TV review: Tales from the Royal Bedchamber, BBC4
Rick Stein's German Bite, BBC2
For all our evident hunger for news of every royal utterance, appearance and baby-head protuberance, we're starved of information from one quarter of palace life: the bedroom. Which is good. Surely only the most obsessed flag-waving nutter would want to know what goes on in the Queen's bedroom. But the monarch's nocturnal activities (and emissions... read on) weren't always so private.
Lucy Worsley, chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, was our intrepid and relentlessly jolly guide. "I'm going to get into bed with kings and queens!" she said with one of many suggestive winks. Her Tales from the Royal Bedchamber began way back in medieval times, when the finest bed clothes were made of the white belly fur of red squirrels, and the warders of the royal robes used to keep them in, yep, royal wardrobes.
Then, and for centuries thereafter, the royal beds were stages for high drama that could decide the fates of whole dynasties. Beds were formal meeting places, where courtiers jostled for the best access to the royal ear and, in the case of the "groom of the stole", the royal arse (it was his job to help the king do his other business, which makes Prince Charles's rumoured use of a valet to squeeze out his toothpaste seem quite modest).
Chambers became so grand that royals would often do their actual sleeping in smaller quarters. There they could openly employ mistresses as official members of the royal household, further fuelling public interest in their private lives. Henry VIII was particularly entertaining, of course. When Anne of Cleves insisted the reason for his bid to get rid of her was impotence, not her unfortunate looks, Henry got doctors to announce his nocturnal emissions to the House of Lords.
Queen Victoria later shut the door on such unseemly revelations. By the time of her reign, there was also less need and demand for bedroom intrigue as the balance of power shifted to Parliament. But that threw up new complications. When Victoria invited the Tory Robert Peel to be Prime Minister after the fall of the Whig Lord Melbourne, Peel refused unless she dismissed her Whig ladies of the bedchamber. She was outraged but eventually compelled to do so.
Victoria otherwise enjoyed the privacy of her time, which was greater even than that afforded to today's royals. Most illuminating, given the contemporary hysteria around a certain boy George, was a newspaper clipping Worsley clutched. It reported, in passing, the arrival of a Victorian baby. "The Queen was brought to bed after an indisposition of a few hours." It's enough to make a republican nostalgic.
Rick Stein's family history, revealed in his hour-long search for decent food in Hamburg and beyond, was more conventional if also quite German. The Steins were loaded farmers-turned-distillers from Düsseldorf whose riches eventually helped a young Rick open his first restaurant. He had long wanted to return, he told us, to prove there was more to the food of his forebears than sausage and pickled stodge.
Tellingly, Rick Stein's German Bite was a one-off show. Stein tried very hard to challenge the sauerkraut stereotype, recruiting his son for a time as he toured the country in a camper van. There were some tempting finds. I wanted to reach out and grab the pickled herring, and the white asparagus with ham and hollandaise prepared by Stein's posh relatives even looked delicious. But the rest of it sat rather heavily in the stomach.
After a diversion to the kitchens of the "German Jamie Oliver" and a bizarre sequence with the German-Ethiopian presenter of a show about Stein's show, Rick delivered a rather awkward toast at a family bash to end his journey. "German food is what it is," he said by way of thanks before hotfooting it back to Cornwall. "Seasonal and robust."
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