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12 September 2022

How to play the Queen

Elizabeth II’s reign was shaped by television. How will portrayals of her on screen determine her legacy?

By Anna Leszkiewicz

On 2 June 1953 more than 20 million people across Britain huddled around newly-acquired television sets in living rooms, in pubs and in cinemas to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It was the first coronation broadcast on live television, and the first time a television audience outnumbered radio listeners. More than half a million new sets were bought in the build-up to the event. If the story of the reign of Queen Victoria can be told through the emergence of popular photography, then Elizabeth II’s reign can be told through the rise of television. The new mass media of the age would both humanise and deify the two queens, solidifying their status as icons.

Elizabeth’s relationship with TV was complex – it was another arena in which the cautious, reticent queen was conflicted over how much of herself to reveal. She was reluctant for her coronation to be broadcast, agreeing to it on the condition there would be no close-ups. And yet this was the first of many official broadcasts: in 1957 the Queen’s Christmas Day message was televised live for the first time, from her study at Sandringham House. In 1969 an unprecedented, intimate documentary was watched by three quarters of the British public, and included footage of the royal family shopping, dining and watching television themselves. The Queen herself supposedly never liked the project, however, and had it “locked away”. (It has not been shown since 1977.)

When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in 1997 there was an outcry at the Queen’s reluctance to make a public address; eventually her tribute was broadcast live from the balcony at Buckingham Palace. Her Christmas messages over time would become more personal; during the Covid-19 lockdown in April 2020 her “We will meet again” address was enthusiastically received by the public; and in later life a series of comic cameos during major British cultural events helped to bestow her with a warmer, fuzzier and cheekier persona. There was a sketch with James Bond for the 2012 Olympics, an afternoon tea with Paddington Bear for the Platinum Jubilee.

The Queen’s reign was not just broadcast on television, but shaped by it, so it is surprising that there are relatively few substantial portrayals of her on screen. The Queen appears as archetype or caricature in spoofs such as Austin Powers in Goldmember and Johnny English (Prunella Scales); comedies such as National Lampoon’s European Vacation and The Simpsons (Eddie Izzard); satirical shows such as Spitting Image and the cartoon The Prince (Frances de la Tour); and in children’s films such as The BFG (Penelope Wilton), Minions (Jennifer Saunders) and The Queen’s Corgi. But there were no serious dramatic portrayals until the 2006 biopic The Queen, written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears.

Morgan was asked to write the film by the producer Andy Harries, who had observed Helen Mirren greeting the cast one by one at a read-through for Prime Suspect – when they responded with deference, he suddenly saw a resemblance between Mirren and Elizabeth II. The film takes place in the days after the death of Diana and Morgan insisted that its conflict should be between Tony Blair’s casual “sofa” government and the Queen’s stiff refusal to accept a new cultural appetite for humanity in leadership, although Harries feared that would be “boring”.

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Frears films Michael Sheen’s smiling “Tony” in televisual 16mm, taking calls with the Queen in a Newcastle football shirt, ruffling his children’s hair on the way to a room littered with board games, family photos and toys. Mirren’s Elizabeth is shot in more cinematic 35mm, close up in an oak-panelled study, insisting in clipped tones that “this is a private matter”. Hers is a Queen with a permanently knitted brow, blinking behind large acrylic spectacles, a plastic landline phone held to her ear (her little finger sometimes hovering in the air). Her frown is caught between concerned and affronted: it is unclear whether she is remorseful over Diana’s death, or simply irritated by it. But the picture ultimately suggests that the Queen’s reluctance to show emotion is a product of her unwavering belief in the reticence demanded of her role, the formality of her upbringing and the values instilled in her generation after two world wars. Frears’s film softens her as a result. “It’s not a mother thing, is it?” Helen McCrory’s Cherie Blair asks her husband. “If she were alive now, your mother would be exactly the same age. You always say how stoical she was, old-fashioned, uncomplaining, lived through the war…” The film made $123m, Mirren won the Oscar for Best Actress, and it coincided with a rise in popularity for the royal family. It is even reported that Mirren was invited to Buckingham Palace by the Queen herself.

“She’s not a natural choice for a writer, being a monosyllabic woman of limited intelligence and imagination,” Morgan said of the Queen in an interview with the New Yorker in 2016, adding he’d have “preferred” to take on a more volatile, Tony Soprano-esque figure. Perhaps this was a little insincere. The tension between the Queen’s impassive regal persona and the promise of a hidden individual beneath, with all the private turmoil and convictions of any human being, kept Morgan – and his audiences – in the Queen’s orbit. He returned to Elizabeth II as a subject in his 2013 play The Audience, also with Mirren, dramatising her weekly meetings with the various prime ministers of her reign. And in The Crown he would take the long view of her reign, in a series that has become one of Netflix’s biggest hits (the streaming service claims it has been viewed by more than 73 million households).

As the young Elizabeth at the beginning of her reign, Claire Foy is brittle and anxious. Though her face is often expressionless, her eyes are wide and her chest rises and falls. She allows herself a few brief seconds of hyperventilating sobs at her father’s deathbed, before composing herself and leaving the room. Hers is a Queen searching for inner reserves of strength as much as she is projecting an image of dignified and regal fortitude to the world. Her gaze grows increasingly steely and determined. In one of Foy’s final scenes she berates Harold Macmillan as he resigns from his hospital bed, coldly describing the three prime ministers of her reign to date as “too old, too ill or too weak. A confederacy of elected quitters.”

Olivia Colman joined The Crown fresh from playing Queen Anne as a tyrannical toddler in The Favourite: a queen of outsized emotions, in thrall to her mortal body. Colman’s take on Elizabeth in mid-life (1964-1990) has more comic undertones – good-humoured exasperation, barely-concealed sarcasm. In the episode “Favourites”, when Josh O’Connor’s Charles begins reciting Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” as he shows his mother round Highgrove, she is pained, interrupting to comment cheerfully on the wisteria.

Forced smiles give way to that recognisably downturned mouth. At the end of the episode the Queen reflects on her failings as a mother, recalling how she couldn’t bring herself to bathe her own children: the remorse that crosses Colman’s expression looks a little like grief. In “Aberfan” Morgan returns to the beats of The Queen: Colman’s Elizabeth is grim-faced but resolute about her refusal to visit the site of the coal tip disaster. Eventually she gives in, dabbing at her face among the crowds, but admitting afterwards that her eye was “bone-dry”. Alone, listening to a recording of the bereaved parents singing, she sits calmly with her hands in her lap. A single tear falls down her face.

There have been other portrayals: in 2010’s The King’s Speech Freya Wilson took on the role of Elizabeth as a young girl with ribbons in her hair surrounded by corgis; in A Royal Night Out Sarah Gadon plays her as a young woman enjoying her last taste of freedom and anonymity. In Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, a claustrophobic portrait of Diana’s last Christmas at Sandringham, she lurks in the background menacingly. Stella Gonet plays her upright, poised, eyes gleaming, like a cobra ready to strike. But for now it is Morgan’s depictions that are the most memorable, with more of them to come in new seasons of The Crown: Imelda Staunton takes on the role of Elizabeth in her sixties and seventies, with her first season due in November this year.

“She’s like the sky,” Morgan said of the Queen six years before her death. “The sky is there every day – it’s right over our heads – and how many times do you sit and have a conversation about the sky?”

[See also: Would the Queen really have wanted this nationwide blackout on fun?]

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