Veddy interesting, these two new PBS Distribution DVDs that explore secrets of British institutions: Secrets of Westminster and Secrets of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. From royal intrigue to real-life spies, two new one-hour specials uncover elements of England’s iconic institutions. The programs highlight these emblems of British history and democracy through illuminating interviews and unprecedented access to key players with inside knowledge of some of Britain’s memorable milestones.
In Secrets of Westminster, viewers see the hidden areas of London’s House of Commons, House of Lords and Westminster Abbey. Throughout its history, Westminster has embodied stories of power struggles and tradition.
As one of the world’s most famous churches, Westminster Abbey is steeped in Anglo-Saxon myths and legends dating back to the 11th century. Viewers are privy to a behind-the-scenes tour to one of the most memorable vantage points of this architectural masterpiece, the site of the coronations of every English monarch since 1066. The program charts the brazen heist of the Stone of Destiny, part of the famous Coronation Chair, first used by Edward the Confessor in 1296. The theft, on Christmas Eve in 1950, made international headlines. Scotsman Ian Hamilton reveals how he and others planned and carried out the theft, then returned the storied stone in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.
The documentary also provides access to the Houses of Parliament, both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Here, intrigue, pageantry and customs, including why a monarch is never allowed into the House of Commons, are the order of the day. A tour of the iconic bell tower of Big Ben showcases this iconic symbol and explains the origin of its nickname and the mystery of its distinct tone. Victoria Tower holds priceless Acts of Parliament, documents that record 500 years of British history, including the Stamp Act that eventually led to colonial America’s rebellion. The film outlines the famous Gunpowder Plot, commemorated annually with bonfires and fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day; features footage of suffragette Emily Davison’s grim demise; and covers the career of Lady Astor, an American in England, who had a profound impact on Parliament.
In Secrets of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, viewers learn about the legendary spy agency popularized by Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the urbane fictional spy who used high-tech weapons and gadgets to protect queen and country. The film lifts the veil on the shadowy culture of espionage, going back in time and behind the scenes to look at some of the world’s most calculated and delicately executed operations.
Established in 1909 as the Secret Service Bureau, MI6, as it is known, initially was set up to control secret intelligence operations overseas, concentrating on Imperial Germany’s activities. In addition to outlining the exploits of Reilly “Ace of Spies” and presenting some of the “gadgets” used in intelligence gathering, the film reveals how the practice of recruiting agents from the upper classes proved damaging to the agency and threatened the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States.
This documentary includes exclusive interviews with the former Chief of Service of MI6; a former MI6 spy, now an author; Mavis Batey–in one of her last on-camera interviews–who decrypted codes, including Nazi Germany’s “Enigma” system at Bletchley Park; and a Cold War-era Russian double agent who asserts, “I was playing with death every day.”