The Queen comes under fire for a speech that strikes the wrong tone
Credit: Alex Bailey/Netflix

We open episode 5 on a normal, nay average, morning scene: a man reading the newspaper over his morning cup of tea. The front page of the newspaper reveals that “a peer” of the queen has been slandering her, calling her way of speaking “a pain in the neck” and saying that “her utterances convey a priggish schoolgirl.” Not a lovely start to the morning for Her Majesty or this unnamed gentleman.

The yet-to-be-named man is angry enough about the whole thing to turn down the boiled egg and toast his wife brings him for breakfast. He then gets dressed in his best suit — all the time gazing at a framed pic of Her Majesty on his wall — fastens his LEL (the League of Empire Loyalists) pin and his military medals to his lapel, and sets off to catch the bus. Unidentified man then approaches the ITN television studios, where he waits for somebody to exit. After confirming that the exiting man is one Lord Altrincham, he punches him in the face, spits on him, and calls him a traitor as the paparazzi snap pics around him. What is going on here…

We then transition to Balmoral, where the queen is in residence. Michael comes to tell Elizabeth that Lord Altrincham has been struck in the face, and considering he’s the peer saying cruel things about her in the press, they all feel very gratified — that is, until they sit down to a segment he’s recorded for a TV show called Impact. The interviewer asks Lord A. why he hates the queen so much when she is loved and respected around the world, but before we can find out his answer, we’re heading back in time to the beginning of this nuisance of a situation to find out Altrincham’s reasons firsthand.

One month earlier, Lord A. is having a staff meeting at the publication he runs, where everyone is far more interested in the toffee his secretary Patricia shows up with than writing 1,000 words on introducing female priests into the Church of England or reforming the House of Lords. Can’t say I really blame them!

Over at the palace, the queen’s private secretary Michael is running through a speech he’s written for her next engagement at a Jaguar car factory. It’s pretty much insult after insult. To quote a particularly stinging passage: “Perhaps you don’t understand that on your steadfastness and ability to withstand the fatigue of dull, repetitive work, and your great courage in meeting constant small adversities, depend in great measure the happiness and prosperity of the community as a whole.” It also goes on to call the people “average men and women.” One rather astute (and younger) aide suggests changing it to “working men and women” to add some dignity, but when Michael looks at him like he just suggested the queen invite Wallis Simpson over for crumpets, he quiets down and takes his grievances to Martin instead.

Obviously, Martin, being a more in-tune-with-the-people kind of fellow, agrees it strikes completely the wrong tone in this post-Suez climate and will leave the queen open to attack from the papers and people. Unfortunately, Michael — with the support of old, stick-in-the-mud Tommy — think it’s fine. He goes on about the people loving their sovereign and is adamant the papers have nothing to attack, and even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t out of fear of a royal boycott. And so the speech stays as is. If only propriety allowed for a big old “I told you so!” from Martin in a month’s time. (Next: Lord A. is unstoppable)

So, while Lord A. attends a dental appointment (he cracked a tooth on one of Patricia’s toffees), he and his fellow waiting-roomers hear the queen’s patronizing speech on the wireless. Altrincham can’t even make it through the address before he’s off to write up a response in which he states the monarchy has lost its magic, along with some other anarchic thoughts — pretty much laying into Elizabeth’s speech-making ability and claiming the monarchy will never survive, let alone thrive, if it continues the way it’s been going. Don’t mince your words, Lord A!

The next day, all those thoughts and more are printed in his paper, the National Review, and all the other papers pick up the so-called “peer sneer” too. Elizabeth and Prince Philip are having breakfast when Michael (pretty much the constant bearer of bad news these days) comes in to tell them to avoid certain papers this morning. Come on, Michael! If there’s one way to ensure someone reads something, it’s to tell them not to do it — and Her Majesty is no exception. She’s visibly upset by the insults, but the Queen Mum think it’s a lot of old tosh and that most of the country is completely against Altrincham.

Turns out she’s quite right, as Lord A. is hounded by press and haters outside his offices — but not everyone wants him silenced. Here comes the invite for a televised interview on Impact! Apparently the interviewer is terrifying, but Altrincham’s coworkers think if he keeps his cool and makes his case intelligently and respectfully, he could turn people around. And what do you know: He does just that.

And so we’re back to the top of the episode and that “Why do you hate her so very much?” question. Lord A. takes the opportunity to explain his point. He’s a passionate monarchist who believes constitutional monarchy is Britain’s greatest invention because — when working at its best — monarchy can rise above the corruption and selfishness of politicians and become the embodiment of national character. He agrees that the queen has an impossible job, but all he wants is for Her Majesty to be more natural in her speeches. However, he does not lay the blame on her courtiers for writing the speeches; he thinks it’s up to her to get rid of the bad, old-school servants, because Britain has changed but the monarchy continues its pre-war routines. He ends on this rather damning reminder: “Until recently, monarchies were the rule and republics the exception, but today, republics are the rule and monarchies very much the exception.” If he had a mic, I’m sure he’d have dropped it. Then he walks outside and gets punched in the face — annnnnd we’ve come full circle. (Next: A royal invitation)

Back at Balmoral, Elizabeth is pissed (well, something more polite than “pissed”). Things get even better when she finds out the puncher is part of the extreme-right League of Empire Loyalists, a pressure group that campaigns against the dissolution of the empire and has a clear doctrine of English racial supremacy. Lovely! Oh, and people think Lord A. is reasonable now, and about half the country agree with his stance. We can’t really blame Elizabeth for taking out her frustration on Michael, blaming him for writing the speech — though his face is heartbreaking.

The situation is serious enough that the prime minister comes up to Scotland a week earlier for his audience with the queen. He tells her that ambassadors from around the world are concerned about the situation and the government must contain this as soon as possible. So how does one contain anarchic views? By extending an invitation to the palace, of course! This is Great Britain after all, the home of lovely manners. Lord A. is offered a meeting with the queen’s assistant private secretary. He’s miffed it’s not with someone higher up, but Patricia urges him to go and take suggestions with him. So he does, but when he gets there, he’s in for a surprise.

After being shown to pretty much the attic where Martin has his quarters, Lord A. takes a seat to wait for the assistant private secretary’s arrival. Only it’s not Martin who walks in but Her Majesty the queen instead! She throws him some shade over his insults to her voice, then comes right out and asks what he would have her change. He says it’s more about acknowledging that everything has changed and that she should prepare herself for the fact that they now live in a time where the age of deference is over. He gives her a list of recommendations that he’s limited to six for the purpose of this meeting: three things to start and three things to stop. The stops include: ending the debutante ball, (Elizabeth’s clipped “next”s are everything), allowing divorced people to move more freely in royal circles, and getting rid of the old-school courtiers who stop the palace moving forward. The starts: opening up and letting people get to know her, televising the Christmas speech, and spending time with normal, average (that word again!), working people by opening the doors and making the monarchy more inclusive and egalitarian.

Here’s the cool part. The queen asks Altrincham to step out and send in her private secretary. When Lord A. is told to come back in by Martin, Elizabeth has vanished without even using the door! I hope there was a secret passageway concealed by a tapestry or something.

And so when Christmas comes around, in roll the BBC cameras. Elizabeth doesn’t seem super comfortable with making these concessions; indeed, she feels like a “common little showgirl” making a televised Christmas speech. You can’t help but feel sorry for her while she nervously practices her lines under her breath. Nonetheless, she does a jolly good job of welcoming the British public into the peace of her own home, before reading a few lines from Pilgrim s Progress and wrapping things up. Everyone applauds, but the queen does not look impressed.

Six months later, another concession is realized: It’s time for the first-ever Garden Party. Elizabeth and her mother watch as a car dealer, a boxer named Harry “The Hammer” Jones, a local restaurateur, a bus driver, a bank clerk, and a “woman policeman” traipse up the path of Buckingham Palace. The Queen Mum is far from thrilled about opening up and becoming more like the average folk. She harps on about losing their authority, absolutism, and divine rights, and sees the whole thing as an embarrassment. She’s even gloomy enough to proclaim they’ll soon become nothing at all, just marionettes. And on that cheerful note, the ladies put on their gloves and head out to meet the common plebs attending their garden shindig.

(Fun fact: In the end, almost all of Lord Altrincham’s proposed changes were implemented, and the palace conceded that he did as much as anyone to help the monarchy in the 20th century. He renounced his title and became John Grigg.)

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