THE QUEEN’S HIDDEN COUSINS: Thursday 17th November, C4, 9pm
The Queen is said to be âhugely distressedâ by tonightâs Channel 4 expose about five of her cousins; women who spent their lives locked up in a mental asylum for âidiots, imbeciles and the feeble-mindedâ? and branded dead by her family. But Her Maj probably won’t be the only one who found this documentary which claimed to reveal the shameful truth about two “degenerates” who were disassociated from the Royals rather disconcerting.
The story begins back in the early 20th century when the Queen Motherâs sister gave birth to two baby girls; both of whom suffered from severe learning difficulties. As time went on their conditions became more explicit and the girls were branded âimbecilesâ?. The chilling accounts of staff and patients who lived and worked at the Royal Earlswood hospital in Surrey while sisters Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon were interred, made for uncomfortable viewing as the story of these two shunned by the oldest British institution unfolded.
But the line between exposing the truth and giving audiences a chance to ogle at these blue-blooded “unfortunates” was always going to be a fine one. As soon as the plinky-plonky circus music kicked in, that line got even finer.
Earlier this year, the Big Fat Gypsy series raised some hackles up and down the country and some questioned Channel 4âs penchant for documentaries which border on presenting people as spectacles as opposed to subjects. Incessant close-ups on Nerissa Bowes-Lyonâs vacant teenage face combined with delightfully patronising accounts of their âchildlikeâ? behaviours left something to be desired if the aim was to restore dignity.
Several interviews with former residents also suggested that abuse was taking place in the creepy mental home in Surrey. âDid they hit you?â? a sibling asks her ex-Earlswood sister. âYes, they didâ?, she replies. Other short-time employees report seeing violent and abusive behaviour including the account of one man who saw a patient shut outside in the snow, naked, for an entire day as punishment for bad behavior.
Despite interviewing several nurses and matrons who worked at the establishment, the issue is never fully discussed or even broached with anyone who may have been involved.It is difficult to make sense of a documentary which offered nothing in the way of new or hard facts that werenât known some twenty years ago when private investigators for The Sun broke the story. Anti-Royal viewers may have been rejoicing at the damning evidence presented in this hour-long film, particularly at the end of a right Royal year of weddings and knees-ups. But was it a justifiable intrusion into the lives of these women?