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A scandalous royal romance

WE ALL know that the ageing Queen Victoria, lonely, depressed and in mourning for Prince Albert, developed the hots for a Scot with a beard bigger than his sporran. His name was Billy Connolly.

I'm kidding -- although not about the lonely, depressed and in mourning part. The Scot was really called John Brown; he was just played by Connolly in the film Mrs Brown -- not to be confused with Mrs Brown's Boys.

But if Victoria's close relationship with her gillie Brown upset the stuffy royal household, which consisted largely of the queen's children, her paid advisors and a motley collection of aristocratic hangers-on with titles such as "lady of the bedchamber" -- not unlike today, in other words -- then her shocking behaviour towards her Indian servant Abdul Karim in the last 14 years of her life shook its foundations.

This was the subject of Queen Victoria's Last Love, a gem of a film which told a fascinating story with a pleasingly dry, detached wit. Though Empress of India, Victoria had never been allowed to travel there, due to safety fears. That didn't stop her being fascinated with India's exoticism, however.

So when the Jewel in Crown despatched a couple of Indian servants as "a gift" to the monarch, she was delighted and took an immediate shine to Karim, a strapping, handsome 24-year-old, who claimed to be the son of a surgeon-general in the Indian Army. In reality, Karim's father was a prison doctor.

Employed as "a table servant", Karim was soon adding a little spice to the royal menu by whipping up authentic Indian dishes. Victoria's own journals record how much she enjoyed her regular Sunday lunch of curry, as well as the company of Karim, who she swiftly took into her confidence, to the virtual exclusion of everyone else.

If the curry was unpalatable to the royal household's two heavyweights -- the queen's private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby and her doctor, Sir James Reid -- then Karim's increasing influence over the queen was even more so. "Some said he was on the make, others that he was a spy. Worst of all, he was an Indian," said Geoffrey Palmer's gently mocking voiceover.

Victoria treated Karim like a favoured son, lavishing him with largesse and even personally tending to him when he was ill. She gave him three homes in Britain, as well as land and property in India, which allowed him to live like a maharajah during his annual trips home. In return, he taught her Indian, and portions of her journals are written in the language.

Fascinating photographs record how Karim's upward mobility was reflected in his growing prominence in the annual Christmas tableaux, where members of the household would dress up and recreate great paintings for Victoria's amusement.

None of this went down well with Ponsonby, Reid or Victoria's son, the twittish Prince of Wales, who had spies follow Karim everywhere and tried to milk the rampant Islamophobia gripping Britain to blacken his character. It didn't work. The more they attacked Karim, the more Victoria dug her heels in, accusing them of "race prejudice".

When Victoria threatened to pull out of the imminent Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the prince retorted by threatening to have her declared insane. She relented, but only a little. Throughout the celebrations, and throughout the remaining four years of her life, she kept Karim literally by her side.

Days after her funeral in 1901, Karim was turfed out of his homes and banished to India, where he died four years later, albeit in the lap of luxury. Any correspondence between him and Victoria was burned.

But there was a twist in the tale. Whatever it was Victoria saw in Karim, no one else did -- not even his fellow Indian servants, who regarded him as a pompous boor, a bully and a nakedly ambitious manipulator.

"If one knew him today," said a historian who happens to be one of Karim's descendants, "he would be a pain in the arse."

queen victoria's last love HHHHI