Russell Baker on Bertie & Elizabeth
Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.
More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.
The most exciting gossip story of the 20th century was about an English king who fell in love with an American woman and was forbidden to marry her. The year was 1936, and it was a tale that fascinated half the world. Even an 11-year-old American could read it with delight, as I can testify.
To make it doubly fascinating, there was an element of scandal, for the woman the king loved was already married to another man.
There were even bad guys out to prevent love's triumph. One was the prime minister; another, the archbishop of Canterbury.
They told the king it was either give up the woman he loved or give up the throne.
Well, as everybody knows, the bad guys prevailed. King Edward VIII abdicated and married Mrs. Wallis Simpson after her divorce came through -- and somebody else became king.
Our story tonight is about that somebody else and the woman he married. He was Edward's younger brother Bertie, who instantly became King George VI on the day Edward abdicated, and he was totally unprepared when the monarchy was suddenly thrust upon him. Tonight's story is about this uncertain monarch and the woman who was indispensable to his ultimate success, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.
They, of course, were the parents of Queen Elizabeth II, who this year celebrates her 50th year on the throne.
When he replaced his brother, George VI was portrayed in the press as a shy, dull-witted, colorless man with a crippling stammer, and his wife as hopelessly plain. Little was expected of them, yet when he died, George VI had become a gentle hero to most Britons, even those who didn't like kings.
Our story explains how he did it.
But first a word about names. The British royals always have a great many, and it can get confusing. Thus King George VI also had the name Albert, and so was known as Bertie to friends and family. His older brother, officially Edward VIII, was called David by everyone who knew him. After abdicating, he and his wife became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
And now, Bertie and Elizabeth.
If the portrait of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson in tonight's show seems harsher than we usually see, it's a reflection of how the public view of their love affair was changed by historical events.
When World War II finally ended, the fizzy romance of David and Wallis seemed as flat as last night's champagne. Nowadays it's generally conceded in Britain that Edward selfishly pursued his personal happiness without regard for his public duty and that this was inexcusable in a king, even to keep the woman he loved.
Britain's favorite hero has always been Lord Nelson, who, at Trafalgar, told his sailors, "England expects every man will do his duty."
It was Bertie, not David, who had done his duty, even refusing to be moved from the palace when the bombs were falling.
David couldn't avoid suffering by comparison.
King George died of lung cancer in 1952. There had been rumors for months that he was fatally ill and that doctors thought it resulted from heavy smoking. It was the first public discussion I can recall of a possible link between cigarettes and lung cancer.
His wife, Elizabeth, now affectionately known as "the Queen Mum," celebrated her 100th birthday in the year 2000. Their daughter has been Queen of England for the past half century.
I'm Russell Baker. Good night.
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