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A real royal plot brought to life

Documentaries promising new insights into the tangled history of Britain's dysfunctional royals rarely deliver. Edward VIII: The Plot to Topple a King, however, did.

Pieced together from secret letters and diaries which had lain in the archives of Lambeth Palace for decades, it revealed that the playboy king didn't voluntarily give up the throne for the love of American Wallis Simpson. He was forced off it by an establishment conspiracy masterminded by Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Lang hated Edward almost as much as he'd adored his father, George V. "They met at no point," said Edward's biographer, Philip Ziegler. "Neither could understand the other, neither could see the point of the other."

Edward was a celebrity who hated ritual and ceremony and seemed to be liked by anyone who met him. He was perfect for the media age, but so was Lang, who knew how to manipulate the press to his own ends. He'd written speeches for George V and was the person who originally came up with the idea of the royal walkabout.

Lang regarded Edward's ascent to the throne as "a monstrosity", although not because of his involvement with a twice-divorced American commoner. He feared he'd lose his grip on power if Edward, who rarely went to church, stayed on the throne.

Luckily for historians, Lang had a faithful assistant, a chaplain going by the brilliant name of Alan Dong, who kept incriminating records of every move Lang made and was a vicious gossip to boot. Dong's bitchy diaries, into which he pasted pictures of Simpson from the "Yankee press", show that Lang approached Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, urging him to press Edward to step down. Baldwin, happy for the king to keep his mistress in the shadows, rebuffed him.

Lang then turned to Geoffrey Dawson, the powerful editor of establishment newspaper The Times, and threatened to go public (up to then the British papers had suppressed the Simpson affair). Baldwin caved in, but this only annoyed Edward, who dug his heels in.

When news of the affair finally broke, thanks to a not-so-casual remark dropped by an obscure bishop, the public stuck by Edward, so it was time for dirty tricks.

Lang lit a fuse of rumours that Edward was an alcoholic who had replaced his addiction to drink with an addiction to Simpson. He also suggested to Baldwin that the spectre of mental illness loomed over the new king. In the face of a full-on establishment assault, Edward lacked the stomach for a fight and the rest is, as they say, history -- although not the end of the story.

A gloating Lang succumbed to hubris, going on radio two days after the abdication to stick the knife into the former king's loose morals. It backfired badly. The public and the press were appalled at what Philip Ziegler called Lang's "gratuitous offensiveness" and the Archbishop's reputation was destroyed.

Despite gaining little from dramatised sequences featuring David Calder as Lang, this was an intriguing, real-life Game of Thrones.

Finding one decent documentary in a week of wall-to-wall Britain's Got Talent was a surprise; finding two in the same night was a delight.

Nancy Porter's film Houdini, made in 2000 but never before broadcast outside of American television, was PBS at its finest. I've been fascinated by Harry Houdini, aka Eric Weiss, since I was a child and devoured any book about him I could find. While there was nothing revelatory in its chronological account of the illusionist's rise from being the poor immigrant son of a rabbi to world-famous celebrity, it was especially good on his later life, when he found a second career exposing fake mediums.

Rare photographs and footage brilliantly evoked the time and place, and the contributors, including magician David Copperfield, psychic phenomena investigator David Rand and writer EL Doctorow, whose glittering novel Ragtime features Houdini as one of many real-life supporting characters, dripped with quality.

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