John: The Lost Prince

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Hearts invariably sink with the news that TV has decided that it’s time for a drama programme on the Royals. The turmoil of the Nineties, beginning with the separation of the Duke and Duchess of York and rising to the crescendo of the Charles-Diana separation and divorce, was a godsend in the eyes of TV drama producers. That nothing remotely memorable of that turmoil ended up on our screens says more about the producers than the significance of the events. I, for one, will not be waiting with bated breath at the prospect of Faye Dunaway – fine actress– playing the Duchess of Windsor in a £5 film based on an affair between Wallis and a gay American playboy. With very few exceptions, Royals, we can declare, have not been well served by the film and TV industries. So when a film appears which rewrites the rules, it’s time to stand up and cheer, writes BOB HOUSTON. Such is the BBC film, The Lost Prince, by Stephen Poliakoff. It tells the story of the youngest son of King George V and Queen Mary.

But those of us who believe that, given the right talent, the fascination of Royal history can be better served must rejoice the the BBC’s production The Lost Prince. Writer/director Stephen was intrigued to find that Johnnie was very far from being the monster child who grew enormous for his age whilst having the mental age of a three year-old. “Johnnie had learning difficulties and was prone to severe epileptic fits but he was also capable of interesting and humorous observations about people and situations and inspired devotion and love from his nurse Lalla, a devotion that lasted nearly half a century after his death.

“But for me the truly haunting fact about Johnnie was that his short life spanned one of the most momentous periods of our history. He was born into the extravagant and Ruritanian fantasy world that was the court of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at the height of British Imperial power. But when he died at the age of thirteen and a half on the very day the politicians sat down to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, the whole of Europe had changed completely. Several monarchies had collapsed, Emperors had fled into exile, there had been the Russian revolution, and the entire adult world had been engulfed by the worst catastrophe of the Twentieth Century, the First World War.

“Lalla Bill was a spirited, no-nonsense woman who was not afraid to speak her mind even to the Queen. She had risen to prominence in the royal household by whistle-blowing on the sadistic nurse who had charge of the royal children. Lalla worked hard to educate Johnnie when everybody else despaired of him making any progress and she was totally shattered by his death.”

“The longer I thought about the story the more it revealed the chance to write about these events from a unique angle, the gaze of a child. Johnnie at the beginning of his life was right in the middle of this imperial family, often the centre of attention because of his funny and charming remarks, only to find himself being hidden away at the very moment the adults around him completely lost control of their destiny.

“All the major public events in the story are absolutely true – the suffragette throwing herself at the feet of Queen Mary inside Buckingham Palace, the disastrous Irish conference, the speed with which the royal family changed their German name, and perhaps most intriguingly George V’s involvement with the fate of the Russian royal family – George V’s desperate and successful efforts to get the invitation to his Russian cousin to come to England revoked. The sequence of events show George V to be capable of cunning and pragmatism during the darkest days of the war when the royal family was filled with what can only be described as panic about the survival of the monarchy.

“An interesting problem for me was how to cast the piece so that we didn’t end up with a collection of historical wax works, grand English actors giving embalmed performances. The casting of Mary was simple because I immediately thought of Miranda Richardson. It was essential I had someone as Mary who would neither sentimentalise her nor give her such a severe Germanic exterior that she became an impossible stereotype.

“Opposite the composure of Mary I needed an actor who could be passionate and fearless and not self-consciously working class. I had known Gina McKee since early on in her career and she immediately seemed right to play Lalla, the nurse who had brought up all the royal children and dedicated her existence to Johnnie. Lalla Bill was a spirited no- nonsense woman who was not afraid to speak her mind even to the Queen. She had risen to prominence in the royal household by whistle-blowing on the sadistic nurse who had charge of the royal children at that time and was subjecting them to physical abuse. Lalla worked hard to educate Johnnie when everybody else despaired of him making any progress and she was totally shattered by his death. She remained devoted to his memory for her whole life and in retirement she had a giant, blown-up photograph of him as a toddler hanging over her mantelpiece.

“The search for actors to play the young princes took three months and the casting department saw more than 600 children. I had written some very demanding roles for the boys, not just Johnnie but also young George, the future Duke of Kent. Georgie was a rebellious child,mercurial, talented and very mature for his age – a young prince who was later to turn into a playboy, become a close friend of Noel Coward, experiment with drugs and generally tread a nonconformist path.

“In the end if you put in the hours you will always find good child actors because the pool of talent at that age is infinite; they have not realised yet just how difficult their job is. And the boys who played the princes showed themselves completely capable of taking on the complex roles I had given them.”

It’s important that the BBC’s gamble in mounting such an ambitious venture paid off in terms of viewing figures. More significant is the proof that there are alternatives to portraying Royal personalities in ways other than the “tabloidisation” which has become the norm for our times. They were – and are – real people. Stephen Poliakoff deserves our thanks for reminding the world of that.

(First published in Royalty Magazine Volume 18-05.)