Too bad about the duke and duchess of Windsor. They caused all that fuss, filled all those newspaper columns, put what was left of an empire to a great inconvenience, and the only reward they had in the end was each other. It can't have sufficed.
"Edward and Mrs. Simpson," an imported Thames Television series about one of the most famous melancholy romances of the century, all but admits what many have surmised; that when you get right down to it, the man who renounced the throne and the woman whose love he renounced it for may have been charming, charismatic and deeply in love, but they were a pair of swizzle sticks pure and simple.
Can a love story about a pair of spoiled brats be emotionally and dramatically engaging? Surprisingly so, partly because it has so much to say about those malingering invalids, royalty and privilege, that barely survived the 19th century and will never make it to the end of the 20th. The seven-part series has been re-edited into six episodes, the first one 90 minutes long and the rest an hour each, premiering at 7:30 tonight on Channel 5.
Edward Fox plays the man who would not be king, an overgrown child, a charming weakling, a man dominated and manipulated by, as the script sees her, the calculatingly coquettish social climber, Wallis Warfield Simpson of Baltimore, Md. She is played with subtle strokes of tender cunning by Cynthia Harris. Both performances are fastidious and fascinating.
Again we are witness to a world long gone but lovingly exhumed by writer Simon Raven, Producer Andrew Brown, director Waris Hussein and unfailingly attentive production designer Allan Cameron. The program is as elaborate and substantial as last years's "Edward the King," which was all about the duke of Windsor's grandpa, Edward VII.
The first chapter takes us from the '20s into the '30s; Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson meet, he eventually gets her to stop calling him "your highness," she replaces her own friend Lady Furness as his highness' honey bunch, and soon he is telling her with strictly imperial ardor, "I have an overwhelming need of you, and wish to bring you permanently into my life."
In the second episode, to be seen next week, the romance begins its disastrous downward plunge; Edward's father George V dies and Edward inherits the crown. He occupies himself with such affairs of state as accounting for soap left in guest rooms at the palace, suggests to advisers that the government try to make friends with Mussolini, and all the time would obviously rather be playing his ukelele at a party for friends.
The duke and duches are portrayed as two silly babies who think they are entitled to all the happiness they want.
As played by Harris, Mrs. Simpson may not earn one's affection, but certainly she gets respect. Royalty was already a myth anyway; why shouldn't she crash the party on sheer determination? In part two, the gay divorce from Baltimore is passing judgments on villas and exclaiming "how middle class!" to the embarrassed stares of the high-bred king's friends.
Fox makes Edward not a tragic hero, but a touchingly irresponsible sport. He wanted life truly to be carefree, as carefree as money could buy. Planning a safari to Africa early in the first episode, he says to another married woman he's been courting, "Do come. It'll be such fun."
Later he faces his father's sickbed only to hear the old man say, "Oh, it's you is it? Damn you, what are you doing here?" In the second, friends remark how "unselfconscious and natural" he is, but these weren't qualities that made kings. The poor chap didn't have the wits or the concentration for the job.
And yet blue corpuscles still sloshed about in his veins. In one of the best scenes in part two, Edward as king visits a lowly tenement district and surprises one family with a personal visit. "I'm the king; may I come in?" he asks.
He says and does the politically correct things, telling the baffled family how much their government cares about improving their lot, and then with a brisk, impersonal sort of pluck, breezes out with, "Well, alas, I can't stay as I have many visits to make." The scene is perfect and Fox disarming.
In part one, Lady Furness learns of the new familiarity between her two friends when Simpson exhibitionistically scolds Edward at tea with a formally playful "naughty boy?" So they were -- naughty boy, naughty girl, and the world sat there enthralled. "Edward and Mrs. Simpson" may scale these figures down considerably, but their story remains enthralling still.