Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "The Queen" from 3.12.2009
This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2009
Over five consecutive nights Channel 4 has televised a lavish series of docu-dramas based upon what are seen as key incidents during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II: Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend, unrest in the 1970s and the attempted kidnap of Princess Anne, Mrs Thatcher, South Africa and the Commonwealth, the Annus Horribilis of 1992 and the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla. None of the events represented the finest hour of this country. The question is, I suppose: Did any represent the finest hour of HM The Queen? Also, Did any of it really matter?
The introductory voice-over was delivered in a constipated version of that used at the beginning of the X Factor. We were sententiously advised five times that "Her story is all our stories." What a crass and laughably silly remark. In various ways many of the key problems of public perception faced by our Royal Family over the last century have arisen precisely because their story has not been our story.
The unseen voice also pointlessly remarked that "One woman has been a the heart of Britain's national crises." Again this does not seem entirely accurate or helpful. So...not a promising start.
One preview suggested that the ambitious production was Channel 4's attempt to adopt its own approach to address the period reviewed in Andrew Marr's The Making of Modern Britain which concluded yesterday. That may have been the programmer's intention, but on first view this series didn't outgun Marr for authority or gravitas, which admittedly isn't saying much.
On consideration however perhaps the series weren't wholly different. Each adopted a point of view of varying degrees of obviousness or the smartarse opposite in the stereotypical Oxbridge History Boy tradition and used a variety of media - newsreels, talking heads and dramatic reconstructions to try to get the argument across and entertain and retain viewers now so easily distracted by their X boxes and reality TV beamed straight from the jungle.
The first film dealt with the scandal over Princess Margaret's "mooted" marriage to divorcee Group Captain Peter Townsend.
Emilia Fox played the pretty new Queen with an appealingly thoughtful and fragile dignity and Katie McGrath her pouting, snogging, smoking younger sister. Wisely, no attempt was made to replicate the cut-glass accents and braying cadences of young women of their age and circle at the time which avoided irritating and alienating many viewers.
Production values were very much to the fore and costumes, hair and period feel were entirely accurate. Good use was made of somewhat prosaic talking heads and contemporary film of crowds in sensible winter coats applauding huge Daimlers pulling up at sundry functions.
Pearls, cardigans and pained looks were much in evidence as attitudes to divorce in the 1950s were examined at a pedestrian pace. The Abdication Crisis was still relatively fresh in the memory and made even more vivid by the passing of the King, whose early death was widely blamed upon the pressures placed upon him when obliged to assume the Crown due to the irresponsible failure of his brother to put his duty first when insisting on marrying a divorcee.
The Queen's views were obvious and as black and white as the Pathe News. Religious and patriotic duty and social mores obliged the Princess to refrain from marrying a divorced man. The story passed and re-passed along this well-trodden path with much sulking and heart searching until the Princess, mindful of the various pressure on her, caved.
In this version of events, we see little of the Queen Mother and learn nothing of her part in her daughters' decisions. We see the Queen maintain a firm line and her sister eventually concede.
The lasting image from the film is at the very end when the siblings pass on the steps of one palace or another as the Queen is about to set off on another tour. They have clearly not seen anything of each other in recent months and they do not seem likely to grow any closer in the immediate future.
The message seems to be that the Princess decided not to proceed with the marriage not so much due to obedience to the teachings of the Church or fear of loss of royal privilege, but because of fear of being frozen out of the inner royal circle. The film ends with the Princess very much alone on those grand steps.
Given what we know about the closeness between the sisters throughout their lives with daily contact at least on the telephone, it seems implausible that Margaret was frozen out beyond the distance necessarily created by her sister's busy schedule of official duties and the pressures of young motherhood.
It might have been more interesting to explore was the reaction of the younger more beautiful daughter who was the vivacious favourite of the late King to being thrust so forcefully out of the limelight following the Accession of her sister. What would have been more appealing to a rather spoiled, attention-seeking young woman with a passionate and romantic nature than to ensure that all eyes were upon her by so public a romance and the protracted contemplation of so unsuitable a marriage?
What could restore the coquettish and immature princess to centre stage better than being seen to consider a union with a divorced man who was also a dashing decorated war hero? Margaret certainly managed to press all the right buttons in the emotions of the monarchy and with the public to resume her position centre stage.
Given conventional morality in 1955, was there ever really any chance of the Princess becoming Mrs Townsend, the wife of a lowly Air Attache stationed in Belgium? Was the whole exercise attention seeking by a princess, unused to being sidelined?
This conjecture was not territory into which this production ventured. Although the piece was prefaced by the warning that "the drama is imagined," "imagination" per se did not seem to play much part.
Samantha Bond followed in the next piece which examined the crisis-ridden 1970s and focused on the attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne from her limousine in the Mall.
I had succeeded in forgetting much of this dreary period, but found effective use was made of archive footage to bring back a grey time scarred by IRA bombing, power cuts, rubbish rotting on street corners and the dead unburied.
The film evoked grim memories of civil and industrial unrest and general seediness of the age. I'm not entirely sure that from the pantheon of experts I would have selected Dame Anne Leslie and Dennis Skinner as the most qualified. I wondered idly if by now it was Baron Skinner of Bolsover, but decided not - although stranger things have happened.
Against this apocalyptic backdrop, we see the Queen apparently focusing only upon a protracted battle to increase the Civil List. In the process we are amused by caricatures such as the ardent Republican, Willie Hamilton, straight out of pantomime and some good one-liners from HM: "What am I supposed to do - ask the Emperor of Japan to bring a bottle?"
Recollection was rendered more tawdry by the recreation of Harold Wilson as a calculating opportunist and fixer. Like a scene from a soap we see the Queen and her Prime Minister settle the little matter of the Civil List with an exchange of glances, a nudge and a wink over the washing up at Balmoral, as though it were Albert Square.
One reviewer commented that this episode was a heist movie given the dramatic reconstruction of the attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne in 1974. It wasn't - but the section dealing with the incident was engagingly straight out of The Sweeney. It managed to convey the reality of the threat and the terrifying use of guns very convincingly. Princess Anne was shown to have tremendous bravery and sang froid and came out of the incident with credit.
On the whole, the film shows the Queen's focus not upon social unrest, terrorism or even republicanism, but on the Civil List. The unrest, death and decay on her doorstep are not shown to impact upon her, nor do we even see much of her reaction to the attempted abduction of her daughter. More imagination combined with sensible powers of deduction would have been helpful here and might have cast some light upon the mind and emotions of the subject. As it was, nothing was added to our perception of the period and the person allegedly so central to it.
In the third programme, Susan Jameson's stiff and occasionally combative Queen is pitted against Leslie Manville's multi-faceted Margaret Thatcher, who as well as being her usual forceful self, at times appeared surprisingly vulnerable.
Their battle ground concerns the unwillingness of the Iron Lady for Britain to join in sanctions against apartheid South Africa and the damage this seemed certain to do to the Queen's beloved Commonwealth. The Queen was also concerned whether withdrawals in protest at the policy of Her Government would mean no African nations would compete at the Commonwealth Games she was about to open.
We are reminded of the emotional commitment of the Queen to the family of nations that succeeded Empire, ever since the sacred vow to serve given upon her Accession. Margaret Thatcher on the other hand was inclined to be dismissive of the Commonwealth and saw no reason that fear of fragmenting it should force her to join in sanctions against the minority white regime.
The scenes involving Mrs Thatcher are varied, ranging from the slapstick of the loss of her unsuitable court shoe in the mud whilst out for a hearty yomp in the heather with the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and her husband.
We learn that Mrs Thatcher was afraid of the dark and always slept with a torch after the terrors of the Brighton Metropole bombing. When Margaret mentions that the Thatchers have acquired a retirement home in Dulwich, the Queen responds, "Dulwich, that's near Peckham isn't it?"
The Elizabeth versus Margaret Commonwealth saga had an edge and interest mainly because it involved an issue to which the Queen was shown to be devoted and felt deeply that she had a sworn obligation to promote. Whether it was central to the lives of many of her subjects and deserved this degree of focus is another matter. Did the filmmakers consider whether the Queen was so deeply motivated on any other issues of the time?
The Queen in her Annus Horribilis of 1992 was played by Barbara Flynn. This difficult time for the Windsors had seen the very public implosion of the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of York for reasons which are not explored and the disintegration of that of the Prince and Princess of Wales. As her marriage decays, Diana suffers from eating disorders - surprisingly to the soundtrack of Radiohead's "Creep." (I was equally taken-aback later when the Queen later walked briskly away accompanied by the La's "There she goes," but I digress..) Sadly, no new insight or explanation for these events is brought forward.
At one point, in the spirit of much despised American Royal docu-dramas, the impending divorcees frolic about throwing snowballs watched through a window stern-faced by the Queen. A memorable climax - for the wrong reasons - is later achieved when a flunkie enters and delivers the classic line, "Excuse me Ma'am, Windsor Castle is on fire."
This re-telling of the events of the year does not seem to add anything to what was set out in the tabloids at the time. The comments - even handedly - by Jonathan Dimbleby for Charles and Patrick Jephson for Diana - seem authoritative, but - like this play as a whole -bring nothing new to the party. We are left with a depressing tale from which no lessons are stated to have been learned.
We are told that this year "marked a sea change in public perception of the Royal Family." Frankly, it seems a long time since the people of this country looked to this family as whole for moral guidance, although the espousal of duty by the Queen and her parents continues to be highly regarded. Nor, as demonstrated by the Jubilee, should one ever make the mistake of underestimating the capacity of the British to throng the Mall waving flags in celebration of the Windsors, whatever they do or do not do.
As for 1992, one is inclined to feel that Her subjects took the events as confirmation of the human frailties of which they were only too aware. The people exchanged knowing glances, raised an eyebrow, tutted and simply got on with their lives.
The makers of this film had an opportunity to put this perceived watershed into a more meaningful perspective. They failed to make it more than a re-hash of one particular annus horribilis out of a reign that for her subjects has contained many anni horribili.
The series concluded with Diana Quick playing the Queen as she struggled to come to terms with the possibility of the marriage of Charles and Camilla. The position of both sides in the argument was lucidly set out and we witnessed the progress of a calculated PR campaign to win over public opinion to accept the marriage.
At each stage of what is effectively a war, we observe the line adopted by the Queen and the modification of her stance under sustained careful pressure from her Private Secretary and other advisers, advocating the need to bend and adapt in the face of changing public opinion.
The commentary by her Press Secretary and others provide interesting insights and it eventually comes as no surprise that the Queen acquiesces in her son's marriage and completes the circle begun with her opposition to that of her sister.
Certain of the dramatic re-enactments in this film do add to our understanding, including the Queen's deft handling of her first official meeting with Camilla at the reception at Highgrove. Similarly her post-blessing and Grand National speech at the reception at Windsor is charming and reflects a lighter touch not previously much in evidence. Charles' friend Timothy West got it just about right when wryly commenting that this was "an occasion not untinged with relief."
I gather the series was intended to cover Elizabeth's "darkest hours" and "to shine a light on fifty years of British life". It certainly attempted to cover some key events in the history of a family whose dysfunctionality seemed to run parallel with the breakdown of much of nuclear family life in a country whose social structures seem to have creaked and been on the verge of disintegration as the reign wore on.
It is I think a mistake however, to imply that these difficult incidents did anything but reflect the failure of members of a prominent family to keep a lid on the impact of human frailties concerning love, money and power. More often than not, the Queen was concerned with doing her duty, as she had sworn to do and fighting to retain what her family had in an ever more inhospitable world. Eventually modern techniques of media management came to the fore and the Queen took on board the possibility of bending more than she had been able to do in 1955.
The Queen presented to us in these plays is serious-minded and hard working. She was, by the way, extremely well played by each of the actresses cast, all of whom have suffered unfair comparison with Helen Mirren. The Queen was shown to be devout in the conduct of her duty, however painful the personal consequences might have been. She was political enough to use whatever approach is likely to be most effective to secure the interests and position of her family, as when fighting to increase the Civil List or in deciding to pay income tax.
In these plays, however, we never see such passion extending outside these particular royal concerns. No such ardour is demonstrated regarding issues such as health or social welfare. Obviously the ability of a constitutional monarch to demonstrate such concerns is necessarily limited, but arguably plays such as this did have an opportunity to reflect any other known strongly-felt views in the interests of her people.
One is reminded of the public distress at the failure of the royal family to return more quickly from Balmoral to London after the death of Diana. I also recall a comment allegedly made when the Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned some years ago and most unusually the Queen was widely believed to have been seen to shed a tear: "The only time she cries is when they take away her ******* yacht."
I appreciate that this remark was an unfair and possibly untrue view about someone not allowed to answer back. It does however bring to the fore an opportunity perhaps missed by this series. Instead of wearily re-treading so much old ground, why not show, if such was the case, that our Queen did share at least some of the concerns of her subjects during trying and turbulent times?
Divorce, the Civil List and The Commonwealth weren't really enough. For me these plays wasted an opportunity; they shone little if any new light on the Queen and her family and none on British life.