TV REVIEW : 'Charles, Diana': Royal Romp


Heavy may hang the crown of England. But the timing of the official separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales is hand-stitched for ABC's "Charles and Diana: Unhappily Ever After" (at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42).

With Prime Minister John Major's unusual announcement to Parliament Wednesday of the royal couple's split, this dramatization about the collapse of what was essentially the world's last genuine fairy-tale romance is a fortuitous stroke of up-to-the-minute movie making. Of course, the royal family wasn't thinking about ABC, but it almost makes you wonder.

So how good is the movie?

Not bad if you're intrigued by an "Upstairs, Downstairs" insider's view of palace life and what it's like to be a lost, naive young woman alone in the castle with a Walkman strapped to her head while her conservative, fastidious prince listens to classical music in the next room.

"Unhappily Ever After," co-starring Roger Rees and Catherine Oxenberg as amazing look-alikes for Charles and Diana, is a royal-watchable romp for palace mavens and denizens of tabloid journalism. The movie touches on many of the incidents, such as the brouhaha triggered by the topless photos of Diana's spirited sister-in-law Fergie (a giggly Tracy Brabin), that have helped to pour salt into the wound of a year Queen Elizabeth herself publicly termed "horrible."

Mind you, the adventure is not up there with the beheadings and bloody treachery of Britain's storied aristocracy. Shakespeare, for example, would have turned this story into a comedy, not a poignant romance.

After all, we're not talking abdication here, as when the Duke of Windsor gave up the throne for love. That was real drama, "when people felt betrayed," as Queen Elizabeth (sternly but sympathetically played by Amanda Walker) reminds a troubled Prince Charles in her effort to make him return to Diana's side.

But, as the most watched couple, at least in the Western world, their separation is impossible to ignore and, for many, to resist. The production, directed by John Power from a teleplay by Nancy Sackett, is necessarily formal in style, but it occasionally lets its hair down.

More to the point, the movie drops its reserve often enough to satisfy our appetite for dirt. There's a wonderful scene--the movie's best, actually--where Charles is at a public ceremony, listening with a plastered smile on his face while his angry father, Prince Philip (David Quilter), sneeringly tells him through clenched teeth what a sorry, spineless, wife-whipped man he's turned out to be.

Now that brings the royal family right into our world. But, while their squabbles may be ours, their lives are not, and that's what this story is all about--the wrenching adjustment of a simple, wholesome young woman to a total loss of privacy and mind-numbing duties.

The script is evenhanded when it comes to marital blame.

Ironically, the most endearing and admirable character is the rigid Queen Elizabeth, shoring up the crumbling family at every porous corner and voicing the rational for a Windsor dynasty with steely resolve: "People look to us for our values, stability, continuity."

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