Queen Elizabeth and the Spy in the Palace, review: a potted history of royal espionage

Channel 4 has a habit of suggesting that its royal documentaries are uncovering secrets hidden in the archives. In fact, they are highlighting secrets that authors have already dug out of the archives. It’s an unnecessary embellishment – why not simply say you’re presenting a potted history of a fascinating subject?

Queen Elizabeth and the Spy in the Palace told the story of Anthony Blunt, which will never cease to be fascinating. Cambridge-educated art historian, third cousin of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, and Soviet spy.

Blunt was outed by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and died in 1983. A storyline in a past series of The Crown briefly brought him back to public attention, but I’d wager that there are many people out there for whom his name will ring only the faintest of bells, and this primer was a good place to start.

The assembled experts included Blunt’s biographer, Miranda Carter, and Alastair Laing, curator emeritus of pictures and sculpture at the National Trust. Laing counted Blunt as a friend, and blamed the “malevolent influence” of Guy Burgess for the path taken.

Laing was an interesting interviewee, and cited a reason for Blunt’s absence of loyalty to King and country: Britain’s criminalisation of homosexuality. “He must have felt, in some way: how loyal am I to a country that could potentially do this to me?” Then again, the Soviet Union was hardly a beacon of gay rights.

The security services kept Blunt’s 1964 confession quiet. The documentary did its best to point to a royal cover-up too, running with the idea that Blunt had been sent to Germany in August 1945 to retrieve documents that could have embarrassed the Royal family. It wasn’t just the Duke of Windsor who was cosying up to the Nazis, the programme told us – in the words of historian Piers Brendon, George VI was “implicated in the appeasement business right up to his fetlocks”.

The programme went on to suggest that Blunt had passed this kompromat to the Russians. Juicy stuff – but overreaching, because there was no evidence to back the claim. It would be little surprise, though, if one day more secrets emerge.

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