This past June, audiences lining the streets of London (and those tuning in from around the world) were treated to the most unusual of Queen Elizabeth’s public appearances over the course of her 70-year-long reign.
While celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, Royal fans watched as she waved to onlookers from inside a 260-year-old golden carriage – except it wasn’t really the monarch, who kept to Buckingham Palace for most of the festivities owing to “discomfort.” Instead, it was a hologram, projecting a version of Elizabeth at just 27 years old, waving gently to spectators and, in a way, to history itself.
The holo-queen was a curious sight, a merging of the inventiveness of technology and the power of cultural nostalgia – and a moment that unintentionally crystallized the notion that nobody celebrating the Jubilee that day actually needed to see any version of the Queen, be it her corporeal or digital self.
The Queen was, it is famously said, the most photographed person in the world – in addition to adorning currency, stamps and all manner of everyday ephemera. She has been the subject of countless news specials, documentaries, docudramas, biopics, fantasies. Her life story, so much as we can know it, dovetails neatly with the ascent of contemporary popular culture to such a degree that the actual image of the Queen – still-life, on-screen, projected by hologram – is by now burned into the world’s collective brain.
But for all that we can recognize the Queen, we have never actually known her. An icon, a hero, a villain, a victim, a joke and now an obituary – certainly, the culture has provided such categorical cubbies of the monarch for decades. But it has, for the most part, been a creative guessing game. Queen Elizabeth barely ever granted a single sit-down interview, and never one that was not heavily guarded and/or highly mediated in advance.
Those who actually knew her, who served her, are only in such positions because they knew enough not to talk about her to anyone else. Her private correspondence remains just that: private. Generally speaking, artistic representations of historical figures cannot help but elide the truth, in ways big and small. But when it comes to the Queen Elizabeth of our cultural memory, the only truth is that there is no truth at all.
The storytellers, though, they have tried. In addition to the countless biographies and historical documents chronicling and pivoting around Queen Elizabeth’s reign, there is an entire and robust sub-genre of screen-work dedicated to her, as an idea and person – a cottage industry that has gradually become more inventive, independent and welcoming of “truth” (instead of The Truth) as society itself let its guard down over the past half-century.
Documentaries came, not surprisingly, first. In 1969, BBC 1 and ITV broadcast director Richard Cawston’s Royal Family, a 90-minute fly-on-the-wall doc that followed a year in the Queen’s life, featuring small but hardly scandalous day-to-day details – a cautious, admiring glimpse that was apparently even too much mystique-busting for the world to witness, as the Queen later had the film banned (it finally resurfaced online last year).
Since then, an enterprising Royal obsessive could start a streaming service consisting solely of Elizabeth docs, all of wildly varying quality and substance. Buckingham Palace even got back into the game, letting the BBC into the archives for the Platinum Jubilee-timed Elizabeth: The Unseen Queen.
There is certainly a shade of the Queen that becomes coloured in after binge-watching such docs, heavy with archival footage and talking heads, commentary and speculation, but the overall enigma of Elizabeth remains unlocked, as by the design of the Firm. Even the most skilled documentary filmmaker, with the most remarkable of access, will readily admit that their subjects remain, in varying ways, unknowable. That’s where fictionalization steps in, connecting the line from real to imaginary till it loops back into something resembling a portrait written in invisible ink.
Prunella Scales is widely credited as being the first actress to portray Elizabeth on-screen, when in 1991, the BBC adapted Alan Bennett’s one-act play A Question of Attribution, which imagines the details of the life of British art expert and former Soviet agent Sir Anthony Blunt. Her Majesty is but a side character in Bennett’s production – and one that Scales also portrayed on-stage – but the mere act of depicting the Queen in the flesh for audiences at home unlocked something, as if permission were granted from a higher authority to make her privacy somewhat public.
From there, Britain’s top actresses lined up for their chance to imagine themselves in their Queen’s skin: first Helen Mirren (2006′s The Queen), then Emma Thompson (a 2012 episode of Playhouse Presents). Even Canadians Sarah Gadon (2015′s A Royal Night) and Neve Campbell (2004′s Churchill: The Hollywood Years) took their turns.
And then, of course, there is The Crown. Created by Peter Morgan, the writer who has made an entire industry out of the House of Windsor both on-stage and on-screen, the series was conceived with an ambitious conceit that can only seem entertainingly perverse now that it is nearing its fifth and sixth seasons: Every two seasons, its Royal Family members would be portrayed by different actors, following Elizabeth and family as they gradually age into the present.
So far, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman have each presented their own attempts at piercing the regal bubble – aided and sometimes foiled by Morgan’s obsessiveness. Both Foy and Colman are wild talents, but audiences don’t come away from their performances with much more than the keyword-heavy impressions of the Queen we held before. Courageous. Regal. Conflicted. Extraordinary.
The unique set-up of The Crown also, perhaps unintentionally, makes it so that each proceeding performer is left to essentially imitate the one who came before her. Colman may be channelling her own Elizabeth, but she must fight against what Foy did before her. Imelda Staunton is set to take on the role for the final two seasons, and good luck to her. Finding and making your own Elizabeth appears to be the task of a generation.
In the meantime, we can watch whichever version of the Queen we prefer. And if nothing suits the Queen who we want her to be – the one whom we remember – then there is the holo-Queen to smile and wave back. A simulation of a woman we never knew, and now never will.
There are a handful of under-the-radar faux-Elizabeths who deserve recognition:
Jeannette Charles Thanks to an uncanny resemblance to the Queen, Charles – who worked as an actress in her youth before becoming a secretary – found a late-career rebirth as the big screen’s most reliable Elizabeth imitator. You may remember her (use your best Troy McClure voice here) in such films as Secrets of a Superstud, Queen Kong, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! and Austin Powers in Goldmember.
Maggie Sullivan If made-for-TV-movie production budgets and musical scores pulled from the world’s finest elevators don’t put you off, then consider making your way through Lifetime television’s Harry & Meghan series of no-frills movies. Not only will you learn a lot about the rushed nature of ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama, but you’ll also get to enjoy Sullivan’s warmly conservative (or is that conservatively warm?) performance as the Queen.
Julie Walters Okay, this is a slight cheat, but I’m not sure that Queen Elizabeth cinema is complete without an animated instalment. Hence, The Queen’s Corgi, a 2019 cartoon following Her Majesty’s Royal pup, Rex. While Leo Barakat voices the title dog, veteran actress Walters seems to take an innocent delight in voicing the monarch.
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