I never knew my grandfather, Sir James Reid, who died in 1923, long before I was born. But he was a strong presence in my granny’s house in Aberdeenshire where I was brought up, along with my three brothers, during the war. There were portraits and photographs of him all over the house – a heavily bewhiskered figure with pince-nez and a serious rather forbidding expression.
He had served for years as Queen Victoria’s doctor, a member of her household who at the age of 50 had married one of her maids of honour, the Hon Susan Baring. When the Queen reprimanded him for failing to ask her permission before getting engaged he was said to have replied: “I’m very sorry, Your Majesty, it won’t happen again.”
Unlike most of the Queen’s household, James Reid was “not exactly a gentleman”, as the royal biographer Lady Longford put it in her introduction to Ask Sir James by Michaela Reid (1987). To begin with he was not allowed to take his meals with the likes of Sir Henry Ponsonby, the Queen’s private secretary. But thanks to his medical skills and the rapport he established with his demanding employer, he ended up as one of the few people able to influence and advise her.
I never expected to see my grandfather appearing as a character in a film but it has happened with the recent release of Victoria and Abdul, starring Dame Judi Dench in her now familiar role as Queen Victoria. Abdul is Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a handsome young Indian working in Agra prison who is chosen, by chance, to present a gold medal to the Queen to celebrate her Golden Jubilee. The old lady was charmed and Karim quickly graduated from his role as a waiter to become Victoria’s “Munshi” (or guru), to some extent filling the place left vacant by her attendant John Brown, whose bedroom he was allowed to occupy.
I can remember my granny frequently talking about the Munshi, who had caused no end of trouble to her hard-pressed husband, now delegated to oversee the welfare of all the Queen’s Indian servants. As a result of her quasi-maternal pampering, Karim had become increasingly arrogant and demanding, insisting on his own private bathroom, expecting to be given medals and even complaining to the Queen that he was not getting enough publicity in the newspapers.
As a result, he ended up being generally disliked, particularly by his fellow Indian servants, one of whom, Mustafa by name, decided to resign, telling Dr Reid: “The Queen want [sic] me to stay longer but it is quite impossible only to stay longer with Munshi. He very bad man. You send that debbel away we stop.”
But Dr Reid was in no position to send the “debbel” away and was finding it increasingly difficult to deal with his demands, including an instruction that he was to dispatch a huge quantity of drugs (morphine, strychnine and other poisons, sufficient, according to Sir James, “to kill 12-15,000 full-grown men”) to Karim’s father in Agra who he claimed was a surgeon general in the Indian army. (In fact, he was the apothecary in Agra prison.)
It was hard to see any resemblance (apart from a Scottish accent) to Sir James in the actor, Paul Higgins, who portrayed him in the film. Like all the other members of the Royal Household (including the Prince of Wales) he is caricatured as a blimp and a bigot, appalled to be upstaged by an uneducated Indian interloper.
But how else to tell the story to today’s audience? Karim was a Muslim, and painting him in his true colours as a wily and dishonest chancer might create considerable problems – allegations of Islamophobia, possibly even protests and demonstrations. So he has been transformed into a charming young Indian and his patroness Victoria becomes an early champion of multiculturalism, their stormy relationship, according to the film’s scriptwriter Lee Hall, being “immensely touching”.
It may create a sense of self-satisfaction, to mock the humbug of the Victorian elite as personified in the film by the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard) and the Queen’s household. Certainly they were guilty of snobbery, Sir James being no exception.
But was it any more objectionable than the humbug of our own age which even has to invent a new word, Islamophobia (like “agora-” or “claustro-” implying an irrational neurosis) to condemn any adverse reflections on any Muslim, even in the case of the Munshi rewriting history to conform to our new hypocritical orthodoxy?
Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and the Oldie