NO property is hotter in Britain today than the royal family. A new tale about this beleaguered clan seems to burst onto the scene every week - each tidbit more sensational than the last. What has been absent is a cool, clear look at the House of Windsor.
Until now. A new TV miniseries, ``The Windsors: A Royal Family'' (Nov. 7 and 14 on PBS, check local listings), offers an illuminating portrait. Created by the same British team (producer Phillip Whitehead and historian Piers Brendon) that made 1993's Emmy-winning ``The Kennedys,'' ``The Windsors'' was a massive hit when it aired in Britain last spring.
The documentary co-produced by Border Television in Britain and WGBH in Boston, rises above the salacious and the sycophantic. Mr. Whitehead and Dr. Brendon make an intelligent, insightful analysis of Britain's monarchy from 1917 to the present.
The aim, Brendon says, was ``to achieve something that is particularly difficult with royalty: namely, a balanced view.... We have not pulled any punches, but neither have we tried to [knock] the whole edifice down.''
This is not an ``authorized'' portrait, but neither has it been denounced by royal courtiers. The filmmakers' high reputation, plus the unprecedented scale of sensational reporting on the monarchy in recent years, persuaded a number of people close to the throne to speak openly - in many cases for the first time.
``Some of our interviewees,'' producer Whitehead notes, ``would never have talked at all in the past. It always used to be the case that those who spoke didn't know, and those who knew didn't speak.'' Those with whom they spoke ``are smart enough to see that the monarchy ... will command sympathy and respect if its defenders give straight answers to straight questions.'' Interview subjects included royal relatives, ex-prime ministers, and the top echelons of Britain's aristocracy.
``If I were the queen,'' muses Austin Hoyt, WGBH's executive producer of the project, ``I personally wouldn't have wanted this series shown. But she may at least be glad for the public to know that these problems [of the royal family today] are not new.'' Indeed, the series reveals that the royals have endured as much or more in the past as today.
The series begins with the royal family in peril at the height of World War I. King George V's first cousin, the kaiser of Germany, is at the helm of a bitter, bloody war on Britain and her allies. Another first cousin, the czar of Russia, has just been overthrown by his subjects - to the cheers of the British press - and is beseeching the king for safe haven. Given the anti-monarchist groundswell in Britain, George puts duty to the Crown above personal inclinations: the Czar is refused. Shortly thereafter, he and his wife and children are murdered. Later the foreign roots of the British royal family are effectively buried: the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty becomes ``The House of Windsor,'' with its decidedly English resonance.
Heavy drinking, philandering, nervous breakdowns, poor parenting - it was all there long before Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne. King Edward VIII, we learn, was desperately unhappy and expressed a serious wish to kill himself as a young man. The only difference between then and now is the news media. The monarchy happily and increasingly used the press to promote its image in the 20th century. But the closer the press was allowed to get, the less deference it showed. By the mid-1980s, the human foibles of the royal family were secret no more.
As this excellent series shows, the crown's enduring strength lies in a certain ordinariness epitomized by the queen, who works hard to fulfill an extraordinary role. On a personal level, the royal family members need not be perfect; they never have been. As long as the monarch and the immediate family continue to be perceived as steadfastly striving to symbolize a larger social good, they will survive.