Monarchy in the UK
Rachel Cooke winces and blubs her way through the royal celebrations.
Diamond Jubilee programming
People say that the age of deference has passed. When you see Alan Titchmarsh performing his latest and most cherished role as royal television courtier-in-chief, not only do you know that they are right, but a tiny, shameful part of you mourns its passing. Do shut up, Alan! Oh, he’s polite, all right; the words “Your Royal Highness” tumble from his mouth with the greatest of ease. But the toadying – I’ve seen tubs of Vaseline less oleaginous – is now slicked with a repulsive dollop of amour propre. When he refers to “ordinary folk”, as he is prone nauseatingly to do, you know in your bones he doesn’t mean himself. His new-found grandeur – the potting shed and the daffodil bulbs having made way quite delightfully for royal palaces – gleams as brightly as the gold buttons on his blazer.
Naturally, it was Titchmarsh who presented ITV1’s flagship Diamond Jubilee documentary, Elizabeth: Queen, Wife, Mother (1 June, 9pm) and I watched it so you don’t have to (for this week, and this week alone, I’m doing duty as your royal TV correspondent). It had its moments. It is pleasing to know that the Queen once had a corgi called Susan. The mind boggles at the news that Granny enjoys hearing about Princess Eugenie’s “Newcastle life” – and I only hope that this is what it sounds like (in other words, that she is given to wandering the Bigg Market with one hand on the hem of her skirt and the other clutching a bottle of WKD).
But Titchmarsh did rather get in the way and not even Princess Anne dared to swat him. We reached the gruesome nadir when he read out a letter from the young Princess Elizabeth to her mother, written during her honeymoon. It was a very sweet letter, assuming you’re prepared to believe that Prince Philip is “an angel and having him around all the time is perfect”. But I hardly think it merited Titchmarsh’s response, which clearly drew on his long years of experience in amateur dramatics (I’m not making this up; he once had his home extended to include a private theatre).
The Yorkshire vowels quavered. The froggy eyes filled with tears. It was as if he was reading the letters of his own dear mother – though possibly this is how he has come to think of the Queen, what with spending so much time round her gaff. So, perhaps he was also feeling a weird sort of sibling rivalry, because his programme was scheduled to run straight after A Jubilee Tribute to the Queen by the Prince of Wales on BBC1 (1 June, 8pm).
Hard to compete with the real thing, ratings-wise (for this documentary, Charles, or someone, had dusted down family photographs and old cine films; the BBC wouldn’t let me see a preview but I gather it included – wait for it! – a shot of the young Charles and Anne rolling down a grassy bank).
I wish I could tell you that I found myself immune to all things jubilee. But that would be a lie. I enjoyed The Queen and I (ITV1, 4 June, 8pm), in which members of the public were invited to share their home movies of the monarch, rather more than I should have done. For a start, in the 1950s, the Queen really rocked the New Look and I’m sucker for a good swing coat. There was something irresistibly touching about her subjects, too, their awe always undercut by their attention to the humdrum.
“I couldn’t get over her complexion,” said Enid Gowthorpe, whose sister had hosted the Queen at her Hull council house in the 1950s. At the Cutlers’ Hall in Sheffield, three brothers saw film of their now dead father, Billy Ibberson, entertaining the Queen at a grand “do” (this is what we call parties, or any other kind of gathering, in Sheffield). Half a century later, his delight was still so palpable that the cheeks of his grown sons flushed as they watched.
Which brings me, finally, to Gary Barlow: On Her Majesty’s Service (BBC1, 3 June, 7.40pm), which followed the singer as he travelled the Commonwealth, recording music for the jubilee song he had written with Andrew Lloyd Webber. I know. It sounds embarrassing, doesn’t it? It was. But I kept blubbing, all the same. The sound of Kenyan schoolgirls does tear at the heart, even if what they’re singing is by Barlow (his jubilee lyrics are cheesier than a Gorgonzola sandwich). Throw in Gareth Malone and his choir of military wives (on guest vocals) and what you’ve got is a total Kleenex-fest.
What did the Queen make of the song? “We’re excited to tell you what we’ve been up to,” Barlow told her Maj, at Windsor Castle. She responded with that careful smile of hers, the one that is almost a wince. Alas, the camera did not linger on her face as Barlow’s record was played; nor did we see her Minnie Mouse toes tapping. Apparently, the Queen does not want to “sing it loud”. Nor does she want to “sing it proud”. Poor thing. I expect she still misses the Ink Spots.