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"Poliakoff's Latest Masterpiece"
on 2 February 2003
This is the latest in a series of marvellous pieces of television ("Caught on a Train", "Shooting the Past" and "Perfect Strangers") written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff; It tells two interlinked stories.
The first is the tale of how the splendid monarchies and Empires of the Edwardian age - with all their privileges and wealth, their gloriously Ruritanian uniforms and lavish banquets - were destroyed by the slaughter that was World War 1. All except the British Empire, that is, and that by the skin of its teeth. The momentous events of that time are seen through the eyes of Prince John, the Lost Prince of the title.
The second is the sad story of Prince John himself (Matthew Thomas), youngest son of King George V (Tom Hollander)and Queen Mary (Miranda Richardson). Epileptic, probably mildly autistic and suffering from what a modern psychologist or social worker would refer to as "learning difficulties",Prince John is a charming, simple soul with a flair for gardening and a very direct way with words "That man's got a big head" he says of Asquith (Frank Finlay), the Prime Minister. Gradually Prince John's behaviour and propensity to epileptic fits lead to him being kept(in the eyes of the King and Queen, for the very best of reasons) in deeper and deeper isolation. When he dies - tragically young - he is living in a remote farmhouse on the Sandringham estate.
In part, then, a story of the great events of the first two decdaes of the twentieth century and in part a biography of an almost-unknown royal. If Poliakoff had left it there it would have been a good, interesting bit of television. But where "The Lost Prince" moves into the category of great television, is with the relationships that we witness here. Johnnie and his father , the increasingly out-of- his- depth King with no time for his youngest son; Johnnnie and his mother - marvellously played by Miranda Richardson - who genuinely tries to do her best by him but cannot help behaving with unconscious cruelty towards him; Johnnie and the doomed children of the Tsar, Johnnie and his extended family of kings, the Kaiser, Dukes, Archdukes and the rest. Most poignant of all Johnnie and Georgie ( Rollo Weeks) his slightly older brother, later the Duke of Kent, and Johnnie and Lala, (Gina McKee), his nanny. Both, the prince and the nanny, love and protect Prince John, both believe in him and see qualities in him which the more powerful and worldly characters miss - except in one glorious moment towards the end of the film. Both are splendidly acted, touching and sympathetic characters.
Finally I must say a word about the photography. Brilliant camera work is a hallmark of all of Poliakoff's films and "The Lost Prince" is no exception. The majestic, sumptuous pre-war banquet, lavishly shot from above and the parallel, austerity dinner during the war; the royal progress of Prince John on horseback followed by his household; the Tsar swimming in a Russian lake while his generals wait to see whether they will be ordered to mobilise; the Romanov family being butchered. These scenes are so beautifully photographed they are more like classic oil paintings than TV.
All in all a DVD to own and to treasure. Like Poliakoff's earlier work it is destined, I believe, to be regarded as a classic.