Oh those networks -- such imps! CBS had scheduled a movie about the courtship and marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer for just before Christmas, then suddenly moved up the air date to tonight. ABC, which had its own movie on the subject already finished, hastily rescheduled it, to get the jump on CBS, for last Friday night, too late even for the all-important TV Guide deadlines.
Such childish behavior is not surprising from these hooligans. The surprise is that ABC's "Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story" was about 48 times better than tonight's CBS movie, at 9 on Channel 9, "The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana." ABC's movie really was about something -- partly, about how the mercilessness of the public eye can jar someone unaccustomed to it -- while the CBS film, produced by Linda Yellen and directed by Peter Levin, lazily goes the gaga route: slack-jawed heraldic voyeurism incapable of, and apparently uninterested in, transforming remote news figures into believable mortals.
The two films have a few things in common beyond the obvious exploitation of a captivating real-life tale. In both, the actors playing Prince Charles neither look nor particularly act the part (David Robb on ABC, Christopher Baines on CBS), and the actresses playing Lady Diana (Caroline Bliss on ABC and Catherine Oxenberg on CBS) are quite fine, both conveying what might have been going on in the mind of this quietly pretty young woman.
But the CBS film unfortunately makes her something of a Pollyanna, or a Cinderella -- a sweet innocent sprite upon whom a fairy godmother bestowed a few crucial wishes. In the ABC version, more believably, Lady Di rather cunningly contrives to bump into the prince and thus make his acquaintance, giving dear old fate something of a kick in the arse.
Respectfulness is carried to sticky extremes in "The Royal Romance" (the title sounds like a Lina Lamont-Don Lockwood costume drama from "Singin' in the Rain," and the film is just about as silly). It's no crime that we don't get to see the prince fall off his polo pony, or otherwise have his dignity crinkled, but the gosh quotient here is way out of line. ABC's film cast top-drawer British actors in supporting roles (Mona Washbourne was huggably regal as the queen mother, and Christopher Lee played Prince Philip with debonair gusto) whereas on CBS we find, cast as Prince Charles' personal secretary, Ray Milland, looking, in a black suit, like a collaboration by Charles Addams and Edward Gorey and sneering as though he smelled cabbage cooking in the next room (in fairness, the same part in the ABC movie was played by Rod Taylor, but he made a lot more of it); and, in a pitifully fluttery turn as the Queen Mom, Olivia de Havilland, whom three or four decades and 40 or 50 extra pounds have not made any easier to take.
Of course both films missed the boat by not casting Carol Burnett as Queen Elizabeth II. Dana Wynter handles the part with appropriate humorlessness on CBS. And Stewart Granger looks terribly fit as Philip, though not quite as fit, and articulate, as he was last week playing himself, and paying tribute to the late Princess Grace on an expanded edition of "ABC News Nightline." It's obviously time for Granger to leap back into the limelight; the years look good on him.
Dramatizing the private lives of royalty can't be easy. It was a trifle painful every time some prince or other in the ABC film would propose a jolly old game of "shir-rods" (charades). But the CBS film doesn't even make a good try. Can we really be expected to believe that at breakfast Prince Andrew would turn to his brother and say something as sappy as, "Do you realize we're witnessing the end of history in this room?" ABC's "Royal Love Story" had a dignified and melodic score by the talented John Addison ("Tom Jones"), but David Palmer's music for "Royal Romance" is fruitily inflated and pompous, like the film, and reaches a torrential dramatic crescendo during a scene depicting that world-shaking moment when Lady Di got her hair cut.
ABC ended its film with lots of color newsreel footage of the actual wedding with the close-ups of the actors convincingly cut into the pageantry. CBS tries the same trick tonight, but botched editing makes a shambles of the desired illusion. Anyway, neither film is as impressive or affecting as TV news coverage of the wedding was last July, which only goes to prove something that didn't need proving in the first place.