Diaries Magazine

Backstairs Billy – Mistress and Servant

By Jackscott

As we dropped into our seats on the top deck of the early morning workers’ express to Norwich, Liam said, “Okay Jack, roll up for a magical mystery tour.” I had no clue what was to come but went along for the ride anyway. Three hours later we were meandering through London’s theatreland, eventually joining the queue outside the Duke of York’s Theatre in St. Martin’s Lane.

Sneaky Liam had secretly booked tickets for a West End play I’d mentioned in a throwaway comment months earlier. The show, Backstairs Billy, is a comedy about the close relationship between Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and her faithful retainer of 50 years, William ‘Billy’ Tallon.

Backstairs Billy – Mistress and Servant

Set long after the dowager queen had been put out to pasture, the razer-sharp script cascades from belly-laugh slapstick farce to moments of real tenderness. The sparkling Penelope Wilton (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Downton Abbey) and hunky Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast) play mistress and servant. And they do it with great aplomb.

Billy cut a controversial figure in royal circles. The Queen Mother wasn’t the only queen he serviced. An infamous chaser of young men, Billy often sailed close to the wind at a time when it wasn’t quite cricket. The play waltzes around one such indiscretion when he was caught in flagrante delicto with a casual pickup in the garden room of Clarence House and almost got the boot. But the Queen Mother’s loyalty knew no bounds – apparently she loved her gays, as evidenced by the famous quote,

“Perhaps, when you two queens are quite finished, you could get this old queen her drink.”

Whether or not she actually said this we shall never know, but the line got the biggest laugh in the show.

Billy died in 2007 and, despite his notoriety, his funeral was held in the Queen’s Chapel at St. James’s Palace, and it was attended by more than 200 mourners, including lords, ladies and luvvies of stage and screen. Not too shabby for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks.

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