“EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” (1978) Review
I have noticed in the past decade or so, there have been an increasing number of television and movie productions that either featured the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (aka King Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson), either as supporting characters or lead characters. Actually, only one production – the 2011 movie, “W.E.” – featured them as leads. And yet . . . with the exception of the 2011 movie, the majority of them tend to portray the couple as solely negative caricatures.
There have been other productions that portrayed Edward and Wallis as complex human beings. Well . . . somewhat complex. Television movies like 1988’s “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” and 2005’s “WALLIS & EDWARD” seemed to provide viewers with a highly romanticized view of the couple. Perhaps a bit too romanticized. And there was Madonna’s 2011 movie, “W.E.”, which seemed to offer a bit more complex view of the couple. But I thought the movie was somewhat marred by an alternate storyline involving a modern woman who was obsessed over the couple. I have seen a good number of productions about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Yet, for my money, the best I have ever seen was the 1978 miniseries, “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON”.
Adapted by Simon Raven from Frances Donaldson’s 1974 biography, “Edward VIII” and directed by him, the seven-part miniseries is basically an account of Edward VIII Abdication Crisis in 1936 and the pre-marital romance of the king and American socialite, Wallis Simpson, that led to it. The story began in 1928, when Edward Windsor was at the height of his popularity as Britain’s Prince of Wales. At the time, the prince was courting two women – both married – Mrs. Freda Dudley Ward and Thelma Furness, Viscountess Furness. Some two or three years later, Thelma introduced Edward to Ernest and Wallis Simpson, a pair of American expatriates living in London. The couple became a part of the Prince of Wales’ social set. But when Thelma left Britain in 1934 to deal with a family crisis regarding her sister Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, Edward and Wallis grew closer. By the time Thelma returned to Britain, Wallis had become the Prince of Wales’ official mistress. And both Thelma and Mrs. Dudley Ward found themselves unceremoniously dumped.
The miniseries eventually continued with the couple’s growing romance between 1934 and 1935, despite disapproving comments and observations from some of the Prince of Wales’ official staff and members of the Royal Family. But the death of King George V, Edward’s father, led to the prince’s ascension to Britain’s throne as King Edward VIII. By this time, Edward had fallen completely in love with Wallis. And despite the opinion of his family, certain members of his social set and the British government, he became determined to marry and maker her his queen in time for his coronation.
“EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” is not perfect. I do have a few complaints about the production. I realize that screenwriter Simon Raven wanted to ensure a complex and balanced portrayal of both Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. But there were times when I found his characterization a bit too subtle. This was most apparent in his portrayal of Edward’s admiration of the fascist governments of Germany and Italy. It almost seemed as if Raven was trying to tiptoe around the topic and I found it rather frustrating. On the other hand, Raven’s portrayal of Wallis at the beginning of her romance with Edward struck me as a bit heavy-handed. Quite frankly, she came off as some kind of femme fatale, who had resorted to deceit to maneuver Edward’s attention away from his other two mistresses – Freda Dudley Ward and Lady Furness, especially when the latter was in the United States visiting her sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. The production’s screenplay did indicate that Lady Furness may have conducted a flirtation with the Prince Aly Khan on the voyage back to Great Britain. Yet, Raven’s screenplay seemed to hint that Wallis’ machinations were the main reason Edward gave up both Mrs. Dudley Ward and Lady Furness.
Otherwise, I have no real complaints about “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON”. Ten or perhaps, twenty years ago, I would have complained about the last three or four episodes that focused on Edward’s determination to marry Wallis and the series of political meetings and conferences that involved him, her, her attorneys, the Royal Family, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the king’s equerries, politicians, lawyers and journalists. Now, I found it all rather interesting. What I found interesting about these scenes were the various reactions to Wallis Simpson. Many of them – especially the Royal Family, the equerries and Baldwin – seemed to regard her as some kind of “Jezebel” who had cast some kind of spell over Edward. In its worst form, their attitude came off as slut shaming. The majority of them tend to blame her for Edward’s occasional lapses of duty and ultimate decision to abdicate. As far as I can recall, only two were willing to dump equal blame on Edward himself – Royal Secretary Alexander Hardinge and Elizabeth, Duchess of York, later queen consort and “Queen Mother”.
Another reason why I found this hardened anti-Wallis attitude so fascinating is that the Establishment seemed very determined that Edward never marry Wallis. I understand the Royal Marriages Act 1772 made it possible for the British government to reject the idea of Wallis becoming Edward’s queen consort, due to being twice divorced. But they would not even consider a morganatic marriage between the couple, in which Wallis would not have a claim on Edward’s succession rights, titles, precedence, or entailed property. I am not saying that both Edward and Wallis were wonderful people with no flaws. But . . . this hostile attitude toward the latter, along with this hardened determination that the couple never marry struck me as excessive. Were the British Establishment and the Royal Family that against Edward marrying Wallis, let alone romancing her? It just all seem so unreal, considering that the pair seemed to share the same political beliefs as the majority of the British upper class. And considering that Wallis was descended from two old and respectable Baltimore families, I can only conclude that the British Establishment’s true objection was her American nationality.
Although the political atmosphere featured in “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” seemed very fascinating to me, the social atmosphere, especially the one that surrounded Edward, nearly dazzled me. “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” is one of the few productions on both sides of the Atlantic that did a superb job in conveying the look and style of the 1930s for the rich and famous. This was especially apparent in the miniseries’ first three episodes that heavily featured Edward’s social life between 1928 and 1936. First, one has to compliment Allan Cameron and Martyn Hebert’s production designs for re-capturing the elegant styles of the British upper classes during the miniseries’ setting. Their work was ably enhanced by Ron Grainer’s score, which he effectively mixed with the popular music of that period and Waris Hussein’s direction, which conveyed a series of elegant montages on Edward’s social life – including his royal visit to East Africa with Thelma Furness, the weekend parties held at his personal house, Fort Belevedere; and the infamous 1936 cruise around the Adriatic Sea, aboard a yacht called the Nahlin. But if there was one aspect of “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” that truly impressed me were Jennie Tate and Diane Thurley’s costume designs. When any costume designer has two leading characters known as major clothes horses, naturally one has to pull out all the stops. Tate and Thurley certainly did with their sumptious costume designs – especially for actress Cynthia Harris – that struck me as both beautiful and elegant, as shown in the images below:
that I was I was not surprised to learn that they had won BAFTAs for their work. Come to think of it, Cameron and Herbert won BAFTAs for their production designs, as well. Which they all fully deserved.
“EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” featured some solid and outstanding performances from the supporting cast. Cheri Lunghi and Kika Markham, who portrayed Edward’s two previous mistresses Thelma Furness and Freda Dudley Ward; along with Andrew Ray and Amanda Reiss as the Duke and Duchess of York; gave very charming performances. I could also say the same for Trevor Bowen, Patricia Hodge and Charles Keating as Duff Cooper, Lady Diana Cooper and Ernest Simpson. Veterans such as Peggy Ashcroft, Marius Goring, Maurice Denham and Jesse Matthews provided skillful gravitas to their roles as Queen Mary, King George V, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Aunt Bessie Merryman (Wallis’ aunt). And Nigel Hawthorne gave a warm and intelligent performance as Walter Monckton, who served as an adviser for both Edward and Wallis. And if you pay attention, you might spot Hugh Fraser portraying Anthony Eden in one particular scene.
But there were four performances that really impressed me. One came from John Shrapnel, who portrayed the King’s Private Secretary Alexander Hardinge. It seemed as if Shrapnel had the unenviable task of portraying a man who seemed bent upon raining on Edward’s parade . . . for the sake of the country and the Empire. There were times when I found his character annoying, yet at the same time, Shrapnel managed to capture my sympathy toward Hardinge’s situation. I was also impressed by David Waller, who portrayed Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Waller also portrayed the politician in the 1988 television movie, “THE WOMAN HE LOVED”. But I felt more impressed by Waller’s performance in this production. I came away not only with Baldwin’s dislike of Wallis and frustration with Edward; but Waller also made me realize how much of a politician Baldwin truly was . . . especially when the latter tried to convince Wallis to disavow Edward.
The true stars of “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” proved to be the two leads – Edward Fox and Cynthia Harris. Of all of the actresses I have seen portray Wallis Warfield Simpson aka the Duchess of Windsor, I would say that Harris is the best I have ever seen. Not once did the actress succumb to hammy or heavy-handed acting . . . even when Simon Raven’s screenplay seem bent upon portraying the American-born socialite as some kind of gold digger in the first episode, “The Little Prince”. The late Art Buchwald and his wife Ann had recalled meeting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at one of the latter’s dinner parties in post-World War II Paris. Although their recollection of Edward was not that impressive, they seemed very impressed by Wallis, whom they described as a cool, yet charming and savy woman. And that is exactly how Harris had portrayed the future Duchess. More importantly, Harris revealed – especially in the last three episodes – that Wallis was more than a cool and witty woman. She was also a complex human being. Edward Fox won a BAFTA for his portrayal of King Edward VIII, the future Duke of Windsor. As far as I am concerned, he more than deserved that award. I was really impressed by how Fox portrayed Edward as a complex individual, instead of some one-note hedonist, as many productions were inclined to do in the past decade. Fox recaptured all of the warmth, charm and charisma of the future Duke of Windsor. And the same time, the actor revealed his character’s frustration with his emotionally distant parents, his occasional bouts of immaturity, insecurity, self-absorption and single-minded love for Wallis. On one hand, Fox managed to skillfully express dismay at the economic conditions of the country’s working-class and in other scenes revel in his character’s luxurious lifestyle with abandonment. The actor’s performance struck me as a great balancing act.
If I must be honest, the real reason why I managed to enjoy “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” to this day is that it is almost a balanced portrayal of the British monarch and his lady love. Simon Raven, director Waris Hussein and a talented cast led by Edward Fox and Cynthia Harris managed to convey both the good and bad about the infamous royal pair without resorting to the cliches that have been apparent in other past and recent productions.
Filed under: History, Television | Tagged: andrew ray, british empire, charles keating, cheri lunghi, cynthia harris, david waller, early 20th century, edward fox, history, hugh fraser, nigel hawthorne, patricia hodge, peggy ashcroft, politics, television, travel | Leave a comment »