A sumptuous BBC drama series from 1979, Prince Regent is a look at the life of King George IV before he ascended the throne, when he was the Prince of Wales and latterly Regent during the period King George the Third went “mad”.
It’s funny how much of an impression of British history is still given to the British public by the way it was depicted in the sitcom Blackadder. However, watching Prince Regent there’s a creeping suspicion that this entertainingly comic tale of the debauched and spendthrift Prince George was a direct influence on Blackadder The Third itself. It might be coincidence, but there are even camera shots which seem peculiarly similar. The brief scenes taking place in the House of Commons seem almost identical. If the trousers are never quite as outrageous,the Prince waking up in the afternoon and treating it as morning while holding court to visitors was something that actually happened and wasn’t just the invention of Elton and Curtis.
Starring the ever superb Peter Egan as the Prince, this is an entertaining biographical series which while never taking itself too seriously is not beyond using pathos to explore a character who should by rights be enormously unsympathetic.
What the programme does very well is put the audience on the Prince’s side – although there is no breaking of the fourth wall or addressing the viewer directly it’s clear from the get go that we are part of George’s gang. That simple consideration makes the telling of the story fun – here is an appalling man, from an appalling family who is a laugh to be around. Peter Egan is just wonderful in the role. As a character he’s charming, funny, and winning even when he isn’t. While all the politicians and family factions plot against each other the intrigue is raised. And when he’s lying face down on the floor drunk out of his mind on his wedding night we are laughing both at and with him.
Egan is given admirable support by the rest of the cast, particularly by Nigel Davenport as King George III and an almost unrecognisable Keith Barron as the politician Charles James Fox.
It’s not a comedy, but the lightness of touch is refreshing, and the resulting jolly pace means the eight episodes keep rattling along. Even if the subject matter of each episode is not desperately fascinating there’s enough acting talent on screen to hold interest. If the episodes seem “stagier” than we are used to now, it’s because of the different style of TV drama which existed then and was closer to theatre. And there’s nothing wrong with that. When the performers are this good, there’s nothing wrong with letting them do their job and demonstrate their skill in long scenes with little movement.
How close this is to historical fact is a moot point, but the focus on political intrigue does mean it rings very true. Ultimately this is mostly a fun and congenial way to dip your toes into history.
Prince Regent: The Complete Series is out on DVD on Monday 17th October. For fans of Peter Egan (and who isn’t?) it is a great watch.