TV reviews: Queen of the World, The Flu that Killed 50 Million

Sean O'Grady

Queen of the World (ITV)

★★☆☆☆

Most media folk understand the nature of “access”. You, the desperate TV producer in an overcrowded market, get the opportunity to do some informal filming of, in this case, the Queen or the Duchess of Sussex (better known still as Meghan Markle off Suits) plus a few stilted interviews with the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal. In return for this nice but hardly revelatory footage, you behave yourself – an unspoken Faustian pact around which much of our world turns.

And so it is that viewers were confronted with a whole hour of Queen of the World, a documentary for which the word “deferential” can hardly do justice. It is as if socialism, punk, even democracy had never been invented. No one would be expecting Dennis Skinner to pop up and bang on about over-privileged spongers, parasites and scroungers. Even so...

Early on in the commentary we were told that ITV had been given this glimpse behind the scenes at Buckingham Palace “in this historic” year, that being 2017. For a moment I had to think. Historic? Brexit? Well, not really, that being the referendum of 2016 or Brexit itself (if it happens) in 2019. The snap election? Hardly historic. The Diamond Jubilee? That was back in 2012.

Then, some way in, when we spotted Meghan having another look at her lovely wedding dress, I realised the event that made 2017 an “historic year” was the marriage of Meghan and Harry, the sixth (last time I looked) in line to throne, which I recall as a pleasant distraction but not much more.

The crew had obviously only been given limited access to Meghan, and she didn’t really have that much to say as she chatted to the royal conservator about the frock that was going to be put on display at Buck House. So we were treated to about 10 minutes of quite, well, inconsequential conversation about the embroidered version of the national flowers of each of the 53 states of the Commonwealth of Nations. We learned – well, I speak for myself – that Australia’s is wattle, and Papua New Guinea has its own special orchid, and Canada the maple leaf (I knew that one).

I was just about intrigued enough to be told that Meghan had decided on these gestures herself, in recognition of her role, with Prince Harry of youth ambassador to the Commonwealth. It was also nice to know that it echoed a similar gesture by the Queen when she told Norman Hartnell what she wanted sticking on the Coronation gown in 1953. But I’m afraid the Meghan/Commonwealth flowers chit-chat went on for an awfully long time. Thank goodness I was not personally in the presence of royalty, or else I’d have had to stifle a sizeable yawn, plus a couple of smirks.

It was nice – and there is an awful lot of niceness around the Commonwealth – to see some chefs from the Caribbean come as scholars to be trained at Buckingham Palace, and to see the big fashion show for Commonwealth designers that they’d laid on at the palace. The archive footage from royal visits in the glory years of empire was fascinating, but mainly because it all just looks and sounds so dated now – as far away from our own time as was the late Victorian era when the then young Queen went on our gigantic tour of the Commonwealth and empire in 1954.

For example, I very much doubt that any broadcaster today would intone solemnly that “Sierra Leone stands expectant as the royal yacht Britannia sails up the estuary to Freetown” – even if the yacht hadn’t been retired some years ago. It was, as the programme told us, a floating palace and mobile embassy, but it’s moored up in Scotland somewhere now, and will never again sail down to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands.

There is no doubt that Elizabeth II, even though she doesn’t do long haul anymore, is the country’s premier diplomatic weapon – not just because her recent competition has included Boris Johnson – and it was heartening to see the “younger negation” as it was delicately put over images of Prince Charles (70 in November) and Camilla (70), as well as William and Harry doing their “have you come far” shtick. For all the hatred they seem to stir up in sections of middle England, Kate and Meghan also seem to be the kinds of useful envoys the nation needs, being so ineffably “nice”. Post-Brexit, we will need them and the Commonwealth more than ever.

The Flu that Killed 50 Million (BBC2)

★★★☆☆

You’d need to have had a heart of stone, and a stomach of cast iron, not to have reacted in the appropriate way to The Flu that Killed 50 Million. Yes, 50 million died in the Spanish flu of 1918 – 10 times as many as in the Great War. It was called the Spanish flu not because it came from Spain, but because of censorship. The flu in fact originated in Kansas, and came to Europe with the American troop ships (the first victim was a Kansas poultry farmer named Albert Gitchell who contracted what we now call, of course, bird flu, in March 1918. By the summer it had killed a couple of hundred thousand and was well entrenched in Europe.

In most of western Europe, still at war, news about the lethal effects of the flu was suppressed for fear of damaging morale and causing panic: it exacted a 10 per cent death rate on the 30,000 British soldiers who caught it. Yet Spain was neutral, and when King Alfonso XIII fatally succumbed, the news was duly reported in Britain, but the pretence was adopted that it was confined to Spain. Official reluctance to take much decisive action and use the press to make the public aware of the dangers undoubtedly cost many lives, and in the most horrible deaths.

In short, then, the most important lesson of the influenza pandemic of 1918 for the next one when it arrives is that a free and responsible media is the best defence we have. Remember that when someone starts on about “fake news”.