Book review: Night of Triumph by Peter Bradshaw

t’s a well-known fact that on VE Night in May 1945, the teenage Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret left the Palace to party incognito in London’s streets... but what if the trip to the outside world went horribly wrong?

By Pam Norfolk
Monday, 11th February 2013, 9:00 am

Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw must, in turn, have had a ball when he let his imagination take flight for this darkly satirical, warmly affectionate and cleverly concocted crime caper which sees the two royal ingénues cast adrift in a city of sin.

From Margaret causing mayhem by stealing a policeman’s hat to Elizabeth’s encounter with drunks and dangerous black market criminals, Bradshaw brings us high comedy and high drama in equal measure.

But Night of Triumph is not just a gentle tease – it’s also a serious reminder that although Britain was at war for six years, crime was not put on hold. Racketeering and theft from bombed-out homes was rife. Greed and need were a powerful criminal force.

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Into this melting pot, on a night when defences were down and the city wallowed in drink and bonhomie, the brazen and unscrupulous could make a killing... in more ways than one.

The young Elizabeth, aged 19 and on the cusp of her engagement to Prince Philip, is keen to prove to her parents that she is no longer a girl while Margaret, four years younger but more extrovert than her sister, is simply eager to taste a little freedom.

Two handsome Guards officers have been chosen as their escorts. Are the two young women foreigners, asks one of the unsuspecting soldiers. ‘They have some German ancestry, but no, they are as British as you and me,’ he is informed. ‘They have, as it were, been through London but never actually into the streets.’

And so the royal siblings, disguised only by stage spectacles from a panto production at Windsor, are soon joining a conga line in Hyde Park and discovering that ‘everyone, absolutely everyone was drunk.’

Even the more circumspect Elizabeth starts to enjoy herself. ‘Nobody was sucking up to her; nobody was bowing the knee; nobody was pretending because nobody knew who she was.’

But London is a perilous place and out for rich pickings is a certain Mr William Ware who has found the war years full of unexpected ‘opportunities’ and VE Night looks set to be his last chance saloon, a ‘final bacchanal of wrongdoing.’

And when Elizabeth becomes separated from her group, their paths are destined to cross...

Bradshaw captures the anarchic essence of VE Night in this vivid and potent vignette as well as painting an enchanting portrait of how royalty might have roughed it at what turned out to be the biggest party London had ever witnessed.

(Duckworth, hardback, £12.99)