Philip Hensher: Forgotten monarchs made for Hollywood

Notebook: the most memorable films about royalty in recent years have emphasised the general dullness of their lives
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The Independent Online

Colin Firth's forthcoming appearance as King George VI in The King's Speech fills, I believe, an important lacuna on screen.

It is not always obvious why, but film-makers have always been drawn to depict some monarchs rather than others. Elizabeth I yes: James I, not so much. Edward VIII certainly (the American wife a useful way into a lucrative market); Edward VII, rather unexpectedly, hardly at all. Before the making of The King's Speech, the Queen's father, poor old George VI, largely existed on the borders of other people's stories in other films. He might be cast as a disapproving presence around his abdicating brother in an abdication movie, or the straight man in a Churchill drama. But not many film-makers seem to have thought him a good subject in his own right.

The acclaim already being attracted by The King's Speech makes you wonder what other thrilling stories might be tucked away in the less charismatic corners of English royal history. Has anyone ever made a film about George II? The only appearance I can find is a 1957 German film about Daniel Defoe called Robinson Soll Nicht Sterben. But there must be a good movie there. On his wife's deathbed, she tried to make him promise to marry again, and in floods of tears, he said: "No, I'd rather stick to mistresses." Surely a very moving scene, and, also, he looked very interestingly like a toad.

There are far too many movies about Charles II – the saucy-wench factor seems to compensate for the hideous wigs of the period. Why not ring the changes and "do" Queen Anne? A period of political turmoil and war, Anne's lesbian passion for the Duchess of Marlborough, and the private tragedy of all those stillborn children. How could it fail? Or her successor, George I – very tedious on the surface, true. But he rather glamorously had his wife's lover hacked to pieces and imprisoned her in her castle for 30 years. That doesn't seem to have attracted film-makers, and I can't see why.

But perhaps this is the wrong line to take. After all, the most memorable films about royalty in recent years have emphasised the general dullness of their lives, rather than anything exciting – Helen Mirren's Queen Elizabeth II, hunkering down in Balmoral and ignoring the events in the outside world, or Tom Hollander's stamp-collecting George V in Steven Poliakoff's The Lost Prince. Alan Bennett's George III seems a cosy domestic fellow, not particularly remarkable for anything until he goes mad. George VI's stammer is a very suitably drab topic for a modern film about royalty.

The time may have passed for a swashbuckling epic about colourful times. Perhaps film-makers could turn from the intrinsically dramatic lives of royalty to much more grey public lives. Stafford Cripps: The Movie may be coming soon to a cinema near you.

Real heroes of 7/7

It might have been difficult, in advance, to see what purpose the inquest into the victims of the 7 July bombings in London would serve. We knew how they died, and at whose hands: surely it could serve only to add to the sufferings of the bereaved. But in the event, the inquest is turning into a national ceremony of commemoration and mourning.

What is turning out to be important are not the details of suffering and violence, but the extraordinary stories of bravery, goodness and heroism from fellow passengers. Dr Gerardine Quaghebeur, who comforted the dying Carrie Taylor for an hour without means of medical support. Elizabeth Kenworthy, who saved the lives of victims by improvising tourniquets and organising help. Philip Duckworth, who, blinded by a fragment of the bomber's shinbone, laconically said at the inquest that his prosthetic eye was "very realistic. I'm very pleased with that".

Not everybody behaved well in the circumstances – Dr Quaghebeur recalled getting very angry with survivors who started to take photographs on their mobile phones. An important part of the inquest's work will be to decide what more could have been done. But many people behaved bravely and selflessly at a time when the emergency services were prevented from getting closer for fear of secondary devices. There are medals for civilian gallantry, such as the George Cross, and I hope they will be awarded generously when the inquest is over. But what counts is that individual stories are being told, and listened to. There is not closure here, to use an ugly modern word; rather, an opening up.

Ann's tango is no joke

The BBC has an inability to see a joke until it is explained to it; and subsequently an inability to stop exploiting the joke until it has long stopped being amusing. Asking Ann Widdecombe to appear on Strictly Come Dancing must once have seemed a hilarious idea. She sensibly turned it down, year after year, and then finally gave in. Now, "comically" partnered with a dancer a foot taller than she is, she must wonder whether she did the right thing. On Saturday, it wasn't enough to strap Miss Widdecombe into a truss and descend her from the flies, but to tell the viewers in advance that they were going to do it; and, before she even performed the tango, to tell them that it was going to be memorably awful. Of course, they are trying to re-heat the lead-filled soufflé that was John Sergeant in the ballroom – but it just isn't working.

If Widdecombe isn't the national treasure that the BBC seems to think she is, that may be because her opinions are still trenchant and her intelligent self-assurance undiminished. She is not a glamour-puss, though she is elegantly turned out for a woman of her age. She may not be able to dance, even after weeks of classes. But it must be said she is much better at delivering a line, impromptu or scripted, than the host, Bruce Forsyth, who after decades of stage experience can still make a total hash of a joke about "four fathers/forefathers". Is laughing at the tangos of late-middle-aged women of high intelligence an ideal form of TV entertainment on a Saturday night? She is being a pointedly good sport about it at the moment. I do hope she is going to let us know her thoughts on the whole business when it is all over.