The Weekend's Television: The Queen, Sun, Channel 4

Divorced from reality

"The documentary elements are based on the best available resources", read a title card at the beginning of The Queen, "... the drama is imagined".

It's an awfully widely spaced set of parentheses that, tantamount to saying "where the historical record isn't sufficiently exciting we've just made it up". And had they really gone for broke you can see that Channel 4's new series might have been a comic masterpiece. You could have cut from a newsreel showing Her Majesty inspecting a group of tribal dancers with glazed politesse, to the thrilling moment (hushed up for the sake of royal protocol, of course) when she wrestled a rogue lion to the ground to prevent it eating the bouquet-bearer. Sadly, a kind of whispy vestige of deference has prevented the imagination from taking flight; never quite enough to preserve the Queen from being traduced by this regal tele-novella, but just enough to keep things this side of outright fantasy.

Emilia Fox was first up to play Lillibet, in a soapy little episode subtitled "Sisters", which detailed the first real crisis the Queen faced as head of state... or, as the Mills & Boon blurb voiceover put it, describing the Coronation, "the Queen's solemn face hid a dark secret that was about to break out and shock the watching world". She'd been a shape-shifting werewolf since a nasty incident at Balmoral! But again, sadly no. The dark secret concerned Princess Margaret's affair with Peter Townsend, a liaison that caused consternation among the palace old guard, because Townsend was a royal servant and a divorced man. So far this had been kept a secret with judicious corridor-creeping. We even saw some of it in what I took to be one of the "imagined" sequences: as the Queen addressed the Commonwealth on "the spirit of adventure that is the finest quality of youth", Margaret – always the naughty one of the pair – was down in a basement passage encouraging her equerry to take liberties with the royal person. But then – "at the most important moment of the Queen's life a piece of fluff would suddenly change everything" – Princess Margaret plucked some lint off Townsend's lapel and the world's press went crazy.

This episode did have a scoop of sorts – a letter from Princess Margaret to the new prime minister, Anthony Eden, openly making it plain that she alone would decide about her future and implicitly asking for a bit of help against the stuffies at the Palace. At least I take it on trust that it's a scoop. I have so little interest in the subject of Princess Margaret's love life that I haven't really kept fully abreast with recent scholarship in this field. What was also plain from the less fantastical passages of the programme (essentially the Queen and Princess Margaret looking stricken at each other) was that somebody had called the thing badly wrong. Public opinion appeared to be squarely in Margaret's favour, Eden was supportive and it had become plain that she wouldn't even have to give up royal status, only a shot at the top job that she probably never wanted anyway. A scene here showed the Queen sulkily giving Margaret the go-ahead to choose what she wanted to do. "People look to us, Margaret – to our family – to reflect what is most noble in themselves," said her Majesty sternly, an implausible remark then and a frankly incredible one today. But then, after playing the long game with some finesse and cunning, Margaret backed down anyway. What you really wanted – and what neither "the best available resources" nor "imagination" could satisfactorily supply – was who said what to whom at that final meeting.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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