Queen Elizabeth was an important television figure from the moment she was crowned. It was an accident of history that her coronation on June 2, 1953 coincided with the arrival of TV as a mass-influence medium, but the accident was hugely significant. To this day – a new season of The Crown arrives in November – the Queen is a television star both as a real figure and as someone portrayed in multiple fictions about the Royal Family.
Perhaps she knew it. Radio ruled when Elizabeth came to the throne. But just as TV sets were becoming more common and cheaper, her coronation ceremony was seen by millions of viewers in the U.K. – a far larger number than those listening to coverage on BBC radio. The coronation was also seen by many millions more in the U.S. and Canada. When the winsome young woman became Queen and the pomp and circumstance was seen live, TV’s long love affair with Elizabeth had begun and has rarely wavered.
What the Queen thought about anything, especially politics, was largely unknown. Her public persona was shaped by image – and the intimacy of television was a huge benefit to her. The English monarchy’s persistent problem has always been the perception that it might be an anachronism, a relic of old times and ways. Just by allowing Elizabeth’s coronation to be broadcast, the Queen signalled the monarchy could move forward with the times.
And as the times continued to change, the Queen and her advisors learned the value of tradition as it is set out in TV terms. The Queen’s Christmas Message became an annual television event, a signifier of solidity even as world events, or those within the Royal Family, made life for her and the watching world more slippery than ever.
Many people assume the Queen’s famous “annus horribilis” speech was part of her Christmas message in 1992, a year blighted by a fire at Windsor Castle and the divorces or separation of three of her children. It wasn’t. That remark came in a televised speech in London to mark her Ruby Jubilee, the 40th anniversary of her succession.
In her televised Christmas speech later that year, she merely referred to 1992 as a “sombre year”, saying she hoped to “put it behind us” in the coming times. She knew better than to overplay her hand with repetition.
Television can be unkind to the reserved and remote, and it was the Queen’s job to be just that. But, somehow, she navigated that contradiction with some skill. A rare intimate glimpse inside her life, the documentary Royal Family, made for both BBC and ITV in the U.K. in 1969, amounted to an unusual misstep.
A fly-on-the-wall documentary about a year in the life of the Royal Family, it portrayed them as out-of-touch toffs. The Queen wisely ensured it would never be televised again. Being mysterious and enigmatic but always there, like the walls of Windsor Castle, was a more fruitful approach.
Thus, the mystery begat countless fictions. Dozens of actors have portrayed Elizabeth on TV and in film, in comedy and drama. Helen Mirren won an Oscar for playing her in Stephen Frears’ movie The Queen (2006), and three actors – Claire Foy, Olivia Colman, and Imelda Staunton – have portrayed her on Netflix’s The Crown, which remains one of the streaming service’s sure-fire hits.
Understanding television means knowing its power and its limits. Less is better if you’re sublimely rich and live permanently out of touch with ordinary life. Being lowkey in image and never loquacious is vital. With some canny understanding of these rules, the Queen made herself a reliable fixture on TV, as regular as the seasons, a perambulating official record of quaint Englishness, a richly evocative expression of something vague but emphatic, like the music of The Beatles or the chimes of Big Ben.
The thing about monarchs, unlike political leaders, is they do not come and go. They are fixed, defining an era, and it is up to them to decide how they are fixed in the public imagination.
While there has been a lucrative industry devoted to speculating about the Royal Family – CBC TV has never seen a specious documentary about the royals that it didn’t like – the lasting legacy for the general public is predominantly fixed, real images. And those images are of the most famous woman in the world as a deliberately anti-celebrity figure – glamourously anti-glam, as only the truly famous and powerful can be.
The Queen’s reign lasted 70 years, aligned with the age of television, and in Elizabeth there was a figure who knew that the medium would define her. She knew its nuances better even than most actors or TV personalities. She wielded her TV prowess with great skill, and essentially had a career as a TV icon, without ever making a fuss about it.
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