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Downfall of the King review: How a slaughtered elephant brought down the womanising Spanish monarch

A documentary on the Spanish king full of scandal and deeply unlikeable principal characters

IT’S to be hoped Juan Carlos: Downfall of the King (Sky Documentaries, Tuesday; available on demand) came with an on-screen content warning when it aired.

Episode one of this four-part account of the fall from grace of the former Spanish monarch, who was forced to abdicate in 2014 after being engulfed in corruption scandals and fled to exile in Abu Dhabi in 2020, features footage of an African elephant being shot in the head during a safari.

​The magnificent creature emits a heartbreaking roar of agony, before keeling over and hitting the ground with a sickening thud. It’s a deeply distressing moment — and totally gratuitous.

Even though the shooting of an elephant (a different one) is a key component of the story being told, the footage adds nothing of worth. The dictum “show don’t tell” turns out to be the wrong advice.

It’s not the only nauseating element on display, though. Most of the principal characters in this slickly produced documentary are so repulsively self-serving, it’s difficult to feel anything but contempt for them.

This wasn’t always the case. For more than three decades, King Juan Carlos was a respected, even revered, figure and regarded as a shining champion of social reform and democratic values.

He showed his mettle in 1981, when his impassioned words alone were seemingly enough to bring a halt to an attempted coup d’état. A unit of the Guardia Civil seized the Spanish Congress (we see the actual footage of them firing machine guns into the ceiling of the chamber as elected representatives cower in terror), claiming they had the support of the king, who was the Captain-General of the Armed Forces.

Dressed in uniform, Juan Carlos went on live television to denounce the coup attempt and call for support of the legitimate democratic government. With the plot snuffed out, Juan Carlos’s support soared, even among left-wingers who had long believed he was nothing more than Franco’s stooge. It changed perceptions of him in Spain and abroad.

“He was like the new world king,” says Selena Scott, the only instantly recognisable contributor in a list made up mostly of Spanish journalists and a handful of men who worked in the King’s inner circle.

But the key contributors are twice-married German aristocrat Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was Juan Carlos’s mistress for years, and her former first husband Philip Adkins, a close friend of the ex-monarch who insisted on proving it to the camera crew by ringing him up for a chat.

The king, says Scott, was “a magnet for women” — and indeed women were magnets for him. He was a tireless womaniser. His wife, Queen Sofia, knew it. “She put up with a lot from him,” said one talking head.

So did his Secret Service detail, whose main functions were keeping his affairs out of the public eye and letting him use apartments owned by them, and paid for by the taxpayers, for his countless sexual assignations.

The public came to know it too following a 2012 hunting trip to Botswana organised by Juan Carlos for Corinna, Adkins (by then they were long divorced) and her son from her second marriage, who was about to turn 10. Only the decadent rich would consider animal slaughter a suitable birthday present for a kid.

“An elephant was shot,” says Adkins, which is when that harrowing clip is shown. Who pulled the trigger is unclear, but when a photo of Juan Carlos posing, gun in hand, over the dead beast began to circulate, there was outrage in Spain.

The king fell and broke his hip on the trip, and had to be rushed home to Madrid for emergency surgery. By the time he left hospital, the trickle of scandal had turned into a torrent.

It emerged the hunting trip had cost €44,000, at a time when Spain was deep in economic crisis and unemployment had tripled in two years. It was revealed Corinna had been living for several years in a villa paid for by him — or rather the Spanish people.

“I didn’t pick this fight,” says Corinna, who claims she was scapegoated. Poor her.

There’s more scandal — Saudi kickbacks, dodgy bank accounts, misused charity funds — to come, provided you can endure three more hours of these awful people. Personally, I couldn’t stop thinking about the elephant.

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