Counterblast: Dear William/The Real Queen Mother

Monday, July 10, 2000 by

Imagine a parallel universe in which the institution of the Royal family had crumbled in the dramatic social changes of the 1960s, but television itself had not been given its first big push towards becoming a mass medium in the 1950s.

Both could conceivably have happened had the Queen, in 1953, given into establishment pressure to ban the television cameras from her coronation – those against included Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who famously described TV as a “tuppenny Punch and Judy show”, and, initially, Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher and Earl Marshal the Duke of Norfolk, whose responsibility it was to organise the event.

But of course we know what happened when the cameras were let in – it not only ushered in the television age, but it created a period of absolute deference to the monarchy throughout British society. The original ITA regulations of 1955 declared that there had to be a two-minute interval between “any appearance by any member of the royal family” and an advertisement. In 1957, Malcolm Muggeridge was dropped from Panorama after he had dared to ask, in the US magazine the Saturday Evening Post, “Does England really need a Queen?” But as public interest in the royal family declined during the 1960s, and the reverence previously shown for them came to seem increasingly anachronistic, they hit, for the second but not the last time, on the idea that television could be their saviour. 1969′s Royal Family documentary showed them in an informal, day-to-day context for the first time, and this rebranding was, initially, very successful, with the programme itself being one of the first “big productions” in colour.

In retrospect the image-making of the royal family in the 1980s, again utilising television, is a classic example of that decade’s “marketing of the self”, which like that concept collapsed dramatically in the early 1990s. The royal weddings of 1981 and 1986 were surrounded by an extraordinary hype and hushed reverence which seems so much longer ago than it is, while It’s a Royal Knockout in 1987 appears as something of a nadir. It was essentially an attempt to engineer the young royals into fairy-tale families for the electronic age – and it crumbled almost overnight in 1992, as the marriages of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew collapsed. In this context, the documentary Elizabeth R, which followed the Queen through 1991 – and for which BBC1 portentously cleared their evening schedules on the day of the 40th anniversary of her succession, Thursday 6 February 1992, moving the Nine O’clock News to 9.50 pm, something hardly ever allowed for anything apart from major sports events – seemed old-fashioned and anachronistic in its quiet, calm, uncritical devotion to the monarch. The commemorations for the 40th anniversary of her coronation, on Wednesday 2 June 1993 – the original telerecording shown in the afternoon on BBC1 followed by a documentary called Coronation Day: As if it Were Yesterday in the evening, and ITV clearing aside two hours of peaktime to show an undistinguished effort entitled Days of Majesty - seemed even more so. In the context of 1993, they appeared as forelock-tugging throwbacks to a bygone era.

In 2000 royal coverage on television is the least reverent it has ever been, but traces of the old style remain – ITN have thankfully long since ceased their bland Sunday-afternoon summaries of royal tours (“The Duke and Duchess of York in Canada” and the like) although they continued until about 1989/90, but Jennie Bond remains the BBC’s “Court Correspondent” (“Court” itself being an absurd piece of medieval phraseology) with all her claims to speak for “the nation” and dismissal of Prince Philip’s neo-colonial “gaffes” as simply good-humoured quips. BBC2′s much-publicised Counterblast: Dear William - in which Liverpudlian 18-year-old Barry Hales suggested that the royal family itself is an outmoded institution and that Prince William would be happier and better off outside it – was still considered too sensitive to show on the actual day of the prince’s 18th birthday, 21 June, astonishingly because the claims it made were not exactly startling, unusual or particularly controversial.

The presentation was the downside, of course. Unnecessary interjections of Oasis songs over clichéd images of the city of Liverpool, ludicrous mock-graffiti writing for the results of polls among young people which appeared on the screen, and an interjection of the “… Baby One More Time” video when William’s much-vaunted “relationship” with Britney Spears was mentioned. There was an unintentionally amusing moment when a photographer was instructing students from Hales’s Liverpool comprehensive school to say “In your best Scouse accent, Paul McCaaaaaeeertney!” Hales’s argument against the royal family – that they present a timewarped, kitschified image – rings a little hollow in the context of this portrayal of Liverpool in the most clichéd sense imaginable, every bit as trapped by what it achieved in the past – specifically, the 1960s.

Nevertheless, Barry Hales’s persona was personable and likeable, and he convincingly brought forward an argument against the institution of the royal family, the way it traps those born into it, and prevents them from living anything like, in the much-vaunted phrase, “a normal life”. The film’s most effective moment was when Hales commented on how we’d been told, at Prince William’s birth, that he would live a very different, much less isolated, life from his predecessors, followed immediately by a news report of the prince going to his boarding prep school at the age of eight, with the voice of the BBC solemnly intoning that he would have to “make his own bed”. Most significantly, Barry Hales succeeded in giving the impression that, ultimately, Prince William himself would be happier removed from the institution in which he has grown up, however hard the decision might be for him to make.

As for The Real Queen Mother it didn’t actually tell us much new about this matriarchal figure, but it did reveal the sheer scale of her influence behind the scenes, much greater than has been public knowledge until very recently, and also the way she has successfully shrouded her past in mystery, even down to the confusion over where she was born. The early part of the programme was effectively atmospheric, with popular songs of the 1920s (especially Spread a Little Happiness) providing an appropriate background to scenes of her courtship and marriage to the then Duke of York, later George VI. But we got an early indication of her skilful rewriting of events with a recount of her only interview ever, given to The Star newspaper in 1923, where she insisted that there had been no failed attempts to propose to her. The truth is generally agreed to be somewhat different.

Some contributions to the programme were extraordinary in their outmoded reverence – Zara Cazalet observing that Wallis Simpson was “common … well, at least, she looked common”, and the Queen’s former chaplain, the plummy-voiced, caricaturishly “amiable” Rev Anthony Harbottle, bleating “Truly, the Queen Mother has a foot in heaven.” But the overriding impression was of the sheer iciness of her attitude when it worked to her convenience. Perceiving Mrs Simpson – brash, American, supposedly “classless” – as a threat to her values, she refused to acknowledge her marriage to the former Edward VIII in France in 1937, and when they were sent to the Bahamas (with the now Duke of Windsor as Governor-General) in 1940, she sent a telegram there insisting that nobody should curtsey to the Duchess. She met the Duchess of Windsor just once thereafter, in 1967, and her influence is still significant enough for her personal letters on the subject not to have been published with the other abdication papers this year. You begin to wonder just how and why she reached her “nation’s favourite granny” image.

I should imagine that it is common knowledge by now that she greatly admired Margaret Thatcher, and retains a colonial attitude to Britain’s black population, but, however often it is repeated (an entire C4 documentary on the subject just two weeks ago) there’s something uniquely harsh about her treatment of Marion Crawford – “Crawfie” – governess to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, who was ostracised largely because of one observation about the low priority the then Queen gave to their education, and to whose funeral in 1988 neither the Queen Mother nor either of her daughters even sent flowers. And it gives a certain cheap laugh to reflect that she, allegedly, described Clarence House (when it was first suggested in 1952 that she should move there) as “a horrid little house”, a phrase which sounds like an Enid Blyton child describing a Manchester back street.

What a profoundly paradoxical character the Queen Mother is. An aristocrat from another age, who gave her daughters an even-then outmoded and limited home education, but who promoted herself as the first “modern” royal in the 1930s, being famously photographed by Cecil Beaton (though demanding that the pictures were touched up), being referred to as the “Queen of Hearts” by an American newspaper, and pioneering the royal walkabout. A woman who cynically publicized pictures of herself in the bombed wreckage of Buckingham Palace as a means of boosting her popularity when newsreels of the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor were getting stronger responses in the cinemas than those of herself and the King, and yet has successfully ingratiated herself in the national psyche as a beloved, eternally compassionate figure who is somehow “above” all such practices. Most interestingly, her time warped vision of how the monarchy should be retains its massive influence on “The Firm”, and has been appropriated by Prince Charles, with the result that it will almost certainly outlive her. With the royal family’s popularity at an all-time low, especially among younger people, there’s a distinct possibility that her well-meaning concern to preserve it in aspic forever might have hastened and accelerated its demise. What an irony that would be – but it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the Queen Mother’s influence on Britain in recent years has been negative, especially during the D-Day and VE Day commemorations in the mid-’90s, and the endless referencing back to the World War II. Something in her nostalgic and sentimental appeal is certainly very similar to the mentality which held Britain back during the John Major governments of 1990-97. So perhaps an early demise for the monarchy, in a strange kind of way, would be the Queen Mother’s most appropriate legacy.

And I suspect Prince William would feel happier for it.


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