When the BBC was formed in 1922, its now well-known guiding principles were to inform, educate and entertain the British public. Today, it still strives to achieve these three Reithian commandments against a competitive backdrop of niche broadcasting. A brilliant example of this is the documentary that aired this week on BBC2 entitled, ‘Princess Margaret: The Rebel Royal’.
The first part of two sixty minute programmes, this first episode was entitled, ‘Pleasure vs Duty’. Programmes like this are what the BBC does best. It was a balanced objective account about the life of the late Princess Margaret, focusing from the 1930s to the 1960s. The documentary maker had no obvious agenda here, unlike say with Michael Moore’s or Nick Broomfield’s films that always have a strong clear emotive message. The history and its repercussions were just presented to us and it was up to us how we made sense of them.
What was impressive about this documentary was how well it combined using interesting archive news footage with present day interviews to tell us the story. The archive footage put us back there in time and helped us imagine what life was like back then. We got all the pomp and pageantry of big Royal state occasions like when Princess Margaret’s father, George VI, became King somewhat unexpectedly.
In contrast, we also heard from members of the public that had been captured on the news back then. The most striking part of the whole documentary was when it discussed Princess Margaret’s relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend. We were told how their love affair was a scandal due to him being a divorcee and that this led him to be exiled to Brussels. To listen to what ordinary working men and women thought about this was compelling stuff. Such views were significant to highlight because they illustrated a wider change in attitudes towards marriage back then in Britain.
Although non of the Royal Family were interviewed in this documentary, an insightful collection of Royal authors and old friends that were in Princess Margaret’s inner circle were interviewed. Again, their interesting accounts helped place us back there in time. An example of this was when Lady Jane Rayne, recalled asking Princess Margaret about her father once. ”Do you mean the King?”, replied the princess in an admonishing manner she said.
Speaking as a child of the late 70s, an appealing aspect of this programme was that it revealed information about Princess Margaret, that I had not known up to this point. For instance, I no idea that the Queen and Princess Margaret did not receive the same level of education when they were growing up. It was stated that Princess Margaret did not receive the same high standard of education as the Queen, so she would not be seen as a threat to her in the proceeding years.
Although this documentary was balanced and objective, in some ways you could also argue this was a sympathetic account of Princess Margaret’s life. Her aloofness at having no clearly defined role for herself within the Royal Family was discussed at length. It was also highlighted how when she married Anthony Armstrong-Jones, she was unaware of his continuing behaviour with other women.
Therefore, this programme needs praising for being so informative not just about the life of Princess Margaret, but also about the changing attitudes taking place in Britain that came about in the 1960s.
A thoroughly enjoyable watch which was really well put together, the BBC at its best! 4/5.