Television review

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The Independent Culture
For a more conventional reporter the opening boast of Edward on Edward (ITV) would have had a justifiable swagger: "Now, with access to literally thousands of documents preserved in the royal archives... we will discover the real facts behind that fateful moment in history." "Discover" is part of the conventional rhetoric of journalism - an implication of secrets wrested from their guardians. So is "we", which suggests the endeavours of the production team. But here it might have been a royal plural, and the conventional rhetoric hardly applied: Edward Windsor is a name that you would expect to open a few doors, not least those of the Windsor Castle archive.

But if the pose of journalistic detachment seemed a little comic, the programme itself turned out to be absolutely gripping, crackling with a static generated by the friction between past and present. The presenter began by declaring his interest in the "appalling shock" the Duke had delivered to "his family". He meant "my family", though he never said it, and that unavoidable fact kept sparking off his words, a sharp tingle which recalled the oddity of the enterprise - its bizarre blend of family therapy and constitutional history. When the presenter said of his great- uncles that "their parents had always been remote and aloof from them", it was impossible not to inspect the remark for evidence of a hidden edge, even more so when he announced that: "as with many a family, it was the money that caused the real trouble." The Prince's recent pronouncements on class suggest that he is capable of a certain ingenuousness, so it's possible that he wasn't aware that these phrases might loop round and strike him in the back of the head. Certainly there wasn't a hint of a wink in his presentation.

Which was, it should be said, far better than merely respectable. There was the occasional touch of the Windsor slur, that casualness of diction that implies a lifetime of respectful attention from one's listeners (and his older brother may give him a hard time for using "disinterested" to mean "uninterested"), but he delivered the narrative with the requisite spin and energy. His own judgement of the Duke was sternly charitable - his actions were "naive and impressionable" rather than actually treacherous. But the new evidence he revealed was less forgiving. It is hard to reconcile exonerating accounts of the Duke's loyalty to his brother (the King) with the letter in which he whinged about "fresh evidence of my brother's continued efforts to humiliate me". Nor did testimony about the Duke's patriotism satisfactorily acquit him of the charge of collaboration - the line between defeatism and treason is very fuzzy, and patriotism can fog the eyesight as easily as it can sharpen it.

The story itself is a wonderful combination of Richard Buchan and PG Wodehouse: while the roads of France were crammed with refugees and the royal exiles languished in Lisbon, haggling over their future, a maid was dispatched to Paris to collect the ducal bed-linen. Back in Spain, elaborate plans were made to delay the Duke's departure, and even to persuade him that he would be assassinated by the British. And as the great powers intrigued, the Duke played golf and socialised.

All this emerged by means of a Royal Command Performance of aged retainers and aristo spies, elderly figures whose bred-in-the-bone discretion had been overruled by a lifetime's habit of deference to pedigree. The last time I heard an interviewee call a journalist "sir", the man in question was wearing handcuffs and a pair of orange overalls. In this case, though, it was Sir Dudley Forwood, equerry to the Duke of Windsor, a perfect specimen of Thirties England preserved as if in amber. Asked about public attitudes to Wallis Simpson at the time, he replied: "Intense loathing, sir, loathing such that I very much feared she could have been murdered." It was another world altogether, but, as the presenter reminded you by his person alone, one inseparable from our own.