Between persistent buzz around the film The King's Speech and the pending nuptuals of Prince William and Kate Middleton, Americans have more opportunity than ever to feed our fascination with British royalty. Somewhere there's a shrink who can analyze why a nation founded on getting rid of an English King remains SO interested in the monarchy, but I think we should skip the psychatrist's fee and indulge, guilt-free, in as much royal star-gazing as we'd like. My wife, for example, is already planning to host a wedding-watching party for April 29th, with guests to arrive at 5:30am. Dress code: pajamas and tiaras. In the meantime, the "What dress will Kate choose?" line of inquiry will be most magnetic for some; others will while the time away debating and handicapping Colin Firth's chances for a Best Actor Oscar (by the way, if you'd like to listen to the REAL King's speech... the BBC recording of George VI delivering that address in 1939 can be found here.
Personally, I have most enjoyed the chance to learn more -- much more -- about Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who cost Edward VIII his throne. Their romance is central to the plot of The King's Speech, of course, but there is SO much more delicious detail than the film conveys. We've produced a special for BBC America (airing this evening at 9:30pm Eastern) titled "Modern Monarchy: Here & There." It explores many facets of America's obsession with the British royal family, from Charles and Diana to William and Kate. But I find Katty Kay's examination of the relationship between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII to be the most fascinating part of the program.
The archive footage is wonderful: it's 1936, and Britain's new king is a dashing young man with a very big problem: he has given his heart to a twice-divorced woman from Baltimore. The Church of England (of which he is titular head) forbids divorced people from remarrying, and for weeks his subjects wait nervously to learn whether their king will choose duty, or love. After just 325 days on the throne, he chooses the latter and abdicates. He and Wallis, now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, go on to a life of luxurious exile and global celebrity. Katty's piece contains excerpts from a fascinating TV interview the couple gave the BBC in 1970, two years before the Duke passed away. Among other things, he tells the interviewer "I would have liked to have stayed on, but under my own conditions. So I have no regrets." The Duchess doesn't precisely explain her feelings on the subject, but looking at her, even decades after the fact, it seems to me that she was still wistful about not getting the chance to wear the queen's crown.
What's even more striking is the depth of feeling toward Wallis Simpson at the time. As Anne Sebba, author of the forthcoming book That Woman, puts it: "England really did loathe her; some of the walls were painted with graffiti which read 'Down with the American harlot.'" Some of my British BBC colleagues say that their parents and grandparents STILL can't bear to hear Wallis Simpson's name. No doubt the view of Kate Middleton -- both in the UK and in America -- will remain MUCH kinder.