An upcoming TV drama showcases Margaret’s tempestuous life
ROBERT MASON LEEOctober32005
THE DARK PRINCESS
An upcoming TV drama showcases Margaret’s tempestuous life
ROBERT MASON LEE
SHE WAS THE FIRST to allow the public to see that the royals were like any other family, with problems and complications of their own. She was the first royal to embrace the Swinging Sixties, the first member of the royal inner circle in centuries to get a divorce, the first to become daily tabloid fodder. Now, three years after her death, she will be the first to have her life luridly portrayed in a TV drama—one showing her having raucous sex, committing adultery, taking drugs and planting a lesbian kiss. The life of Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister, HRH Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, thrills us still.
The telefilm, called The Queen’s Sister and produced by London’s Touchpaper Television for Britain’s Channel 4, will be broadcast in the U.K. on Nov. 24—but it has already stirred a tempest in a Minton teacup. Margaret’s former lady-in-waiting, Lady Davinia Alexander, called on viewers to boycott the program, saying: “The production company has taken the life of a very dignified woman and, despite the lack of any co-operation from her family and friends, has turned it into a tawdry soap opera.” Margaret’s husband from 1960 to 1978, the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon, 75, is reportedly “incandescent with rage.” Lord Snowdon, who was not contacted during the making of the film, said: “If you knew somebody was making a film in which your wife was portrayed as having lesbian affairs, drinking too much and having rows, what would you do?” And the princess’s son, Viscount Linley—now a highly esteemed custom-furniture maker in London—declined to comment. But a friend said: “He and his family are very upset. He doesn’t want to give the program the oxygen of publicity by commenting, but feels very strongly that it is in extremely poor taste.” Buckingham Palace has not dignified the drama with a comment.
The drama portrays the princess naked and having sex so vigorously that she re-
peatedly bangs her head against her bedroom wall in Kensington Palace.
She is also depicted taking drugs with the Beatles, stumbling around while drunkenly incoherent, and sneaking off for an illicit tryst after performing a sex act on her husband. In yet another scene, Margaret gives a lingering kiss to Sharman Douglas, the daughter of the American ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. A two-year affair between the women was first alleged in 2003 in an ITV documentary, Margaret: The Secret Princess, but Lord Snowdon dismisses the idea as poppycock. “Sharman Douglas wasn’t attractive to me,” he says. “I don’t think she would have been to Princess Margaret either. She did look rather butch.”
The film isn’t particularly kind to other senior royals, either. Prince Philip is rendered as particularly callous, telling Lord Snowdon that his endless round of public engagements is tedious, but “there’s always a bit of striking totty about.” He adds: “One cannot be blamed for seeing to one’s own duty while the wife is seeing to hers.”
The London papers have been filled with mock-horror/outrage over the film’s contents. But to be fair to the producers, it is difficult to imagine any controversy levelled at Princess Margaret that she did not already weather in her own life. Touchpaper Television claims to have based The Queen’s Sister on “painstaking research,” but there’s little in the treatment that could not have been gathered from a cursory read of the several biographies already published about her.
At the same time, the filmmakers have
tried to have their cake and eat it too—while insisting that the drama is based on meticulous research, they admit it is “not totally factual.” They also maintain it was their intention to portray Margaret in a favourable light. “It’s quite affectionate,” says Francis Hopkinson, Channel 4’s senior commissioning editor for drama. “She is our heroine, and it wasn’t intended as an exposé. It shows the excesses and hedonism and goes
some way to explain the mental breakdown that led to her disappearance from public life.” The network’s director of television, Kevin Lygo, notes that the drama’s time frame, the late ’50s and early ’60s, was “when she was absolutely the most glamorous public female figure, in a Diana-like way.”
Of all of the Queen’s family, no life was more genuinely dramatic, without need of embellishment, than Princess Margaret’s. “She was the Diana of her day,” said The Guardian on her death in February 2002, “and her life, above all, posed that essential question which Diana, in her own way, was trying to answer: what, exactly, is a princess for?”
Princess Margaret was colonel-in-chief and patron of more than 30 organizations, from Britain’s Royal Ballet to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, but gained more notoriety as the centre of the “Margaret set,” a group of high-flying heirs and debutantes who set the trend in 1950s London. She was seldom out of the newspapers, often appearing less than a perfect princess after a hard night of partying.
Lord Charteris, formerly the Queen’s
private secretary, observed sagely at the time that one function of the royals “is to be the continuing story of Peyton Place, and of course in that story there is always somebody who is not actually behaving as they should be. The dark princess, if you like.” That role has been assumed today by Harry, the dark prince.
Princess Margaret’s father, King George VI, died when she was 21. Around this time
she fell for Group Capt.
Peter Townsend, her father’s former equerry. He was deemed unacceptable on the grounds that he had been divorced—the cabinet and the Archbishop of Canterbury opposed the match, and her sister, the Queen, was placed in an impossible position as the supreme governor of the Church of England. Shortly after attaining the age of 25, when she could marry without their approval (but have to cede her succession right), she instead chose position over passion and announced she and Townsend would not be wed. The photograph of her stricken face after the announcement was made remains iconic, an indelible image of heartbreak.
Four years later, the same week Townsend married a Belgian heiress, Margaret agreed to marry Armstrong-Jones. They cut a wide
swath through London’s Swinging Sixties set, making celebrity friends of the likes of Peter Sellers, Rudolph Nureyev, Mary Quant, Vidal Sassoon—even celebrity gangsters such as Reggie and Ronnie Kray. They also both had affairs. A later biography claimed that Margaret’s friendship with Sellers may have been more than platonic; she had an affair with Anthony Barton, her daughter’s godfather; and a sensational scandal erupted in 1968 when Robin Douglas-Home committed suicide 18 months after she ended their liaison.
By then, her marriage to Snowdon was irreparable. Biographer Kitty Kelley wrote that he once wore a paper bag over his head during a dinner party, explaining: “I can’t stand the f—ing sight of you.” In 1973, she began an affair with Roddy Llewellyn, 17 years her junior, and after a photograph of the pair vacationing at her retreat on the West Indian island of Mustique was published by the News of the World, she and Snowdon were divorced in 1978.
Margaret became increasingly isolated from, and disliked by, the British public. She extended herself less and less for her charity works, became known for her brief and graceless public appearances, and among the upper classes was known as the “houseguest from hell.” Her drinking and smoking were legendary; so, too, was her bad temper. Her health fell into decline as a result, and she suffered a series of strokes. In 1999, she suffered severe bums to her feet from scalding bathwater; when she made her last public appearance, at her aunt’s 100th birthday celebrations in December 2001, she was a tragic figure in sunglasses and a wheelchair. She died on Feb. 9,2002.
In August, after a spate of bad publicity, the filmmakers withdrew preview clips of the film and declined further interviews. A spokesperson for the production said there were no plans yet to broadcast it in Canada, and told Maclean’s, “That decision would wait until the British audiences and critics have seen it.” It seems unlikely the royal family will tune in, though a Channel 4 spokesperson did say, “We would be happy tosendthema DVD.” lil
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