Remember how two episodes ago, Philip discussed the difference between “dull” and “dazzling” royals? While it’s not a surprise that he failed to include his mother when rattling off examples, we also learn in this episode that Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire), also known as Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark, fit into a category all her own. Now, I’d hardly call Alice “dazzling,” but to refer to her as “dull” would be nothing short of an insult.
Much as I don’t like how this series throws Elizabeth over on a regular basis (it is, after all, called The Crown), any insight we get into Philip’s background has always made for compelling television. Ever since the first episode, when Alice attended Elizabeth and Philip’s 1947 wedding in her signature gray nun’s habit, triggering a gossip fest between the Queen Mother and Queen Mary (another liberty taken by the show; Alice didn’t start wearing the habit until around 1949), we’ve known that the mystery factor has been just as high in Philip’s family as it is within the Windsors. So I can’t argue with the decision to place Alice front and center in “Bubbikins,” despite Philip’s efforts to keep her hidden. Naturally, the harder Phil tries to distance himself from his mother, the greater the guilt once he learns the truth behind her years of neglect.
The episode’s structure has Philip feverishly trying to sway public opinion after a gaffe-filled interview on Meet the Press sees him crying poverty over the Queen’s lack of a pay raise in more than a decade. His latest scheme to help the royal family change their disconnected, boring, and elitist image (and persuade the Labour government to give them more money) finds Philip going back to the well: Pimping out the Windsors for a reality TV show (“documentary,” in polite circles) called Royal Family. The last thing Phil needs is his kook of a chain-smoking mother, newly installed at Buckingham Palace in light of the current coup d’état in Greece, wandering the halls and ruining his carefully curated TV project.
A little fact vs. fiction lesson before we move forward: “Bubbikins” (Alice’s pet name for Philip) appears to take place entirely in 1967. Now, the Greek military junta did occur that year, forcing the Queen to evacuate her 82-year-old mother-in-law to the safety of the palace, where Alice lived out the rest of her life. But The Crown, predictably, takes dramatic license to accommodate Philip’s “We’ve got to prove we’re just a bunch of normal royals while I avoid any contact with my estranged mum” storyline. In the episode, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Meet the Press appearance is the trigger for the public outrage, instigating the filming and broadcast of Royal Family in response. However, Royal Family was shot over a period of 18 months, and didn’t air in the United Kingdom until June 21, 1969. The even bigger kicker? Philip did indeed make those tone-deaf comments on Meet the Press — but it was on November 9, 1969, several months after Royal Family had become yesterday’s news.
Anyway, back to the semi-alternate universe of The Crown. So the only family member who pays any real attention to Alice is 17-year-old Princess Anne (Erin Doherty, making her Crown debut as Elizabeth and Philip’s daughter). Armed with the knowledge of her yia-yia’s remarkable life, Anne craftily coerces a reconciliation between mother and son via an age-old secret royal weapon: the press.
Even though Royal Family was a ratings and public-relations success, The Crown creates further conflict in “Bubbikins” through a fictional anti-monarchy reporter named John Armstrong (Colin Morgan) who regularly trashes the Windsors in print. It’s suggested in the episode that Armstrong’s harsh take on Royal Family is what drove Elizabeth to insist that the documentary never be broadcast again (you can see a few snippets here, but the full doc been kept under wraps for the past 50 years, at the Queen’s command), because she felt it left the royals too exposed.
So, Phil’s next move is to offer up Anne to Armstrong — for an interview. Anne, in turn, feigns illness and stages a meet-cute between the Irish reporter and Alice. Within seconds of talking to the funny old nun, a woman who says she was born in Windsor Castle and spent years in and out of sanatoriums, Armstrong realizes he’s got a huge scoop on his hands.
Alice shares a treasure trove of stories with Armstrong, the kinds of truths that should never have been silenced, but too often still are: She’s the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and is congenitally deaf — the cause of a lifetime of marginalization by her royal relatives. The reason why she was never there for Philip when he was growing up was because she was committed to multiple mental asylums, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and subjected to inhumane treatments: Sigmund Freud apparently recommended having her womb X-rayed to reduce her libido and accelerate menopause. Although The Crown doesn’t delve into why Alice had such cruel forms of therapy forced upon her, a 2012 documentary, The Queen’s Mother in Law, as well as this 2015 talk, given by Princess Alice biographer Hugo Vickers, indicate that she was suffering from PTSD due to unrequited love of a man who was not her husband. (Both The Queen’s Mother in Law and Vickers’ talk also back up most of the claims The Crown makes about Alice’s life in this episode.)
With effective mental health care still in its infancy, Alice turned to her faith, and founded a Greek Orthodox nursing sisterhood in Athens (Vickers, in his talk, says she never officially became a nun, but she did wear the habit), which sustained her throughout the rest of her life. Armstrong’s article alludes to her “charity work” and “campaigning for social justice, often at great personal risk,” but the greatest omission of this episode is the fact that Alice courageously hid a Jewish family in German-occupied Greece during the Second World War. Twenty-six years after this episode takes place, Philip’s mother would posthumously receive the title of Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem.
Watching this from a 2019 perspective, the real trauma of Alice’s life is that she was a woman who had the misfortune of growing up during a time when mental illness treatment had a more detrimental effect on the patient than on the condition itself. The Crown did well to honor Alice with a Hollywood ending, in which Philip, now fully aware of his mother’s story, begs for forgiveness and moves toward a loving reunion. But I’d like to think that the greater strides toward removing the stigma of mental illness have already been made in real life by Alice’s descendants, Prince William and Prince Harry, and in particular, their spouses.
• It’s worth checking out the available footage from Philip’s original Meet the Press clip in 1969, if only to watch the part where the Duke of Edinburgh is asked about the Beatles. While Phil may not be a fan of their influence on certain “youthful attitudes” (*cough* drugs *cough*), he has to concede that “they write some marvelous tunes.”