This is a very touching tale of a lost 'footnote' from history - some histories of the British royal family come with handy genealogy charts, showing the progress of royals through the ages in graphic format. Often, the younger children, the 'also rans' of the royal story, are left off the charts, unless they attained fame some other way, or unless they married well. For those royal children who died in infancy or childhood, history is most unkind - they aren't even in the footnotes or indices. Such is often the case for young Prince John - born with a disability that presented like epilepsy, he was (according to the custom of the time) kept out of the public eye. Being rather low on the pecking order, he likely never would have attracted much attention, but with his disability, in a world that did not quite know how to regard those with disabilities, he was indeed an outcast, however royal.
The teleplay shows an interplay of the private life of Prince John and his caregivers, particularly the deeply devoted servant and nanny, Lalla, and the public life of the royal family, as their lives became increasingly complex and involved in public duties due to the outbreak of the first world war. The private life concentrates both on John and Lalla, as well as John and George, another of the younger royal children, close in age to John. George went through the typical royal upbringing of boarding schools with a military emphasis; he was as out-of-place in that world as John was in the stuffy, rigidly-controlled royal world. The camaraderie between George and John was touchingly portrayed in two different age brackets - one of early childhood (Daniel Williams playing John, and Brock-Everitt-Elwick playing George), and one of early adolescence (Matthew Thomas playing Johh, and Rollo Weeks playing George). John, with his lack of inhibitions and oversized features (part of his disability) would occasionally make a truthful-if-not-quite-diplomatic statement, sometimes to a visiting royal, sometimes to the Prime Minister or other such dignitary.
John's expression in life was done through art, music, and physical movements and expression. He made paintings that showed a rather unique way of looking at the world, often over-emphasising details (such as crowns). He also cared passionately for his gardens, working for hours at a time among the flowers and other plants. Lalla (lovingly portrayed by Gina McKee) encouraged him, seeing in him more substance that doctors could with their brief examinations, and more than could his own parents, who rarely exhibited affection to John (or each other, or anyone else).
It was a tense time in the world. King George V (Tom Hollander) and his wife, the regal and inflexible Queen Mary (Miranda Richardson) tried desperately to navigate through a world becoming distinctly unfriendly toward royalty; just a generation prior, their family through Victoria's connections reigned in almost every major and many minor countries in Europe, which at that time through colonialism dominated the world; by the end of World War II, few monarchies were left, and those that were had no power or authority of their own. One of the mistakes of the monarchs, brought out in this teleplay, was the assumption that they still had power. In actual fact, they rarely even had influence.
The scenes with the Russian royal family are interesting to note the similarities and differences between the ideas of royalty; the political leaders, too, are portrayed in somewhat flat but interesting characterisations. Yet, as one other commentator has mentioned, the truly outstanding moment of the drama comes near the end, when John gets to give his performance for the family, and causes the family to reflect on their fortunes - after all, they were still there, silly. Unlike the Russian royals, dead from the revolutionaries; unlike the German and Austrian royals, driven from office by the war; unlike countless other royal persons throughout Europe, dead or in exile from the aftermath, the British royal family (with its newly-minted British name) survived intact, if not in power. One does indeed doubt the historicity of John's final performance for the family, but one can hope that it, or something like it, did indeed occur.
The sets, costumes, and music are very well crafted and appropriately selected for this teleplay. This is a programme I shall revisit again and again. Despite all life's troubles, after all, we're still here, silly.