Right royal

Television - Andrew Billen looks back on the long, long life of the Queen Mum

Channel 4's The Real Queen Mother (Monday 10 July, 9pm) opened with her face being ironed on to souvenir mugs. Yes, the programme argued, the nation makes mugs of the Queen Mum, but only because the Queen Mum long ago made a mug of the nation. She was, argued the historian Andrew Roberts, a better propagandist than Goebbels and, according to her old private secretary, "about as far right-wing as you can get". One of her husband's loyal biographers said that there was arsenic in the marshmallow.

The Queen Mum, in other words, was not only a cow but, as Jimmy Porter would say, a sacred bloody cow. Even Channel 4 wouldn't have dared make this programme ten years ago - all praise to it, of course, for keeping its nerve and doing so now - but there were moments when even this republican wondered if it was quite making out its contradictory case that (a) the monarchy was saved only by her ruthless spin-doctoring, and that (b) she had doomed it by playing the "imperial ostrich" as the winds of change blew.

This was the third of the channel's superbly compiled trilogy on the shadier recesses of the royal family's past 100 years. After the persecution of poor Crawfie, the first week, and of the Duchess of Windsor, the second, the third instalment was the equivalent of Hercule Poirot drawing us into the library and announcing whodunnit. If the Scottish governess and the American divorcee hadn't brought the monarchy to its knees, by deduction, it had to be the nice old lady in the corner dressed in chiffon.

Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon began to envelop herself in myth as early as her first (and last) newspaper interview. She'd actually fancied James Stuart, a Scottish earl's dashing son, much more than "Albert", the stammering, sickly second son of the King, and for two years turned him down. But when the man from the Star in 1923 asked about the proposal, with the "greatest composure" she lied to his face: "The story that he had proposed or had to propose three times - well, it amused me, as it was news to me." That airbrushed out, her biographers were soon airbrushing in a magical and mysterious childhood for her in Hertfordshire.

When she came to power - and power is what the programme argued she came in to - her first task was to turn Prince Albert into King George. She sent him to a speech therapist, acted as a buffer for his temper (literally so, if the story that he hit her is true), and gave him political advice (eg, keep Churchill out of the Cabinet). During the war, they played a blinder. Although at first she was booed on her visits to the East End, where support for Edward VIII lingered, the bombing of Buckingham Palace in 1940 handed her a propaganda coup. Seeing her pick through the debris, the nation assumed the royal family spent its nights in London weathering the blitz. In fact, they all slept safely in Windsor. Thank goodness Hitler never had the nous to visit a bomb-site.

By this time, I was rooting for the old girl rather more than the programme wished. After all, fibbing to keep up spirits was called patriotism at the time. It was also hard not to feel admiration for her courage after George's death in 1952. We were meant to deprecate her for calling Clarence House "horrid" and "little", and censure the four homes (including a castle) and 50 servants she demanded. But the sudden loss of the throne after 16 years was a colossal blow to her status, and I doubt, although it was a neat point to make, that the loud hats she started wearing were ever compensation for her lost crown.

Nevertheless, the programme kept up its attack, charging her with usurping the Queen in Charles's affections. Feeling that this is a granny's prerogative, I found the news that Charles kisses her all the way up her arm when they meet more touching than sinister. In any case, although she is no doubt as politically incorrect as the next 99-year-old, there is no evidence that this has affected Charles's soppy world-view. As for accusing her of not being a moderniser within the palace, that is not her job. As its most treasured heirloom, the Queen Mum personifies the necessary mystique of the monarchy's antiquity.

Unfortunately for her, her defenders on the programme did her case more harm than good. A "family friend", Mrs Cazalet, explained away her loathing of Wallis Simpson by saying that, although she wasn't sure if Simpson was common, "she certainly looked common". Anthony Harbottle, the Royal Chaplain, called the Queen Mother a beatific creature with "a foot in heaven" and, having thus identified himself as the chump who bought the spin, presented us with no reason thereafter to treat his commentary seriously.

The real case against her comes down to two charges: first, that, like most queens, she believes in sacrificing anybody for the good of the throne; second, that she has lived too long. What I want to know is how she managed this. Money, we know, can't buy you happiness, but 50 servants and a million-pound overdraft seem to give you an option on eternal life.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Special Report - Lost souls in the city in the sky