Review – ‘Princess Margaret: The Rebel Royal’
By Bryanie Geehan, Level 3 History Undergraduate
The BBC series ‘The Rebel Royal’ recounts the rebellious lifestyle of Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister. Through anecdotes and interviews, including a BBC radio interview with Margaret in January 1971, her story is told. Margaret was seen as a modernizing royal and was described as ‘blending in’ with the progressive culture of 1960s Britain. By interviewing former friends, Ladies in Waiting, biographers and historians, ‘The Rebel Royal’ focuses on many different aspects of Margaret’s life including, her eye for fashion, her love and social life, and her position as a modern royal.
In an interview with Beatrice Behlen, a fashion curator and illustrator at the Museum of London, Margaret is described as a fashion icon of the post-war period. Behlen introduces the dress Margaret wore on her twenty-first birthday and describes how she was often photographed, which led to her status as more of a fashion icon than her sister, Elizabeth. The programme also described how Margaret became a liberating and inspiring figure for young women. When in Italy,some of her fans broke into her hotel room in order to see the nail varnish she had been wearing.
The majority of the series, though, focuses on the highs and lows of Margaret’s tumultuous love life. Interviews with journalists and friends provide viewers with an insight into the relationship between Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend and its presentation to the British public. The series explains how the media first discovered their relationship after the 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II when a photograph of Margaret wiping some fluff from Townsend’s jacket, a seemingly intimate act, was taken. However, the couple’s relationship came to a dramatic end when the Princess decided she would not marry him because he was divorced and this would go against her religious principles as a young royal. Lady Jane Rayne, a former friend of Margaret’s, describes how she thought the termination of the relationship deeply upset Margaret, however, it meant that she could go back to her ‘bachelorette’ days which she enjoyed.
The marriage in 1960 of Margaret and celebrity photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones is then explored, with historian Claire Langhamer describing how their union was representative of the new post-war ideal of companionate marriage. However, Armstrong-Jones’ womanising led to problems arising in the marriage – supposedly, he even encouraged Margaret to have extramarital affairs of her own after he became bored of royal life. Although the low points of the marriage are discussed at length, former friends of Margaret describe how she was very much in love with Armstrong-Jones for most of their marriage.
Friends of the ‘Rebel Royal’ provide an insight into the relationship between Margaret and Roddy Llewellyn, her ‘toy-boy’ lover. Despite a seventeen-year age gap, Margaret and Roddy enjoyed a happy relationship during the 1970s, however it was frowned upon by many royals, including the Queen. Friends recount how Llewellyn was not invited to Margaret’s fiftieth birthday meal at the Ritz for fear of upsetting her older sister. And Margaret’s former chauffeur describes how he used staff cars to drive her to Llewellyn’s house to avoid the attention of journalists and photographers.
Margaret’s social life is a key theme throughout the series, focusing on Margaret’s love for parties and holidays. The owner of a motel in Arizona, where Margaret once stayed, described how she stayed up until the early hours of the morning partying with friends, however he did not disturb the party due to the Princess’s status. The second programme also describes Margaret’s love for the island of Mustique, described as her ‘safe haven’. The wife of Lord Glenconner, who gifted Margaret a plot of Mustique as a wedding present, describes how Margaret spent much of her later life on the island, and it is where she started to meet so-called ‘naughtier’ people, such as Mick Jagger.
Whilst describing Margaret’s life, the series also shows how Margaret was a modern royal, and how she influenced the present-day monarchy. Her marriage to Armstrong-Jones was the first royal wedding to be televised. Armstrong-Jones was also the first non-aristocrat to marry into the British royal family for four-hundred years, something which seems common today with the marriages of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Furthermore, Margaret became the first senior British royal to divorce since 1901, which was followed by three of Queen Elizabeth’s children in the 1990s. Therefore, the series argues that Margaret paved the way for the present-day monarchy, in terms of marriage and divorce.
‘Princess Margaret: The Rebel Royal’ details the highs and lows of Princess Margaret’s eventful life and how she dealt with the constraints imposed on her by her high station. It is available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.