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Lost Prince, The (2003)

Courtesy of FremantleThames

Main image of Lost Prince, The (2003)
TalkBack/BBC/WGBH (Boston) for BBC1, tx. 19 & 26/1/2003
2 x 90 min, colour
DirectorStephen Poliakoff
ProducerJohn Chapman
Written byStephen Poliakoff
PhotographyBarry Ackroyd
MusicAdrian Johnston

Cast: Gina McKee (Lalla); John Sessions (Mr Hansell); Miranda Richardson (Queen Mary); Bill Nighy (Stamfordham); Matthew Thomas (Johnnie); Michael Gambon (Edward VII); Tom Hollander (George V); Bibi Andersson (Queen Alexandra)

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The story of Prince John, the epileptic and autistic child of King George V and Queen Mary.

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Following his epics about modern British society, Stephen Poliakoff visited the past for The Lost Prince. But many of the writer's familiar themes remain: the astute observation of parents and children, intimations of the present lying in the past, the loneliness of social isolation, and the rules and rituals of enclosed societies.

John is a tragic character, living an isolated and short life, but he's portrayed with immense humour by two excellent young actors, Daniel Williams and Matthew Thomas. Indeed, his story would be overwhelmingly sad were it not for Poliakoff's decision to make it clear that the Prince managed to find a measure of happiness within his own small community, surrounded by love and care. But his isolation recalls Poliakoff's other outsiders - Oswald in Shooting the Past (BBC, 1999), Raymond in Perfect Strangers (BBC, 2001) and Colin in Close My Eyes (d. Poliakoff, 1991). John is also a link to the other children in Poliakoff's work, seeing the adult world through confused but fascinated eyes and often, as here, through barriers of bannisters, windows and closing doors.

The atmosphere throughout is overwhelmingly elegiac; the occasional mood of Perfect Strangers has here turned into a mode, one which reached a peak in Poliakoff's later drama Gideon's Daughter (BBC, 2006). There is a yearning nostalgia for the period, tempered by a clear-sighted vision of the coldness and social restrictions that were imposed within the royal circle - and which have modern resonances. But Poliakoff presents the royal family with humane sympathy, particularly Michael Gambon's ebullient Edward and Miranda Richardson's Alexandra. Tom Hollander's complex portrayal of the nervy, difficult George is equally notable.

A good deal of history is presented in passing, seen through John's eyes. The increasing international tension and the subsequent outbreak of World War One happen as an aside, impacting on John through the absence of his parents. We see suffragettes chaining themselves up and Prime Ministers come and go as figures in a parade beyond the walls of the garden. Most shockingly, we see the graphic murder of the Russian Royal Family to whom John had felt so close.

The production is lavish, with exceptional period detail, and Adrian Johnston's music score (his fourth collaboration with Poliakoff) perfectly captures the emotional tenor of the piece. The Lost Prince is further evidence of Poliakoff's determination to root out the secret or forgotten parts of our history and give due weight.

Mike Sutton

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Video Clips
1. The butter race (1:57)
2. Playing soldiers (2:24)
3. Johnny's fit (1:55)
4. Sorting out the royals (4:46)
5. A lesson (2:16)
Production stills
Ackroyd, Barry (1954-)
Finlay, Frank (1926-)
Gambon, Sir Michael (1940-)
Nighy, Bill (1949-)
Poliakoff, Stephen (1952-)
Richardson, Miranda (1959-)
TV Drama in the 2000s