I had to wonder if, holed up in some palace antechamber alone with a snifter of brandy, Prince Charles secretly watches Edward the King (originally broadcast in Britain as Edward the Seventh, presumably because they would have known he was king). The parallels between the two are pretty interesting: like Edward, Charles has watched his popular mother weather decades of being monarch with no apparent end in sight, making the son's eventual ascent to the throne almost a moot point at times. Like Edward, Charles has frequently been derided for his choices in female companionship (and indeed Camilla Parker Bowles is the great granddaughter of Edward's mistress Alice Keppel). While I doubt that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip derided Charles the way that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert evidently did Edward (known to them as Bertie), it's apparent that some British wags consider Charles a similarly lightweight heir apparent, someone more suited to the social aspects of the high life as opposed to skill in governance, the same sort of branding that Edward received for much of his adult life.
This invigorating recreation of both the Victorian and Edwardian eras stands as one of the most thorough investigations of 19th and early 20th century royal life ever put on a screen, large or small. In fact the series could just as easily have been titled Queen Victoria and her son, Edward, as Victoria looms large throughout the majority of episodes. In what may be a retroactively unintended ironic piece of casting, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman's spunky elder Annette Crosbie here, thirty-odd years earlier, appears as Victoria, another woman with a job many considered unsuitable for her gender, doing an incredible job depicting the long-lived queen from her early married years to her ultimate demise in 1901. Victoria was not exactly mild mannered, and indeed probably would be best described by the charming euphemism "high strung," and Crosbie bites into the role with a considerable amount of relish. The early episodes depicting the sometimes rocky early years with Prince Albert are especially remarkable. Albert was not happy to be consigned to the masculine version of being a hausfrau, and, in the early years at least, Victoria wasn't comfortable sharing her queenly duties with him, and the dialectic between them traverses a very thin line between courtly politeness and occasionally volcanic fury. Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter films) contributes an amazing portrayal of Albert which matches Crosbie's every step of the way.
Edward (played by Charles Sturridge as a young man, Timothy West in later years) is shown to be an earnest, if not especially intellectual, youth and young man straining against the constraints placed against him by virtue of his station. Albert was no fan of an English education, and so subjected his firstborn son to an endless disciplinary array of menial work and history lessons that Albert hoped would imbue a moral compass in the boy. Unfortunately Edward's lack of passion for study put him at odds with his father early on, and in one of the few instances where Victoria didn't assert her queenly rights, he found no solace in his mother's arms. Nonetheless the series shows Edward overcoming his parents' stubborn insistence that he was a failure, making his international mark first in a trip to America and Canada, where his personal charm helped balance any shortcomings he may have had in native brainpower.
Perhaps the turning point (from bad to worse, it turns out) in this long life story comes when one of Edward's many dalliances leads, albeit indirectly, to Albert's death, leaving Victoria an inconsolable widow and Edward more than ever locked out of the corridors of power. With society at large having decided that Edward was nothing more than a royal rake, he was strangely finally free to find himself and develop both his personal charm, which was already legend, and his political and diplomatic skills. The fact that he had to wait several more decades to finally assume the throne only helped burnish these skills, perhaps to Victoria's ultimate chagrin.
Edward the King is a model of British miniseries production design and performances. Relatively sumptious sets (at least for television fare) and beautiful costumes fill every episode and John Gorrie's direction is rock solid for the entire 13 episode run of the piece. But it's the trio of West, Hardy and Crosbie that keep the series involving, even in the somewhat slow opening episodes. By the time Hardy's Albert shuffles off this mortal coil, the interrelationships have been so finely detailed that a lot of what plays out afterward has the semblance of an English version of Greek tragedy at times. The cast is also filled with star turns in cameo roles, including a spry John Gielgud as Benjamin Disraeli, Michael Hordern as William Gladstone and especially Harry Andrews as the young Edward's imperious tutor, Colonel Bruce.
The history lessons this long but worthwhile effort impart are really incredible, not the least of which was Victoria and Albert's largely successful effort to unite all the families of Europe together via marriage. What that means is you'll see such epochal figures as Kaiser Wilhelm appearing as babies and then growing to a wounded and irate manhood, laying the foundation for World War I, while "cousins" Nicky and Alex (otherwise known as the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia) appear as tangential characters when "Willy"'s antics threaten to destabilize all of Europe. What you get in these vignettes is an amazing peek into what basically amounts to an extremely dysfunctional extended family, albeit one whose peccadilloes have untold consequences for all of mankind. This high wire act is handled remarkably ably throughout Edward the King, providing the human personal side to events that are more often than not seen from an outsider's perspective.
Edward the King is surprisingly sharp for an English television series from the mid-70s. Quite a bit better detail than a lot of recent UK tv I've reviewed here is apparent throughout the 13 episodes, with generally strong color and a refreshing lack of softness, even in some of the outdoor filmed material. This is not say this is a videophile's dream, by any means--there are occasional moments of damage to the videotape master, including some wobbling and other slight tracking issues. But if you watch a lot of British television, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the shape this particular series is in.
The PCM audio track is generally quite excellent, with good fidelity throughout all ranges, if very occasional boxiness in some musical sequences. Dialogue is always clear and crisp and you won't have any major complaints with this basic television sound design at all.
Lo and behold, stop the presses, an Acorn release finally has some decent extras! We get several episode commentaries featuring some at time very funny interplay between Crosbie, West and Gorrie, almost all of the original Masterpiece Theater introduction by Robert (Robin) MacNeil for the U.S. broadcast version, a promo featurette on the series for what must have been the U.S. premiere, a better featurette offering a nice interview with Robert Hardy, and an hour long montage of production and behind the scenes photos set to another good commentary by the stars and director.
Like a lot of serialized family dramas, let alone one featuring queens, kings and their various offspring, Edward the King takes an episode or two to lay the foundation for an overall fascinating series. You will get an unmatched history lesson with this piece if you give it some time. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet