My reality is better than yours

‘Reality’ is everywhere on television these days, giving people the chance to sit at home and watch other people going about their lives and wonder whether a mirror might have been a cheaper way of getting the same thrills. But sometimes the lives of real people can make for good entertainment, though usually when there’s a script involved.

Having already given us a particularly bizarre interpretation of David Blunkett’s recent troubles in A Very Social Secretary, Channel 4 decided to up the ante and depict the life of an even more notable figure, Princess Margaret, The Queen’s Sister.

Given the mess of A Very Social Secretary, which was so steeped in attempted grotesque satire that it achieved the remarkable achievement of making the viewer almost feel sorry for David Blunkett, I didn’t begin watching this with the highest of hopes, expecting little more than a rush through all the most well-known beats of her life, with little emphasis on anything mundane like creating characters or telling an interesting story.

But this time, I was wrong. While not a hagiography of Princess Margaret, it wasn’t the blatant character assasination of let’s-all-laugh-at-the-clueless-royal that may have been the easiest option to take when writing the script. While not actively inviting the viewer to sympathise with Margaret, there was a degree of empathy for her position and the question of what do you do when your role as the royal ‘spare’ is no longer relevant. Yes, it played fast and loose with history, not only with the opening disclaimer that much of it was made up, but there was also a continuing trend of anachronism, with various non-concurrent events from the 60s and 70s seemingly happening simultaneously.

But, it was enlivened by three great central performances, the previously unknown Lucy Cohu delivering a career-making performance as Margaret, Toby Stephens’ Earl of Snowdon giving an excellent interpretation of a man discovering the bewildering duties that come when you marry a princess and, even though he was only on screen for a short time, David Threlfall’s Prince Philip was a masterful embodiment of the restrictive principles of the Royal Family, proving that he may just be the best actor on British TV right now.

Also playing fast and loose with historical events, the BBC’s Shakespeare Re-Told series was capped off with the rather amusing Shakespeare’s Happy Endings on BBC Four with Kevin Eldon becoming one of TV’s most unlikely, though convincing, Shakespeares, while Patrick Barlow (no relation, I hasten to add) spoofing two TV historians for the price of one as Professor Simon Starkman. While it was a bit hit and miss, it deserved better than a graveyard slot on Four, not just providing a few laughs (though of course it’s rare for Kevin Eldon not to be funny, even beneath a Shakespeare outfit) but providing an informative look at the ways in which Shakespeare’s work have been re-interpreted over the years, such as the numerous happy endings that have been given to Romeo and Juliet.

Real life, of a sort, was on show in The Naked Rambler, a BBC documentary showing just what happens when you decide to walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats in the nude. It prompted one question I often have whenever I see naturists – why do so many of them, who profess to love the human body in all shapes and sizes, cover up such a large part of theirs with beards? Is there some rule that says you must throw your razor out with your clothes? It was an interesting documentary, though seemingly short of a conclusion, the film petering out with the walk in Inverness when confronted with the power of the law.

Finally, among the many things I didn’t watch last week was Channel 4’s exclusive Madonna documentary I’m Going To Tell You A Secret, pretty much because the entire thing was so predictable and no doubt included lots of footage of Madonna and dancers rehearsing, various scenes of her and Guy Ritchie attempting to act normal and instead bringing up memories of Paul Whitehouse and Arabella Weir proclaiming their Cockney credentials on The Fast Show and absolutely no revelations as to just why paying £15 for a piece of red string is good value, or why singing over an old Abba sample is only trashy Europop when someone other than Madonna does it. In the battle between fact and staged-purely-for-television fiction, I can’t help feeling that we learned more about the real Princess Margaret than we did about Madonna.

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