eye was rather persuasive. The King may have exchanged an empire for a woman, but love kept her side of the bargain and the evidence still exists in the house - there were no less than 25 pictures of Wallis in the Duke's study, and Wallis had constructed a monogram in which their entwined initials spelt out the word 'we'. A rather nasty member of the House of Lords once informed me that it was common knowledge that Wallis had captivated the King by means of a prostitute's trick for preventing premature ejaculation. Looking at the evidence for a reciprocated love it seemed very common knowledge indeed, the revenge of a class whose ethos had been undermined by the abdication.

There were other touches too that were more wistful than contemptible - the Duke always carried a small doll given to him by his mother, and his own remarks about the terror of succession ('It was like being left alone on a vast stage to play a part not yet written') increased your sense of the loneliness which Wallis had ended. The painful refusal to confer a royal title on Wallis was salved by an internal phone book in which she was referred to as 'Her Royal Highness'. Lambton summed this up as the sadness of blighted opportunity, but to me it looked more like the melancholy hollowness of style without content.

In A Thousand Heroes (BBC 1), a true- life disaster movie, our man in the cardboard cockpit was Charlton Heston, acting like someone who'd never seen any of the Airplane series. It was unusual in two respects - you didn't see any passengers until they started walking dazed out of a blazing cornfield and the crash itself was real film, a DC 10 taking a fiery somersault over Sioux City airport. I got quite sweaty-palmed myself, but Chuck remained ice-cool throughout - in fact he was so fish-lipped about it all that when one of the rescuers shouted 'The pilot's alive,' your first thought was 'How on earth can you tell?'

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