Backstairs Billy is a biographical comedy about William Tallon, who worked as the Queen Mother’s chief footman for years following the death of George VI in 1952. Tallon was an enthusiastic gay cottager whom the tabloids suggestively dubbed ‘backstairs Billy’ during the 1970s when attitudes to homosexuality were growing more enlightened.
The show, directed by Michael Grandage, is set in 1979 and Luke Evans plays Billy as a swaggering charismatic stud who loves his role as the unofficial head of the Queen Mum’s household. He adores his employer, ‘the last Empress of India’, and he praises her decision to remain in London during the Blitz rather than decamping to safety in the countryside or overseas.
New staff members are given a crash course in the history of royal palaces – ‘you’ll open doors that are older than democracy’. And they’re invited to take part in the house’s free-and-easy sexual culture. Penelope Wilton plays the Queen Mum as a frolicsome old dear, always keen to throw back another gin and tonic, and determined to have a good time during her twilight years. For decades she had nothing to do but wave at the crowds in public and to mourn the King-Emperor in private.
Wilton delivers a warm and richly detailed portrait of grief overcome by resilience and good humour. The show sags a bit in the middle. There’s a lengthy historical detour about Billy’s adoption by the royal household at the age of 15. Then the script warms up again, and things become farcical rather than factual.
Billy smuggles his sculptor boyfriend, Ian, into Clarence House and they enjoy a spot of luxury love-making on the embroidered cushions. Then they get caught with their pants down and Ian has to pose as a foreign prince in order to justify his presence at the royal residence.