The Queen in culture: how art gives a public face to a private life | Queen’s Platinum Jubilee


Jhe Queen’s daily life of duty and dilemma has been closely watched for seven decades. Every diary appointment, as well as every deadpan improvised aside, has been noted by royal experts and historians.

But Her Majesty’s imagined private life has had a cultural influence at least as powerful as real public life. In our collective histories, and even in our dreams, Elizabeth II has been a regular cast member: a constant symbol of authority and regimented splendour. And now, towards the end of his reign, in less deferential times, the thoughts and concerns of the monarch are familiar subjects of literary speculation and satire. The image of the Queen, whether in profile on a postage stamp or on canvas in a royal portrait, has received a range of artistic treatments, many of them subversive, from Andy Warhol’s pop art portraiture to one where The Monarch’s Eyes Are Closed, 2004 by Chris Levine lightness of being.

The popularity of The crown, Netflix’s Buckingham Palace saga, is just a small part of that picture. Where Peter Morgan’s screenplay sketches gaps with carefully considered invention, other writers have jumped in for fun.

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. Photograph: Liam Daniel/AP

When Alan Bennett brought his version of the Queen to the stage in 1988, he was one of the first to take a parody look at the woman who personifies Britain’s national brand. His one-act play, A question of attribution, tackled Soviet espionage in the royal staff; Prunella Scales, majestic and sardonic, caused a stir in the role of the queen.

Twenty years later, Bennett returned to the supposed inner life of the monarch in his short story, The Uncommon Reader. When the royal corgis stumble upon a mobile bookcase, the queen borrows a book, causing a broadening of perspective that upends her view of the world.

In the 1992 comic novel The queen and me, the late Sue Townsend also acknowledged the odd mix of accessibility and formality embodied by Elizabeth II. In its history, the British monarchy ends with a Republican parliamentary victory and the Queen moves to a municipal estate. His corgis are not allowed. Worse still, she has to dress herself, struggling alone with hooks, eyes and zippers, like normal women do.

Perhaps the urge to place the queen in a humble domestic environment is related to her frequent manifestation in the dream life of the nation. Like other famous people, its appearance in the sleeping mind is thought to represent the need for acceptance and fulfillment, or the threat of authority. For psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, examining the question this weekend, Elizabeth II is the emblem of an unconscious desire for security: “She is the fictional mother of the nation; someone on whom we can project our wishes, our aspirations and our hope for stability.

Helen Mirren in the 2006 film The Queen.
Helen Mirren in the 2006 film The Queen. Photography: Pathé/Sportsphoto/Allstar

As a familiar parent figure who might do us a favor, she also ultimately remains unknowable. Academic psychologists have chronicled the role royalty often plays in psychotic disorders. For some of the Queen’s most troubled subjects, she becomes the center of the kind of delusions that compelled Michael Fagan to sneak into her palace bedroom in 1982. He was, apparently, aiming for friendly conversation.

In 2012, this real-life incident prompted Helen Greaves to write the TV drama Walk the dogs. It starred Emma Thompson as the queen and Eddie Marsan as the intruder in her room, recreating the scene long before Morgan asked Olivia Colman and Tom Brooke to play the encounter in the fourth season of The crown. This time, Fagan himself was annoyed by Morgan’s suggestion that the couple had discussed Margaret Thatcher.

The writer admits to being on tiptoe with unease in the mind of his Elizabeth. He first tried it in his 2006 script for the Stephen Frears film The Queen then brought her to the stage as Helen Mirren, and later Kristin Scott Thomas, in her royal play The audience. Morgan recently told the Observer that he knows he cannot access the “inner journey” of the monarch. “What we can see, though, is an emotional reluctance, and then we wonder if that happened programmatically, or if she was born with something missing,” he said. “Perhaps the process of separating Elizabeth Windsor from Elizabeth Regina damaged her? I’ve always thought the danger of being queen is losing sight of who you are because you have to do certain things automatically, as the crown. So how much does it cost, and how much does the crown cost? That is the question. And how much is it?”

A succession of children’s authors have become bold in their use of the queen. Since Sophie, heroine of Roald Dahl The BFG, first approached the queen to help her defeat the giants, several other fictional children have gone the same way. In fact, the queen is often the source of salvation in children’s stories. In Two weeks with the queena 1990 novel by Morris Gleitzman, an Australian boy, Colin, writes to seek treatment for his sick little brother, while in 2018 a group of students from Onjali Rauf’s school The boy at the back of the class, write to ask for help for a Syrian refugee. In Me, the queen and Christopher, a 2012 book by Giles Andreae, the Queen takes time to care for a daughter with a disabled brother. More anarchically, David Walliams wrote a literary joke in which the queen flees, leaving an orangutan to rule the country.

Marina Warner, a specialist in fables and myths, has seen the Queen’s “charismatic aura” grow over time. “The shine she has now is partly down to longevity,” she said. “It has nothing to do with power, which is only symbolic.” While rulers in fairy tales are often tyrannical and must be overthrown to let the young prince or princess flourish, our Queen is more of a symbol of continuity.

A portrait of the queen by Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy.
A portrait of the queen by Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy. Photograph: Reuters

“She remained stoic and largely untarnished as her family wrecked around her. The current state of the myth is one that gives Britain an illusion of consolidation and comfort, but it also deceives us making us believe it’s the same country it’s always been.

Several fictionalized versions of our queen have kicked off her traces of majesty. The 2015 movie A royal evening follows Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret escaping into the crowds on VE night, while Emma Tennant’s 2009 comic novella The Queen’s Autobiography, allows him to fly to the Caribbean for a break under a false name. Four years later, William Kuhn pulled off a similar trick, releasing her at King’s Cross station heading for Scotland with her head covered by a hoodie.

Sometimes the artist who fashioned a new imagined version of the queen had the advantage of meeting her. The official portrait painters went through a succession of official seances, producing such well-known works as Pietro Annigoni’s Red-Capped Avenger in 1969 and Henry Mee’s Sunny Figure in 1990. The late Michael Noakes even traveled with the Queen on all her commitments for one year. The monarch he portrayed in his resulting book was both hardworking and fun-loving, but was she the real woman?

Most Queen-inspired music falls into two camps: the formal and the decidedly irreverent. Among the formal works are the pieces composed for his coronation, Let My Prayer Come Up Into Thy Presence by William Harris, Confortare by George Dyson and the coronation march by Arnold Bax. Among the most irreverent were the Smiths’ 1986 track The Queen is Dead, Leon Rosselson’s satirical On Her Silver Jubilee and, of course, from the same year, God Save the Queen, banned by the Sex Pistols. Slightly more sympathetic, perhaps unexpectedly, is Billy Bragg’s Rule Nor Reason, a song that portrays a pathetic, lonely, albeit regal figure. For an outright tribute, look to the flippant affection of Paul McCartney’s little squib, Her Majesty.

But the jazz classic inspired by a 1958 encounter with the Queen at Yorkshire Arts Festival might just top the list. American bandleader Duke Ellington composed the sing-song theme to the Queen’s Suite shortly after meeting Elizabeth II and he recorded it the following year, romantically sending the only copy to Her Majesty and refusing to release it. publish during his lifetime. Recalling the encounter in a later interview, Ellington said, “I told her she was so inspiring and something musical would surely come out of it. She said she would listen, so I wrote an album for her.


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