TV blog: Queen of the World

Benjie Goodhart / 20 September 2018

A new two-part documentary promises privileged access to the Royal Family. Plus, the best of the week’s TV

Queen of the World, Tuesday 25th September, 9:15pm, ITV

First off, apologies for reviewing two programmes that are, in effect, on at the same time. There are slim pickings this week. Both the BBC and ITV are in full on drama mode (I’ve never known so many dramas running concurrently) and Channel 4 is showing its new reality show The Circle every night, so there’s not a lot to choose from this week.

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If you ever wanted an indication of the all-consuming power of Bake Off, by the way, this is it. ITV has tweaked its schedule so that its new two-part documentary about the Queen starts at 9:15pm, when Bake Off ends, as opposed to the usual 9pm. Basically, not even our esteemed monarch can stand up to the baking behemoth. In the battle of tiny women who encapsulate everything that is great about Britain, on the small screen Sandi Toksvig beats Queen Elizabeth II by the width of a sheet of filo pastry.

That may be a little unfair, actually. Sandi Toksvig is indeed a national treasure, but I don’t really think that one day she will have her life dramatized over four series of the most expensive TV show ever made. One of the fascinating aspects of The Crown was the episode dealing with the question of how much the royals should appear on television. There was certainly a feeling that it would destroy some of the monarchical magic, removing the element of mystique. Familiarity breeding contempt.

That argument has long since been won by the modernists. So here we are again, in familiar territory. And yet, it is still something of a thrill to get up close and personal with the royals. The Queen may well be the most famous person on the planet, and it’s impossible not to be a little bit impressed by that. I just know (to my intense shame and irritation) that were I in the presence of HRH and she uttered a weak joke, I would absolutely fall about laughing. Everyone does.

This two-part documentary focuses on her role as a global figure. The title declares her “Queen of the World”, which may be news to people in China or Namibia, but there it is. There is, at the time of writing, nothing to see yet, hence the several paragraphs of pseudo-philosophical waffle that have preceded this one. But we are promised ‘privileged’ access to the royals, who were ‘filmed over a year’.

The film tells of the role the Commonwealth has played in the Queen’s life, and how she is passing on her knowledge and experience to the younger royals. There is also a look at a scheme that brings hospitality professionals over from the Caribbean to work in Buckingham Palace, which was apparently the Queen’s idea. Meanwhile, Prince Charles and the Princess Royal (which I’ve always thought an odd title – the Princess bit is clue enough of royalty) watch old cine footage of themselves as youngsters on the Royal Yacht Britannia, part of the family’s private archive.

Elsewhere, there’s the Duchess of Sussex being reunited for the first time with her wedding gown and veil, as she explains the role the Commonwealth played in what she wore. And a whole team are aflutter over in Canada as they prepare to welcome Charles and Camilla to the Queen’s official residence there. A knighthood and two weeks at Balmoral to anyone who can name it? No? It’s Rideau Hall. And Justin Trudeau – the Brad Pitt of the political arena – extols the virtues of HRH,  and explains what she means to the people of Canada.

The Flu That Killed 50 Million, Tuesday 25th September, 9pm, BBC Two

Well, this is a cheery little film, and no mistake. So let’s start with a cheery little question: Throughout human history, who do you think has been responsible for the most deaths? Stalin? Hitler? Mao? If you said Albert Gitchell, go immediately to the top of the class. But also look in on the headmaster’s office, you’ve clearly been cheating.

Poor, hapless Albert was responsible for the deaths of between 50 and 100 million people - and all because he handled a duck. There’s a sentence you don’t expect to write too often. Gitchell was a farm boy in Kansas, working with animals including ducks, when he was conscripted into the US army. Moved to a training camp in the state, on 4th March 1918 he became the first person to become infected with what would be known as Spanish Flu, making him Patient Zero of perhaps the worst pandemic in human history. Unfortunately, he’d been working in the camp kitchen, meaning he’d already infected countless others, making the old joke about army food being so bad it could kill you painfully apt.

And so begins this absolutely fascinating and painstakingly-constructed documentary, a forensic examination of the spread of the virus, and of the conditions that allowed it to become so successful. It is dramatic, harrowing, tragic and – be warned – not for the squeamish. I wouldn’t suggest having dinner in front of this.

Archive footage and contributions from medical experts and historians are mixed with dramatic reconstructions to vivid effect. In all honesty, though, a story of this magnitude and chilling scale couldn’t fail to intrigue. The devil, as ever, is in the detail. Why, for example, was an illness that originated from a middle-American duck known as Spanish Flu? How did the pandemic come to further the feminist movement in the UK? And why (oh cruel irony) did Armistice Day help the spread of the illness?

There is a sense, too, of rising panic among the authorities. They didn’t have any vaccine, because they had no idea what they were dealing with. Instead, patients suffering from one of the most lethal diseases mankind would ever see were given Bovril, bed rest and opium. I mean, lying down and taking hot drink made of beef extract isn’t going to make everything better. Nor is the opium, but it’d certainly help pass the time.

By the time the outbreak came to an end, in July 1919, it had killed between 50 and 100 million people. It dwarfed the death toll of World War I by ten-to-one. Ah well, that’s the old days for you. Couldn’t happen today, thank goodness. Oh. The last part of the film discusses the possibility of a similar outbreak today. Brilliant. So, having spent almost an hour detailing the gruesome effects of the global spread of a severe flu, here’s the sting in the tail. If it happens, you’ll find me in bed mainlining Bovril. You can’t be too careful.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 22nd September

Strictly Come Dancing, 6:15pm, BBC One: The first live show of the series is a monster, and 140 minutes. But chances are it’ll fly by, as the couples jive and cha cha cha through proceedings. No-one will be eliminated this week, though the scores will be carried over to next week. Let the delightful sequins of events commence. (Geddit? Sequins of ev… oh forget it!)

Britain’s Greatest Bridges, 10pm, Channel 5: It won’t rival Strictly in terms of audience figures, but this is a welcome addition to Saturday nights for the next six weeks. Engineer Rob Bell sets out on a journey to discover how six of Britain's most stunning bridges were designed and built. Tonight, the iconic and spectacular Forth Rail Bridge.

Sunday 23rd September

Bodyguard 6/6, 9pm, BBC One: The drama hit of the year so far reaches its conclusion. Who killed Home Secretary Julia Montague? If, indeed, anyone did (never trust a drama where you’re not shown the body). Will this impressive series end on a high, or disappoint in the final analysis?

Tuesday 25th September

Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild, 9:15pm, Channel 5: Return of the fascinating and frequently charming series which sees the human version of an excitable Labrador, Ben Fogle, living with people who have turned their back on conventional society and gone to live off grid. Tonight, he meets Robert, who has spent the last 20 years in the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas.

Wednesday 26th September

Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure, 9pm, ITV: Michael Palin’s latest travelogue in North Korea is a fascinating look behind the curtain of a normally closed-off country. Tonight, Joanna Lumley shows she is every bit Palin’s equal as she gives Iran the same treatment. Unlike North Korea, though, Iran is filled with charm, and this fabulous series goes from strength to strength.

Read Benjie's review of Joanna Lumley's Silk Road Adventure

Thursday 27th September

Gareth Malone’s All-Star Music Quiz, 7pm, BBC Two: Gareth Malone asks the questions, with the two teams of famous people encouraged to play the answer on their favoured instruments. Contestants include Ed Balls and actor John Thomson.

Read our interview with Gareth Malone

Manson: The Lost Tapes 1/2, 9pm, ITV: Original videotape of Charles Manson’s followers talking, almost 50 years ago, about the ethos of the Manson ‘family’ that went on to commit the most notorious murders in US history.

Friday 28th September

Golf: Ryder Cup Highlights, 8:30pm, BBC Two: For many (your blogger included) there are few events quite like the Ryder Cup, the fascinating biennial match-up between the US and Europe. For others, events from the Albatros Course in France will be like watching paint dry, only mildly slower.

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