Pip, pip! A Royal Documentaries List.
by Kristin Battestella
There's bling, a palace or two, plenty of scandal, and a boatload of history running over in these documentaries fit for any and all British monarchy enthusiasts.
The Queen's Palaces – A whimsical title card introduces this three part series detailing the history, architecture, and artwork therein of three official royal residences: Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and Holyroodhouse. While the tone is generally casual and down to earth, the presentation is a bit awed and self important at times – but that's okay amid Buckingham Palace's pretty red velvets, chandeliers, and you know, thrones. Historians on the scene, royal experts, portraits of past figures, and access to areas not often seen by the public help shape the on location hosting, interior tours, and factual narratives. From Henry VIII and our old friend George III to Albert, Victoria, and The Blitz, the theatrical symbolism and architectural trendsetting continues with Windsor Castle's military history and secret passages. Recognizable names and places such as William the Conqueror and St. George's Chapel highlight the castle's unique Da Vinci collections and mementos – right down to Admiral Nelson's lethal bullet complete with fibers still attached! Queen Mary's Dollhouse and post-fire restorations maintain a link to past English lineage while appearances are everything splendors reflect 1,000 years of changing design. Stunning scenery, snowscapes, and natural panoramas set the scene for Episode Three's focus on the Stuart stirrings and Mary, Queen of Scots scandals peppering Holyrood – where tiny emblematic jewels, stunning ceiling art, hefty tapestries, and delicate Victorian preservation tell tales of Catholicism versus Protestants and Bonnie Prince Charlie. It's quite neat to see places so commonly associated with today's royals as told through their historical occupants pre-Lilibet warts and all. These three hours share quite a bit, indeed, however I wish there were more seasons covering the other two dozen or so current royal locales. Because, why not?
The Royal Jewels – Delightful not often seen video footage from as early as 1902 featuring the late Queen Mother, Mary of Teck, Queen Alexandra, and even Victoria anchors this hour long, tip of the iceberg look into some British bling. Understandably, much time is spent on the Cullinan diamond – I'm learning how to RP pronounce all these words I've only read – before the Imperial State Crown, The Sovereign's Sceptre, and a retrospective back to more Victorian gems. Unfortunately, I hate to say it, but the tone becomes inauthentic once the late Diana, Princess of Wales is shoehorned into the otherwise linear narrative. There are enough treats in the vaults to not stray into speculation about which of The Queen's jewels Diana maybe would have worn, and talking head experts with basic jewel information do better. In fact, all the shiny in a slideshow with factoid text bubbles would have been enough alongside the raw royal footage, but the presentation strays further into irrelevant side stories, anecdotes, hearsay, and divorce. The DVD release suggestions 2011, however, the film itself is clearly older since it refers to The Queen Mother in the present tense. Perhaps some sentimentality over Lady Di clouded the viewpoint, as unnecessary music plays as ominous or romantic – catering to ladies and feeling overly feminine when the straightforward information from the actual Court Jeweller is much more authentic compared to the uneven elitist or fanciful voiceover. Rare Edwardian reels and Russian Revolution footage are wow enough jewel provenance, and lesser seen Kent and Gloucester branches add gems along with the late Princess Margaret and even the Duchess of Windsor. Between the Crown Jewels, personal property, and more noble glitter, it's a lot to cover in such a short time. Imagine a series with an hour each on just crowns, brooches, necklaces, or episodes by royal! This documentary is by no means exhaustive. Compared to such a firm title, this feels fast, cheap, and generic in its uneven approach. Fortunately, some lovely big guns and fun jewel surprises are featured, and this is a nice starter video to begin your own shiny research.
Secrets of Henry VIII's Palace – The 501 year old Hampton Court Palace gets a 2013 spotlight in this hour long PBS documentary chronicling all the Tudor scandals inside its lavish brick facade. Serious, foreboding medieval chorales accent lovely outdoor visuals and garden splendors as well as stunning historical architecture, lush interiors, and embellished battle paintings. From Cardinal Wolsey's construction to real tennis matches and the massive kitchen and travel preparations for the King's entourage, this palace had to adapt as the divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived came and went. Those poor craftsman who put all the wives' emblems in the woodwork, tapestries, and stained glass – only to keep updating their work over and over again! Lavish ladies fashions of the time – a hefty five layers for drafty castles and cold jousting tournaments – are also detailed by both seated experts and historians on site. Armor explanations and downstairs feasting how-tos help connect Henry VIII's increasing decadence and ever shortening temper while trials and the boat ride to the Tower of London didn't always lead to smooth executions or swift head choppings. Naturally, the 16th century drama fills most of the time here, and the narrator moves steadily from wife to wife before William and Mary's baroque resurgence, the regal power reflected in their restoration, and a still smelly velvet commode! Good thing Queen Caroline added bathing suites and locks on the doors. Victorian preparations helped open Hampton to public tours, and the visual nuggets and examples of court life here put the Tudor melodrama we know and love into tangible, real life terms in one timeless location.
Tales from the Royal Bedchamber – This 2013 PBS hour acknowledges our obsession with the minutia of regal life and pulls out all the puns for this behind closed doors look. Beginning with Chaucer jokes, medieval clues, and 13th century artwork of Merlin being conceived by a demon (!) and continuing with historic separate beds, conjugal visits, and lavish fabrics, our host climbs the step stool to test those plump pillows. Though existing historical beds are tough to find and information is piecemeal, there are accounts of tremendous preparation for when the king traveled. They packed up the entire kit and caboodle – including the bed. One might gain power on the battlefield instead of in the bedroom, but either way, there were fleas. Over the centuries, regal consummation and marital witnessing strayed near voyeurism, and the intimate of the bedchamber became the political utmost for the Tudors with pregnancy, bed rest customs, and dynastic failures putting the church and country in peril. And what's this about an alleged baby swapping via an old fashioned bed warming pan? Favored courtiers all wanted to tuck the king in at night so they could whisper their ambitions in his ear. Monarchs in the 17th century couldn't exactly be alone in the bedroom, but Official Royal Mistress maker Charles II must have liked it that way. Little has changed for weavers crafting luxurious silk linens, and once upon a time, aristocrats footed the bill for such lavish beds in hopes of a royal visit – because you have to have that kind of theatrical bed canopy handy. Of course, those steeped in euphemisms Victorians were actually pretty randy, but their bedrooms were reserved for the personal or intimate rather than being the political hotbed. Be it decorative or for nighttime shenanigans, this hour has enough tongue in cheek fun with everything from bed construction, servant protocol, and the tawdry between the sheets without sacrificing on the informative.