Comedy of scale

Television - Andrew Billen on why Poliakoff's story of the House of Windsor is his best work yet

Truth to tell, I never knew that King George V, our monarch during the Great War, was a small man. Played by Tom Hollander in The Lost Prince (BBC 1, last Sunday and this), he was very small indeed - even the telephone on his desk seemed to dwarf him. This suited the writer-director Stephen Poliakoff well. Smallness was the surprising and original metaphor he arrived at to describe the whole of what was to become, for wartime PR reasons, the House of Windsor.

Set against momentously huge world events, the royal view from Sandringham becomes, in this drama, a comedy of scale. The Tsarina is shocked by how small Sandringham is when she visits. The snobbish Asquith finds the cramped villa in the Sandringham grounds in which George V and his wife live appallingly suburban. Inside, the princes play with toy soldiers and, when the real war comes, all the king can do is make small gestures too, serving small portions at his banquets while outside his queen forages for chestnuts, miniature food, to feed the troops. Later, she visits some of those who have returned mutilated from the front. One soldier, his legs unevenly amputated, looks, almost comically, foreshortened, like a glove puppet.

There was nothing intrinsically small-scale about the House of Hanover: the branches of its family tree overhung all of Europe. They were Germans - we knew that - but the Russian Romanovs are also cousins, so when George reneges on his promise to give them sanctuary after 1917, it is a family betrayal. His small-mindedness, combined with his neurotic neatness, is hinted at by his hobby, stamp collecting, but he is also agoraphobic. He exclaims to his man Stamfordham (played with knowing restraint and patience by Bill Nighy): "Small rooms - always pleased to be in small rooms. Absurd things these palaces are." Yet in the palaces, the chief of staff and the politicians, the big men of history such as Ron Cook's nauseating Lloyd George, seem perfectly at home.

In the second episode, King George's mother, Alexandra (Bibi Anderson), greets the monarch as "my other tiny, little one". She has just had an audience with her grandson, Johnnie, the semi-autistic, epileptic prince who is at the centre of the piece. Johnnie, played beguilingly by Matthew Thomas (for once, the prep school accent and awkwardness of the average British child actor are appropriate), is King George's youngest child and dies aged 14 in 1919. Significantly, however, he is not small but clumsily big. Perhaps because of his unapologetic size, he can command a troop, albeit a household cavalry of gardeners and maids, and also a room. In a very touching scene near the end, he plays the trumpet for his family and when the king, who is keeping his prime minister waiting, makes to leave, Johnnie tells him to stay put.

Johnnie is one of Poliakoff's sidelined eccentrics, like Timothy Spall, the awkward-squad librarian in Shooting the Past in 1999. Physically uncoordinated, he literally will not play ball with his nanny. He is big-hearted and, unlike the rest of the family, funny. His jokes are about scale, too, cutting Alfred Lord Tennyson down to size by calling him "old Lord Alfred", and drawing pictures of his tiny father beneath an enormous crown.

What I really like about this leisurely two-part drama, apart from the obvious things - the performances, the photography - is that the end result is bigger and different from what I suspect its author planned. The hype prepared us to be shocked by the royal family's treatment of their retarded son. In fact, within the constraints of the times and her temperament, the queen, one felt, dealt sympathetically with her boy. Although this was a tragicomedy of confinement, it was the nanny Lalla (another exemplary performance by Gina McKee) and the tutor (a virtually unrecognisable, quietly manic John Sessions) who were truly imprisoned. As Lalla says at the end: "He was the only one of us who was able to be himself."

Nor, as promised, are world events really seen through Johnnie's eyes, which sounded a pretty naff idea. How could they be, since Johnnie had been sent away? To accommodate this, the viewpoint quietly shifts to his brother Georgie, the second hero of the story (a fine debut by Rollo Weeks).

But if the two episodes' schema does not work, the films themselves do, presumably because Poliakoff had the courage to abandon it. In his recent and probably overpraised history pieces, Shooting the Past or last year's Perfect Strangers, his great scenes were static and often sentimental. Repeatedly, he opted out of dramatisation in favour of beautifully modulated Ancient Mariner monologues. In contrast, this work is dramatic, has narrative propulsion and a kind of satirical wildness that reminds me, oddly, of much earlier Poliakoffs such as Bloody Kids.

In his study, the king exotically and irrelevantly keeps a parrot. Dramatically, I can see no use in it, except as a metaphor for the piece itself, a piece that, for all its formality, takes flight. "You should never let ivy grow. It's a chaotic plant," the queen tells Lalla in The Lost Prince. Poliakoff allows just enough chaos into this one to give it organic life. I reckon it is the best thing he has done.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 January 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master