Backstairs Billy: The Life of William Tallon, The Queen Mother’s Most Devoted Servant By Tom Quinn 2015. A review by John Cook

billy-2

I read this in the hope of some juicy scandal but was somewhat disappointed. I belong to a generation which venerated the Queen Mother. I can remember going to breakfast one morning to be told by my tearful mother that the King (George VI) was dead and I remember escorting her as part of the crowd that cheered the Queen Mother on the balcony of Parliament House when she made her solo visit in 1958. That didn’t stop me from hearing details of her partying and drinking consumption (we believed it was White Heather but that was blended whiskey and Tallon claims it was more likely to be Dubonnet and Gin). As I grew older I also heard rumours about some Royal servants being gay and that the Queen Mother actually preferred things that way.

 

It has been speculated that she saw this initially as a protective device for her two daughters but it would seem that the long hours, poor pay and live-in status in central London were more suited to star-struck young gay men who wanted to be associated with some kind of regal glamour. Billy Tallon certainly filled that bill. From a lower middle class family in Coventry, he was always ‘different’, reserved and keen to better himself. He was obsessed by royalty and bombarded the palace with requests for a place which was eventually realised.

 

He gave long and useful service though he was not universally appreciated or liked but managed to attach himself to the widowed Queen Mother particularly when she relocated to Clarence House (Backyard Billy). It would seem those years until her eventual decline into final dementia were something of a non-stop party with a truly Imperial dowager life style enjoyed to the hilt. (One of the few pieces of gossip in the book was the claim that the QM died £7 million debt as she had no interest in what her maintenance was costing and left QEII to pick up the tab). Tallon was constantly there in the background and made himself indispensible. Reading Quinn’s book gives the impression that the QM allowed him to be close but rather like a pampered pet who was allowed just so much liberty and no more. Tallon, in turn, was very good at enlarging on his actual status.

 

There seems little doubt that Tallon enjoyed his life of service however onerous it may have been at times. It was well-compensated by the reflected glamour he prized (even his court servant’s outfit), occasional longer-time off periods and even some light-fingered activity in the royal pantry and wine cellar (in fact, rather at lot). He had a partner (another servant in the household who seemed to be more appreciated by his fellow servants) with whom he shared a flat and a small gatehouse residence within the grounds of Clarence House. This was filled with a large quantity of furniture, pictures, china and bric-a-brac – very Queenish.

 

When the QM slipped into eventual non-communication at the end of her life, she could no longer call on Billy and he was swiftly sidelined by senior courtiers. He was ousted from his on-site residence and retired. His ‘life-after’ seems not to have been too difficult for a retiree though he lamented the loss of some property from his Clarence House residence and Quinn claims that Tallon’s home was searched by unknown persons shortly after his death and a ‘little black book’ disappeared.

 

It would seem that Tallon enjoyed an active sex life (outside his open relationship) and regularly brought home to the Gatehouse ‘trade’ to be dazzled by his easy access to a royal residence even to the point of creating security violations.

 

Responses to the book and TV program made about his career have made it clear that his behaviour towards other servants was not always pleasant but mean and vicious. There also appear to be no shortage of incidents involving him in predatory behaviour towards more junior ‘green’ servants newly arrived in the household.

 

A minor read with some interest only

 

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