The prince who was lost in the shadows


TV REVIEW/Shane Hegarty: On Sunday night, something happened to the evening schedules. After long nights of bland costume dramas, crime doubles and Heartbeat spin-offs, The Lost Prince proved an oasis after so many mirages.

This is wonderful television, expert in its plotting and beautiful in its detail. It reminds you of how magnificent historical drama can be in the right hands. And, in Stephen Poliakoff, it could have asked for no better. With The Lost Prince he confirms himself as a dramatist you clear the schedules for.

Its story is based on the life of Prince John, son of Queen Mary and King George V, epileptic and autistic, hidden away - literally - for fear of bringing public shame on the family. Here he is a boy brimming with naïve honesty, accepted as an infant, hidden away as an adolescent. He lives in an isolated cottage, with the shutters drawn, cared for by his nanny Lala (Gina McKee), and visited rarely by a mother (Miranda Richardson) who has no love for her king and who refrains from loving her son.

The Lost Prince also acts as a mini-soap set in royal life. At the turn of the century, everybody was related to everyone else. Official photographs held the potential for diplomatic incidents. "Do not alarm yourzelvez," insisted cousin Bill, the Emperor of Germany to no one in particular. "I am quite happy with my pozition at the back."

Another cousin, Tsar Nicholas brought his family, who proved expert at belittling even the most elevated of people. "How marvellous to have something so small," the Tsarina remarked to the Queen of the Sandringham estate.

Poliakoff's script is scrupulous in its attention to the minutiae of the period and the quirks of a life lived in such exalted ignorance, yet the characters do not disappear in the detail, and it is rich in personality. Characters are fully-drawn within a few words, or even a glance. John's lack of inhibition is used as a commentary on their pomposity.

"Who is the Prime Minister of England?" a doctor asks him.

"He is a man with a very big head," he replies.

It is, however, to the acting of the two boys playing John - Daniel Williams and Matthew Thomas - that the piece is ultimately indebted. Both give remarkably mature performances, even if Williams as the younger version of the prince had the more affecting moments. He glowed with innocence. A sequence in which, after wandering through the palace, alone in a room he experiences his first epileptic fit, was extraordinarily powerful.

Do not feel that you should ignore tomorrow night's closing episode simply because you missed the first. The Lost Prince is television to glory in. The only fear is that, with good drama so rare, we have already exhausted our ration for the year.

Over on TG4 on Tuesday night, somebody crept into the television and turned the internal chronometer back about 25 years. Fear an Phoist is comedy that was put in an envelope some time in 1978, but has not been delivered until now.

It is done through mime. There is clown music. It is played in fast forward. Buxom women slap stupid men. This week, the blast of a gun actually blew the dress off a woman, leaving her wearing only sexy underwear. They repeated the scene during the credits for those who presumed they were hallucinating the first time around.

Its inspiration is Benny Hill, and it follows his path with disturbing precision. It is the sort of thing that could be very big in a reclusive communist state. The whole thing is acted out in mime, you feel, because the Irish language has refused to have any part in it.

You have to feel for the person who, somewhere along the line, cared enough to create Fear An Phoist. But whoever made the decision to make and broadcast should be made stand in that biting Connemara wind, while repeatedly having their clothes blown off by a dirty old man.

In Arts Lives: The Shadow of Mary Poppins, we were told the story of her creator, Pamela Travers. If you should ever be at a party and meet someone who introduces themselves as a children's writer, have great pity on them. They tend to be compensating for something.

In Travers's case, it was a drunken father who died when she was seven and a mother who walked out the door one stormy evening, wearing only a nightgown and announcing that she was off to drown herself. She returned, but in the meantime the then 10-year-old Pamela had been distracting her two younger sisters with improvised tales. The imagination, she discovered, could be a much happier place to live.

As an adult, she adopted a child from an Irish family. Faced with choosing one of twin boys, she rushed to a California astrologer for advice. When she arrived back, the children's grandfather - a stingy man, by all accounts - became frustrated at her procrastination. "Oh, don't take one, take two. They're small." The boy she chose did not know he was either adopted or a twin until the day his brother appeared on the doorstep 17 years later.

Of the Mary Poppins books, she claims not to have written them as such. "I think there are ideas floating around the world, and they pick on certain people," she always claimed. It took Walt Disney 20 years to convince her to allow him to turn the character into a movie. She acted as a consultant, blocking every suggestion the movie people made until they finally concocted an excuse to send her back to the UK.

In the end, she publicly thanked Disney for the end result, but privately slated it. She hated the animated sequence. She was disgusted that Julie Andrews shows her bloomers during the roof top dance. "Dick Van Dyke just about finished it off for her," said a friend. Not an uncommon opinion.

Every time you watch one of those programmes such as Place in the Sun or Househunters in the Sun, or anything that glorifies the notion of leaving the rat race, shouting "So long, suckers!" as the plane takes off over the M1 and starting a new life elsewhere, it's worth following it up with an episode of No Going Back. It is a pin aimed at your daydream bubble.

This week, we followed Alastair and Debbie as they left behind their Hertfordshire townhouse and three hours a day on a motorway in order to open a five-star chalet in the French Alps. Before they upped sticks, though, they got married. As a way of sealing a deal it seemed a little extreme.

Do these people not watch television? Simply by volunteering to take part in No Going Back they were doomed to a sequence of disasters. Somebody once died during one of these programmes, and it was one of the lesser events of the episode.

Things went awry from the off. The French, for a start, insisted on speaking French. Debbie gave the language a go, but when she spoke, it was in a comedy accent likely to offend. Their innocence was never quite so obvious as when they expressed amazement at how the builders were behind schedule.

The phone lines were not yet working, and France Telecom hung up on them after presuming that Alastair and Debbie's attempt at inquiries through French was someone carrying out some sort of practical joke.

They couldn't find their own page on the web. They were £16,000 over budget. The brochure said "mouth-watering meals", but neither of them knew how to cook, let alone for the potential 14 guests, six nights a week. When Alastair experimented on friends, he joked, "Get the fire extinguishers out". Five minutes into the cooking, there was so much smoke pouring from the oven that you feared only a fresh fall of snow might save the chalet. The smoke alarm rang so hard it fell from the ceiling.

Before they went, their dream had been of three hours skiing a day in between a little light housework. As we left them, in each week they were changing 52 beds, cleaning 60 toilets, making 200 meals and working over 100 hours. Was it the dream life they expected? "100 per cent," says Debbie, her optimism shining brighter than the alpine snow.

The Lost Prince

BBC1, Sunday

Fear an Phoist

TG4, Tuesday

No Going Back

Channel 4, Wednesday

Arts Lives: The Shadow of Mary Poppins

RTÉ1, Tuesday