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Who’s had sex with the most British monarchs (on screen)?

One actor can boast he’s played potential lovers of both a King and a Queen.

While reading about the imminent return of posh royal soap opera The Crown, something suddenly occurred to me: when Matt Smith accepted the role of Prince Philip, he may have become the first screen actor ever to have played people who have had it off with both Queen Elizabeths. Now, at this point you might reasonably object that (a) Elizabeth I was widely to believed to have died a virgin, and that (b) Smith has never played anyone who has even slightly plausibly had sex with Elizabeth I. But you’d be wrong.

Because Smith played BBC TV’s Doctor Who, who – when he was played by David Tennant – was heavily implied to have got lucky with Good Queen Bess (“...so much for the Virgin Queen, you bad, bad boy!”) He even ended up marrying her in the show’s 50th anniversary episode, though things clearly didn’t work out, as an older version of Elizabeth wanted him executed (in a prior episode – time-travel, eh – we’ve all been there right lads?). Tennant regenerated into Smith, therefore Smith has played someone who’s bedded Elizabeths I and II. But can anyone beat that?

Trawling IMDB cast lists, I found 15 actresses who have have played wives or lovers of two different monarchs – The Crown’s own Eileen Atkins (Mary of Teck, wife of George V) has done it, having also played Eleanor of Aquitaine (Henry II’s missus) in the terrible Russell Crowe movie Robin Hood.

Natalie Dormer, before she was Margaery Tyrell, wife of different claimants to the throne of Westeros in Game of Thrones, played both Anne Boleyn (The Tudors), and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother (2011’s W.E.). Helena Bonham Carter also played both of those roles – in a 2003 TV movie, Henry VIII, and The King’s Speech, respectively.

Other notables include Zoë Wanamaker, who married Richards I & III as Berengaria of Navarre and Anne Neville; Glenn Close, who played another Eleanor of Aquitaine and Alexandra of Denmark (wife of Edward VII), and Joely Richardson, whose been Catherine Parr (Henry VIII) and Wallis Simpson (Edward VIII).

But the joint record holders are Claire Bloom and Jeanette Sterke, with three kings a piece. Sterke played Richard II’s wife Anne of Bohemia in 1955 TV movie Richard of Bordeaux, and then in the BBC anthology series BBC Sunday-Night Theatre became both Anne Boleyn and Maria Fitzherbert, who was briefly the wife of George IV before the marriage was declared to be invalid.

Claire Bloom’s “royal career” has spanned over five decades – she played Anne Neville in the 1955 film of Richard III, Catherine of Aragon in the 1979 TV movie Katharine of Aragon and most recently Mary of Teck in the King’s Speech. (While we’re counting, she also played two actual monarchs - Anne and Victoria, plus Doctor Who’s mum. Beat that!).

Male preference in succession means there have been fewer opportunities for men to play the husbands and lovers of our monarchs – truly, political correctness has gone mad – so no man has played the lover of more than two of our monarchs. So, does Smith hold the male record?

Well, maybe. The only other actor who may have been able to claim to have (at least notionally) bedded two Queens on screen was the late Robert Hardy, who in two different BBC dramas played Prince Albert and Robert Dudley – Dudley was a favourite of Elizabeth I and has often been supposed to be her lover, even if there’s no evidence that the relationship was ever consummated.

Dudley was also played by Robin Bailey, who thus has a plausible claim on two monarchs, having earlier played Robert de Vere, Duke of Ireland and rumoured lover of Richard II – making him the only screen actor to have played potential lovers of both a King AND a Queen.

But Smith is, as far as I can tell, the only person to have the "double Elizabeth". For now: the next series of The Crown will see the part of Prince Philip recast as time marches as on. And if Olivia Coleman, the show’s next Queen Elizabeth II, had her way, her choice for Prince Philip would immediately match Smith’s record – because she wants David Tennant. Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey indeed. Peter Capaldi, Jodie Whittaker: you may have new career goals.

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist