Screen Queen

Published date20 September 2022
Publication titleSignal
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

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 purposes both solemn and jocular.

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. A monarch’s only media presence, outside 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, most annual Christmas TV broadcasts, but others at significant moments of British history. When, on April 5 2020, the 93-year-old Elizabeth II spoke on television at the start of the first coronavirus lockdown, 24million viewers tuned in. The speech — calm and wise — confirmed her mastery of the medium and ability to use it to provide leadership and reassurance.

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, and the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 and the Queen Mother in 2002.

While many aspects of royalty remained largely untouched during her reign, her visibility was transformative.

Her 1953 coronation, the first to be televised, led to a rush purchase of TV sets in the UK. Other broadcasting landmarks soon accumulated. In 1957, the Queen gave the first televised Christmas address. Twelve years later, she was the star of a TV documentary, Royal Family.

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. In 1991, Prunella Scales gave the first dramatic TV portrayal of a living monarch in A Question of Attribution, Alan Bennett’s adaptation 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...

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