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The Queen

HM has never looked so good

Thank God for Helen Mirren. It is thanks to her that actors playing the Queen no longer restrict themselves to turning in creaky impersonations. Yes, they might don the helmet-style wig, white gloves and boxy patent leather handbag. But they no longer attempt the voice - Her Majesty squeaks like an old mattress - and no one worries too much if, physically, they resemble her hardly at all. For this freedom, we are grateful. As a result, we get a more nuanced idea of what the Queen might actually be like. Of course, it's possible that, as a New Statesman reader, you are not remotely interested in what the Queen is like. But I am. What I wouldn't give to have a nose through her private diaries. I wonder if she finds Prince Charles as absurd as the rest of us.

In The Queen (29 November to 3 December, 9pm), Channel 4 took full advantage of this new freedom, with five different actors playing her at five different points in her life. Rather than merely maturing her, these women gave us five very different Elizabeths, the only common thread being a certain mulishness, and a covetable pearl, diamond and marcasite brooch, which appeared on the royal bosom at frequent, and rather comforting, intervals.

Samantha Bond, who got the 1970s Queenie, cash-strapped and desperate for a pay rise, played her as a sort of aristocratic Miss Whip­lash, dominating Harold Wilson in ways he found mildly thrilling, while Susan Jameson, who got 1980s Queenie, played her as a bleeding-heart liberal, the kind who weeps hot tears whenever she is faced with the television news. But my favourite was Barbara Flynn as early 1990s Queenie, frumpy, clueless and entirely baffled by her needy, self-obsessed daughter-in-law Diana.

The producers included in their series Group Captain Peter Townsend and Camilla Parker Bowles, the divorcees whose stories form two neat bookends at the beginning and towards the end of the Queen's reign, but they left out Diana's death, knowing perhaps that this crisis has been dealt with brilliantly elsewhere. But that didn't matter one jot. The whole thing was fascinating, and hilarious. The fascination lay in the detail, whether or not it was strictly true. Wilson drying up at Balmoral; Princess Anne telling her mother that, contrary to popular belief, her new husband, Mark, was not at all thick; Margaret Thatcher (played superbly by Lesley Manville) staggering after the Queen in the Scottish mud in her Ferragamo court shoes.

The hilarity, as always, lay in the spectacle of the royal biographers and friends who appeared as talking heads between dramatisations. There are few things in the world more amusing than the sight of plump biographers attempting to convey the extent of their closeness to a royal party - "We-ell, Princess Margaret once told me herself . . ." - and of so-called "friends" attempting to convey their deep intimacy with, say, Prince Charles, while at the same time trying desperately not to say anything which could put a premature end to it (step forward, Jonathan Dimbleby and Timothy West). Britain might have changed an awful lot since the Queen ascended to the throne, but toadying, I'm pleased to report, continues unabated.

Twenty-four-hour news has neutralised the effect of the scoop; stories drip now, and only rarely explode. So it is virtually impossible to explain to anyone under the age of 30 how, say, the Sunday Times's publication of extracts from Andrew Morton's book about Diana went down at the time (that is to say, like a bombshell). I was then a trainee reporter on the newspaper and, leaving work late the night before it hit the news-stands, we were frisked by Wapping security in case we had proofs in our bags.

The secrecy, the excitement and the shock seem quite astonishing in retrospect. Channel 4's series captured a little of this and, combined with some seriously excellent performances, it left one not only with a feeling of nostalgia for the power of a good headline, but with a sense that the monarch and her family are probably safer now than they've ever been. Publicity-wise, the ghastliest depths have already, it is fair to say, long since been plumbed.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George