From Paddington to 3D speeches: the Queen’s dazzling seven-decade TV career – The Guardian

Be it her iconic speech in lockdown, or her landmark decision to televise her coronation – against Churchill’s advice – the Queen embraced TV in a way that helped her connect to her subjects
Future historians may be bemused that the last words Queen Elizabeth II’s subjects heard her speak on TV were “Thank you very much” to platinum jubilee greetings from Paddington Bear in a spoof appearance during BBC coverage of the monarch’s 70 years.
Her valedictory TV speaking role, though, feels fitting for the first UK head of state of the mass television age, who learned to turn the medium to a variety of purposes, solemn and jocular. Surely aware that she would rank as one of the three great queens in British history – with Victoria and the first Elizabeth – she seems to have distinguished herself from predecessors by demonstrating a sense of fun, of which co-starring with the Peruvian bear can be seen as the glorious conclusion.
When Elizabeth II acceded to the throne in 1952, it was illegal for a living monarch to be depicted on the stage or dramatised by the BBC, then the nation’s only broadcaster. A monarch’s only media presence, outside reverential sequences in Pathé news reels, was the annual Christmas Day radio address, a convention started by Elizabeth’s grandfather, King George V, in 1932.
In contrast, his granddaughter gave about 70 solo TV addresses, the majority annual Christmas TV broadcasts, but others at significant moments of British history. When, on 5 April 2020, the 93-year-old Elizabeth II spoke on television at the start of the first coronavirus lockdown, 24 million viewers tuned in. The extraordinary speech – calm and wise – confirmed her mastery of the medium and ability to use it to provide leadership and reassurance unforthcoming from politicians at the time.
It was one of a very small number of non-Christmas addresses by the Queen, others marking big-number jubilees, the start of the first Gulf war in 1991 (politically contentious but justified by her role as commander-in-chief of UK forces), and the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 and the Queen Mother in 2002.
The lockdown address made reference to the length of her broadcasting career. She recalled making a radio address in 1940, as a 14-year-old princess, to reassure children being evacuated from London, who would be “separated from loved ones”. Eight decades later, families were divided by self-isolation and shielding but “now, as then, we know deep down it is the right thing to do”. Drawing parallels with the wartime spirit – she was sure “self-discipline, quiet good-humoured resolve and fellow feeling still characterise this country” – she reapplied two second world war catchphrases: “we will overcome” and “we will meet again”.
So, while many aspects of royalty remained largely untouched during the second Elizabethan age, her visibility was transformative. With effects that will long be debated by royal historians, Elizabeth II made into reality what had been a Hollywood metaphor: the screen queen.
Her 1953 coronation, the first to be televised, led to a rush purchase of TV sets in Britain, accelerating its development as a mass medium. Other broadcasting landmarks soon accumulated. In 1957, the Queen gave the first televised Christmas address. Twelve years later, she was the star of a prime-time TV documentary, Royal Family, screened by both the BBC and ITV.
In 1975, Jeannette Charles, a near-lookalike of the Queen, played her in Eric Idle’s comedy sketch show Rutland Weekend Television. From 1984, a rubber puppet caricature of her was among targets on Spitting Image, at one point morphing with Freddie Mercury as lead singer of a rock band called Queen. In 1991, Prunella Scales gave the first dramatic TV portrayal of a living monarch in A Question of Attribution, an adaptation by Alan Bennett of his 1988 stage play.
The Queen was later played by Helen Mirren, depicting her being forced by public and political pressure to speak to the country live on the eve of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in The Queen (2006), and by Freya Wilson as a young princess, wishing her stammering father, George VI, luck with his wartime address in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech (2010). From 2016, she has been portrayed by Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton in the hit Netflix series The Crown.
This rise to screen stardom began in 1953 when, against the strong advice of Winston Churchill, Elizabeth agreed to admit the cameras to her coronation. The-then prime minister supported the view of the Victorian constitutional historian Walter Bagehot that the monarchy would be destroyed if “we let in daylight upon magic”.
But, although always aware of the mystique of monarchy, the Queen has been credited with the view that “I have to be seen to be believed”. She may also have been influenced by her husband, Prince Philip, who ran the committee organising the coronation and was a fanatic for new gadgets. It is striking that the ceremony in Westminster Abbey was not only televised but also cinematically filmed in colour and even recorded in 3D.
Another step, four years later, was broadcasting the Christmas address in both available media. Her Majesty’s accent in 1957 was much more clipped than it later became. Yet the 31-year-old seemed to have the knack of looking through the camera lens and making what seemed a personal connection as she told viewers: “It is inevitable that I should seem a remote figure to most of you – a successor to the kings and queens of history, someone whose face may be familiar from newspapers and films, but who never really touches your personal lives.”
She progressively reduced this remoteness and her 10-minute Christmas addresses, pre-recorded at one of the royal residences, became as fixed a part of the British TV Christmas as The Morecambe & Wise Show.
Unlike the Queen’s speech at the state opening of parliament, her 25 December addresses were not written by the government. On at least one occasion, they included personal reflection of a sort that the monarch was otherwise almost paranoid about avoiding.
As technology developed, the Christmas broadcasts became more elaborate, with behind-the-scenes sequences filmed during the year. Between 1986 and 1991 they were directed, at royal request, by Sir David Attenborough. The call to the most respected single figure in the history of British television reflected a sense that the annual post-turkey words needed to be open to a fresh approach.
In 1969 there was no televised address, but the reason for its absence was another landmark in royal broadcasting. The BBC director Richard Cawston had, throughout the previous year, been granted “unprecedented access”. Cawston’s 100-minute film, Royal Family, featured scenes of recognisable domesticity, including the Queen buying the young Prince Edward an ice-cream in a shop and the Duke of Edinburgh cooking sausages on a barbecue.
The commentary by Michael Flanders suffered from the sycophancy that would become a feature of royal documentaries. In retrospect, however, the film can be seen as the beginning of the view that the royals could best secure their future by emphasising their normality. The strategy would almost secure a republic when the younger royals took part in the disastrous It’s a Royal Knockout! in 1987.
Although Royal Family was popular with the Queen’s subjects, the subjects of the film seem to have been dissatisfied. The Duke of Edinburgh came to think the level of exposure was used by the media to justify later, less controlled intrusions. Certainly Buckingham Palace, which controls the rights, has prevented repeats, permitting only restricted viewings and limited clips such as a 90-second one screened during a National Portrait Gallery exhibition in 2011.
It was 23 years before the experiment was repeated. The BBC’s Elizabeth R: A Year in the Life of the Queen (1992), produced by Edward Mirzoeff, was broadcast at the start of the year. Mirzoeff, a hugely distinguished film-maker, soon discovered that making royal documentaries was antithetical to journalism: access is so strictly limited that the documentarian’s usual tools – the surprising angle, the follow-up question – are disallowed.
After those two outings, it seems a reasonable bet that the Queen would have stayed off television – apart from her annual December slot – if not for what happened in Paris on 31 August 1997. The collapse of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales exposed the explosive possibilities of TV as a weapon. The Queen, almost unique among famous faces in never having given a formal interview, had watched her son admitting adultery to Jonathan Dimbleby on ITV in 1994. The next year, her daughter-in-law retaliated in a BBC Panorama interview that demonstrated Diana’s instinctive understanding of how to use the medium by laying down a few landmine lines such as “There were three of us in that marriage” and “the queen of people’s hearts”.
From a wedding watched by an estimated 750 million people to their separation interviews, the relationship between Charles and Diana had been played out on television and it would end there in 1997: all schedules were suspended when the news came through of her death in a car crash.
Goaded by headlines demanding “Show us that you care, Ma’am” – and steered, their memoirs tell us, by Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair – the Queen made a live broadcast, under pressures that would have disturbed any veteran TV presenter, on the night before Diana’s funeral. The jeopardy felt equivalent to Nixon’s Watergate broadcasts. To all but the most fanatical Dianarites, her grace seemed impressive at the time, and were viewed as even more so after the address became the focus of a heroic scene in the movie The Queen.
Successful as this forced appearance was, the monarch may again have been tempted to retreat from TV. However, the perceived post-Diana damage to the institution was addressed by two more TV documentaries – Windsor Castle: A Royal Year (2005) and Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work (2007) – which emphasised the diplomatic, financial and morale-raising value of the Mountbatten-Windsor clan.
In the latter, though, the Queen’s engagement again had unintended effects. The showing at a BBC launch of a trail that reversed the order of footage to show the Queen apparently leaving a photoshoot in a huff led first to the departures of the controller of BBC One and the head of the independent production company RDF.
It was probably not unconnected that, when the Queen submitted to the fifth TV documentary of her reign – marking the diamond jubilee in 2013 – the commission was given to ITV. In Our Queen, another skilled film-maker, Michael Waldman, struggled as much as his predecessors had done with a subject who can never be directed or questioned. What was most notable was that the tone was as awed and supportive as in Royal Family four decades earlier.
By this time, TV again needed the Queen more than she needed it, and the 60th anniversary of her coronation was widely covered, though the BBC’s live coverage of a river pageant on the Thames was criticised for its chaos. When the Queen attended the televised funeral of Margaret Thatcher in April 2013, more than one commentator claimed to know that the monarch must be thinking of her own obsequies one day to come. Her thoughts were almost always opaque but she would surely have understood that her reign would end as it had begun and been lived: under the ever-widening eye of the camera.
Spring 2013 was also the start of the depiction most likely to shape the popular historical view of this monarch. At the Gielgud theatre in London, Helen Mirren played Elizabeth II – from 25 to 85 – in The Audience, a play that transferred to Broadway, and was revived in 2015 in London, with Kristin Scott Thomas in the role.
Written by Peter Morgan, the theatre piece turned out to be Morgan’s rehearsal for The Crown, the drama, produced for Netflix, which first screened in 2016. Each season was set in a different decade. Foy as the young heiress and then queen was generally felt to have captured her youthful beauty and occasional playfulness. Many judged Colman, in the middle-aged sequences, to have shown too much emotion, missing the Queen’s tight reserve.
Historically, The Crown was problematic because of Morgan’s willingness to make things up or solidify gossip. The Queen was shown confronting the wife of a man alleged to be tempting Prince Philip to the playboy life, and herself going on a borderline romantic holiday with her racing trainer. The first scene seemed complete invention, the other to dramatise unprovable rumour.
Morgan exaggerated the Queen’s involvement in politics. The Crown depicts her duties as more presidential than ceremonial: she steers the Suez crisis and serves as a quasi-leader of the opposition to Thatcher’s government. This obscured the fact that the Queen’s power came from not being part of the government, as she showed in that pandemic address which was, in relative ratings terms and impact, the highest achievement of a remarkable TV career.
Although traditional in most respects – several of her addresses made clear Elizabeth II considered herself a monarch appointed by God – she apprehended, as her successors will also have to, that regal media visibility is not just for Christmas.
Mark Lawson is a Guardian critic, broadcaster and novelist


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