The sights, sounds and smells of royal life across the centuries were brought quirkily to life in Buckingham Palace with Alexander Armstrong (Channel 5). For better or worse, it was the smells that stayed with you.
Pointless quizmaster Armstrong, joined by archaeologist Raksha Dave and Strictly star JJ Chalmers, delivered an agreeably laid-back overview of the evolution of Buckingham Palace – a potted history in which the potties were pre-eminent. “It would have been pretty stinky wouldn’t it,” said Dave. She’d been padding around a (thankfully empty) cesspit similar to that which would have existed in Buckingham Palace shortly after it was acquired by George III in 1761.
Earlier, Dave got to sit on a Georgian potty. Historian Alice Loxton explained that a trusted court member would have always carried it around behind the regent. The lucky party had the special title of “Groom of the Stool” and earned more than £200,000 in today’s money. You also had the ear of the king – assuming you didn’t put your back out lugging his gilded portaloo everywhere.
Armstrong was his usual smoothie self. But his contract clearly had a clause sparing him crawling around cesspits or donning a gentleman’s wig. The Lucy Worsley-esque, history-as-interactive-fun tasks fell to the game Dave and Chalmers. In addition to sitting pretty on a potty, Dave had to squeeze into a voluminous ball gown. Chalmers, for his part, learned how to dance at the Georgian equivalent of an all-night rave (balls would rock on until 6am). Royalty is big box-office today.
Amid the relentless royal documentaries, Armstrong’s contribution was endearingly low stakes. He shared some pub-quiz-style facts about the origins of Buckingham Palace, which has 775 rooms and an ATM in the basement. There were no unique insights or special access. With the palace undergoing restorations, Armstrong was confined to rubbing shoulders with tourists on the concourse outside the gates.
In fact, most of the filming took place miles away. Armstrong popped around to Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire – a dead ringer for the original residence owned by the Duke of Buckingham. Dave meanwhile got savvy about the lavvie at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire. Armstrong’s persona of TV charmer was perfectly matched to this undemanding fare. “There’s never a dull moment in the building that’s been at the heart of British life for over 250 years,” he said. Despite all the toilet talk, Buckingham Palace with Alexander Armstrong was comfort viewing fit for a king.