Royal Pains in the Arse: What movies have taught me about the maladies, defects, & diseases of the British Royal Family

Posted on 11 January 2011 by ShepRamsey

The Oscar race is heating up and, busy bee that I have been lately, I still have a few vital movies to check off my list. I’ve yet to see Mark Wahlberg box, Natalie Portman lose her mind, or James Franco cut his arm off.  I have, however, seen a humble and terrific little film called The King’s Speech, and it’s really got me wondering…just what in the hell is wrong with the British Royal Family?

You see, I know nothing about this sort of thing other than what movies and TV have taught me—they are my frame of reference for pretty much everything. That’s why I’m writing about this on a movie website as opposed to, say, writing a letter of concern to my congressman. It should be stated, though, that I am indeed concerned because from what I can tell, the British Royal Family is filled to the brim with defects, illnesses, and psychological disorders.

Now except for Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, we’ve all been sick from time to time, but when one internationally prominent family has a history of disease that inspires not one, not two, but three different movies, each about different subjects, then it sounds to me like more than a few pretty thorough physicals are in order. Seriously—I’m worried about this family.

For those who don’t know, The King’s Speech is about King George VIII, played by Colin Firth, who had a crippling stammer—not the kingliest of qualities—which he wished to overcome. Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, was the (un)accredited speech therapist with whom George bonded and who helped him overcome his stammer. It is a very, very good film and sure to pick up a thing or two at the Oscars next month.

Watching The King’s Speech recalled memories of a film I’d seen not too long ago. You see, my wife is a big fan of BBC miniseries and so, I’m told, am I. Several months ago we watched a miniseries by the name of The Lost Prince, which explored the regrettably short life of George VIII’s younger brother, Prince John, who suffered from epilepsy and autism and died at the age of thirteen.

The royal family sought to keep John’s illness out of the public eye and kept him at York Cottage under the care of his nurse, Lalla, for most of his life. For all intents and purposes, Lalla is the Geoffrey Rush of this film—or the Annie Sullivan, if you’d rather use a reliable old catch-all.

She is the character with whom our subject bonds as his condition is nursed to the fullest extent possible, and ultimately they wind up greatly affecting one another’s lives. You know how it goes. (Don’t get me wrong, however, The Lost Prince is a fantastic miniseries and if you haven’t seen it—and you probably haven’t—then you really should.)

The obvious similarities of these two films inspired me to get on Netflix’s Watch Instantly and examine a relative of George and John—from a handful of generations back—in 1994′s The Madness of King George, starring Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren (who would go on to play George VIII’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth, in Stephen Frears’s 2006 film, The Queen).

In this film, we learn that Britain’s King George III, king right at the time of America’s fight for independence, had himself a touch of the crazies for a period of time during his reign. His symptoms included frequent forgetfulness, violently angry outbursts, mixing people up, imagined conspiracies, uncontrollable defecation, and even blue urine—and many times all at once.

The primitive medicine of the time was unable to properly treat him, let alone diagnose him. Many doctors are consulted, but it’s Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins from Lord of the Rings) who plays Dr. Willis, the Geoffrey Rush/Lalla of the film. He is arguably the least effective of the three Annie Sullivans; his behavioral methods to cure George III of his madness include strapping him in a chair whenever he acts irregularly, rendering him immobile. All efforts to cure the king achieve no results until one day he simply just gets better.

Strange?  Certainly. The film’s closing titles inform us that “The colour of the king’s urine suggests that he was suffering from porphyria, a physical illness that affects the nervous system. The disease is periodic, unpredictable—and hereditary.” Oh dear…

So thus far, filmdom has managed to unearth three members of the British Royal Family with maladies so noteworthy that two feature-length films and an entire miniseries have been made about them—one such disease even being specifically noted as hereditary. Just what do you suppose the deal is with this bloodline?

If no one else is going to say it then I will.

On a hunch, I Googled “British Royal Family inbreeding” to see what came up. And as it turns out, the British Royal Family has had “several marriages as close as the first cousin, but none closer.” Do we have a culprit?

Who’s to say—I’m no doctor; I write for And according to Dr. Pepys in The Madness of King George, “Medicine is a science. It consists of observation. Whether a man’s water is blue or not is neither here nor there.” And I suppose whether or not a family has been known to…um…lie with one another is neither here nor there, as well—especially with regards to something like a speech impediment.

However, if by some far-off chance, I’ve managed to capture the ear of someone who may hold a little sway (…Queen Elizabeth, if you’re reading this…), then please, let’s keep a close eye on these fine people so that we might prevent them from further headline-making malady.

Really, though, my own malady lies in the fact that I take so much—too much—of what I know from the movies. A font of information, they are, but a font of misinformation, too. If we all believed everything that movies taught us, then we might all believe that dinosaurs and men coexisted…no one believes that, right?  I’m sure there are a long, long line of perfectly healthy people in the family that Hollywood has simply yet to explore.

So I guess, what I’m saying, kids, is be careful what you watch and be careful not to put too much stock in the cinematic adaptations of life and literature or it will lead you on a wild goose chase where all of a sudden you’ve found yourself watching obscure 16-year-old movies that are just OK and Googling offensive allegations against a family that could have you killed and all memory of you erased.  So when your history teacher assigns you to write a report on the assassination of Lincoln, read a book…don’t watch National Treasure 2. Know your facts, kids.  I guess it was a long, strange path to get there, but I hope we all learned something very valuable.

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