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Queen Victoria's Children, BBC Two

Welfare cuts.

Foodbanks. Rising prices. Falling incomes. George Osborne. There's no doubt the recession is pretty awful. But no. Hang on. Look over there. It's Kate, princess of our hearts. And she's pregnant! And she looks all glowy and wonderful – so wonderful in fact that I've quite forgotten about the economy and the fact the rich aren't paying enough tax.

Because that's what royal babies are supposed to do: distract us from inequality and poverty (after all, who could be offended by the reflection of poverty in a diamond tiara?).

And it's been going on for 150 years. In these days of Kate and William, babies strengthen the idea of the monarchy at a time when we might question the cost of the whole thing. In the days of Queen Victoria, it was to prevent revolution because there's nothing quite like the sight of a cute, ickle-pickle royal baby to prevent ordinary people from fighting for their human rights. Aww.

The new documentary Queen Victoria's Children (Tuesday-Thursday, BBC Two, 9pm) took us into the mechanics of this phenomenon. It explained how Victoria and Prince Albert tried to strengthen the monarchy in the middle of the 19th century at a time when the risk of a revolution felt real. The V&A strategy was to present themselves to the rising middle classes as a solid family unit, which probably sounds familiar for the simple reason that the Royal Family is still doing it. But then, just as now, the private truth bore little resemblance to the public image.

For a start, Victoria and Albert were from families with disastrous inter-personal skills. Albert's father played around with younger women because he thought his wife was too old – at 21 – while Victoria's mother was distant and cold.

"I did not know what a happy domestic life was," said Victoria.

The problem for the monarchy was that Victoria, as parents often do, passed the misery on to her own children. The pictures on postcards may have shown her surrounded by children frolicking in her petticoats but in reality she was, even by harsh 19th-century standards, a terrible mother.

Her son Leopold, for example, was a haemophiliac but that didn't spare him from Victoria's belief that children (she had nine over 17 years) should be beaten. Some of this might just be the tough way parenting was done (until about 30 years ago) but this unforgiving portrait of the Queen also suggested the beginnings of a problem that still dogs the royals today.

The problem began as a solution – present a public image of a united, happy family – but ended with the family trying, and failing, to live up to the ideal. And when William and Kate stand on the hospital steps waving and smiling, they are doing exactly the same: suggesting that they are symbols of family values, that they are moral, that they are a perfect version of us.

But look behind you, William. The history of your family – ancient and modern – proves one thing: the idea of the perfect family is nothing but a trap.

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Families

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