January 28

“The Queen”

Dame Helen Mirren in


I have at last seen the film “The Queen.”      Having written about it here, I felt I was bound to. (The pieces here were on 4 September, 2006 “Filmed Fiction”, on 11 September, 2006, “Conversion of a republican” and on 21 November, 2006 “Remembrance Day”).  I have to say the acting was superb.  They deserve an Oscar.  I could have sworn those actor and actress corgis were really of the Royal breed.  The little darlings should all receive Canine Oscars.  Seeing the film, which as a drama is very good, I was reminded of a recent and somewhat irritating interview with the film’s director in the Australian press, which I shall come to below.

have at last seen the film    Having written about it here, I felt I was bound to. (The pieces here were on 4 September, 2006 , on 11 September, 2006, and on 21 November, 2006 “).  I have to say the acting was superb.  They deserve an Oscar.  I could have sworn those actor and actress corgis were really of the Royal breed.  The little darlings should all receive Canine Oscars.  Seeing the film, which as a drama is very good, I was reminded of a recent and somewhat irritating interview with the film’s director in the Australian press, which I shall come to below.


The film is not of course factual least, at –as far as anyone, apart from Her Majesty and Mr. Blair, knows.  Unfortunately, the disclaimer about this is probably not noticed by over 90% of the people who see it, and disbelieved by many of the rest.


I suspect that the portrayal of The Queen is more severe than Her Majesty is.  But what I thought Dame Helen achieved was that she captures the truly heroic sense of duty Her Majesty obviously has possessed all her life.  Mr. Blair is presented as boyish, and at times almost naïve.  The one time I saw him close up many years ago in South Africa, just before he became Prime Minister, he seemed particularly youthful, but his talent, charm and character certainly came through.  Watching him in Parliament, you see a superb communicator, as the Americans found when he addressed the Congress.  He comes across in the film as a loyal and principled man.  


As for Mrs. Blair, the reluctance of her curtsey, apocryphal or not, speaks a thousand words, and is one of the film’s most delicious moments.  But why, oh why, did they turn the Queen Mother into a caricature?  A friend suggested that if had they presented her as she really was, the effect would have been too brilliant and created two heroines in the one film.


Prince Charles and the Duke are also unfortunately caricatures.  This can perhaps be partly explained because neither actor looks at all like the real person – perhaps they thought the caricature would tell us who they were.  The Royal Corgis are, as I said, brilliant, especially when they wait at attention a decent distance from the Royal barbecue until they are summoned into the Royal Presence.


 Before I come to that interview, it is appropriate to recall that it is well documented that Australian journalists – especially those in what the incumbents describe as the “quality” end – tend to have similar values and perceptions to one another.  Moreover their views and perceptions are significantly different from those of the rank and file Australian.  This phenomenon is, I think starker in Australia than the US, the UK or France .  This was most obvious in the 1999 referendum campaign when journalists and editors seemed overwhelmingly, and passionately republican, and not only in opinion pieces. 



The interview in question was by Helen Barlow in The Sydney Morning Herald of 21 December, 2006.  In it, Ms. Barlow prefaces a question to director Stephen Frears with the observation that “we’re not all that fond of the British monarch in Australia”.   You can imagine the scene over Bondi Beach when I read that.  I almost dropped the Madeleine in my tasse.  “We’re not all that fond?”   “ We’re?” 


“Who, Ms. Barlow, are you speaking for?”  


Even republicans tell us how much they respect The Queen, who is of course The Queen of Australia.  So you are not speaking for them, unless you have some reason to believe they don’t really mean what they say.  Ms. Barlow, you are certainly not speaking for the rank and file Australian.  Just recall the actions of the 80,000 – the majority Australian – who attended the opening of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.  They told the republican politicians what they thought when, led by the magnificent Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, they belted out the eight bars of our Royal Australian Anthem which the bossy republicans reluctantly allowed to be sung.  The republicans had planned that Dame Kiri would sing alone – they were astounded when the whole stadium stood for Happy Birthday and then sung those bars of God Save The Queen.


What Ms. Barlow meant to say was “We Australian inner-city elites are not all that fond of The Queen…”    In any event Mr. Frears’s reply was amusingly condescending: “You should be ashamed of yourself. We used to rule over you and there was no trouble.  Now we don’t and it’s all a nightmare”.  


A gourmande for punishment, Ms. Barlow then asked him how he had considered the film might fare outside England.  Mr. Frears delivered the coup de grâce: "I didn’t think about Australia a lot."


When a similar question was put to the star of the film, Helen Mirren, who was raised as an anti-monarchist, she replied: "I did a film in Australia many, many years ago.  When they played God Save the Queen, everybody was supposed to stand up.  There was a big rebellion against that in Australia.  They were saying, ‘Why should we do this?’  And they were absolutely right."


Being around at the time, I can’t recall any rebellion, big or small.  All I can recall as a schoolboy was that the now editorial eminence grise, Mr. Paddy Mc Guinness used to provoke public scandals by refusing to stand.  True some people would make an unedifying and sometimes even cowardly rush to the exits, but Paddy was the only person I ever saw remain sitting, often to scenes of outrage.  


Ms. Barlow writes that the film doesn’t necessarily take a view on the British monarchy.  She says it shows Queen Elizabeth II as a “phenomenon” far greater than Princess Diana or Tony Blair.  “She gets the last laugh, too. The woman who has kept 10 British prime ministers at bay during her 54-year reign has ultimately had her way with Frears, as well.”


Stephen Frears says: "I became aware of the Queen in 1947, when she was Princess Elizabeth and got married, so she has been in my life for 60 years.  It doesn’t [take] Freud to say that after a time she enters your unconscious. Every time you put a letter in the post you take a stamp with the picture of the Queen, so it seems to me that you are dealing with matters that are deep inside you."


Ms. Barlow  concludes that the film is about the British public “forcing” The Queen to comment on Diana’s death through the “newly elected, image-conscious” prime minister, Tony Blair. “But it’s also about the British public needing her assurance things were OK.”


It is interesting to realize that Stephen Frears believes the reaction to the death of Diana, Prince of Wales was "crazy". He doesn’t mention the fact that it was in the interests of the elements in the London press, which had so pursued Diana, to seek a distraction.  They did not want to be blamed.  The fact that the young Princes were sent to church, and that they were kept away from London was a perfectly normal and correct reaction.  But this simple, obvious fact did not suit the crocodiles of the British press, who wanted both to sell a new story and a distraction from their own appalling behaviour.


Mr. Frears continues: "Shortly after her death there was a really interesting book, a collection of essays about Diana written by frontline academics, intellectuals, sociologists, journalists and philosophers. What did Diana mean? Was she a feminist icon? Was she a revolutionary?”


"Eleven years later all those people were pretty embarrassed about what they wrote.”  He finds that support for the Queen has never been stronger.  "At the moment you cannot separate any conversation about the monarchy, without a conversation about the Queen…In the last two years, as an 80-year-old woman, …she’s gone into this untouchable place. Being overcritical of the Queen would end up like matricide."


Does this mean Mr. Frears endorses the current republican hope that the end of the reign will change everything? . The Australian republican movement is always dreaming of some future  event which will magically deliver them the result they can’t be bothered to work for.  This magic transforming event was to have been the new century, the new millennium, the centenary of federation, and the Olympic Games. More recently it was to have been the marriage of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.  Some even thought the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne might clinch it.  More recently they adopted the tactic of trying unsuccessfully to encourage outbreaks of brit bashing and pommy bashing during the Ashes 


The fact is that anyone with any sense of history would  realize that The Queen, who has heroically rendered impeccable service to the Commonwealth and Her realms, would be more and more revered as she advanced in age.  The end of this reign will be a moment of great sadness for the Commonwealth and the world, and the media will join in.  Later there will be excitement and interest over the Coronation, the Sovereign, his consort and the new Heir to our several thrones.


 Monarchy has a remarkable way of renewing itself and it brings an irrepressible magic into the world.  It will always be so.


Incidentally,  Ms. Barlow says the team who made the film has been invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace next year.  I suppose that even the republicans among them will accept that, in the same way that three former Australian prime ministers, Messrs Whitlam, Hawke, and Fraser, all of whom vigorously campaigned to remove her in 1999, so deferentially attended upon Her Majesty in Parliament House Canberra last year.


That is why I often warn my friends: “Never, ever, stand between republicans, especially the Sydney breed, and royalty – even those from minor European houses – otherwise you will be knocked over in the rush.”



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