Ten Days that Made The Queen
animated title © ISO Design
This film took ten key days from Elizabeth II’s life and examined their effect on The Monarch herself. ‘Ten Days that Made the Queen’ ran from The Abdication Crisis, when the young Princess Elizabeth realised she was next in line to the throne, to the marriage of Charles and Camilla, when, after a series of broken relationships, the Royal Family finally allowed laid the ghost of Edward and Mrs Simpson to rest.
Rather than make the film a conventional biography, I wanted to pick ten snapshot days which defined The Queen’s reign, and ask some important questions about her life. What must it have been like for such a young girl to inherit the throne? What did it mean to have the power to make or break a government, sack a Prime Minister or declare war? How has she held onto power and what has been the price of her survival? Did she feel threatened by the way the public turned against the Royal Family after Diana’s death? Was she bounced into paying tax after the Windsor Fire? And did she agree to Charles’s marriage to Camilla simply to safeguard the future of the Monarchy?
It’s my belief that the Windsors are haunted by a deep and abiding sense of shame. Elizabeth and her father both came to the throne by accident, as a result of Edward VIII’s passionate love for the divorced Mrs Simpson. His abdication, in 1936, brought deep embarrassment on the family, as divorce was a social taboo, and the ensuing humiliation nearly brought the whole edifice of British Monarchy crashing down. George VI, and then his daughter Elizabeth II, recognised that they would have to do everything in their power to atone for this transgression, and form an exemplary Christian family, whatever the cost.
But what a cost it has been. For the Windsors then set their standards so high that it soon became almost impossible for the rest of the family to keep up. First Margaret, the Queen’s Sister, fell in love with a divorcee and was forbidden to marry him; then Charles fell for a woman with a bit of history (Camilla) and was advised to back off. Soon the moral code was in jeopardy, and with no room for a bit of tolerance, forgiveness, or human give and take, the Windsor edifice started to crumble. It’s ironic, of course, that the very thing that has haunted the royal family, the fear of divorce, sexual shame and embarrassment, indeed the moral humiliation that led to Elizabeth becoming Queen in the first place, has continued to bedevil her reign ever since.
Faced with the failure of being beyond reproach, the Windsors then turned one hundred and eighty degrees and decided, momentarily, to embrace the media and come out as celebrities. This, from such a weirdly withdrawn group of people, has proved disastrous, whether it was the original television film The Royal Family, the toe-curling It’s a Knockout, or the separate confessional interviews with Charles and Diana. On every single one of these events the Royal Family was badly advised, and had no idea of either the implications or the impact of their performance. As a result they are now even more terrified of the media than they were before, because they know that they cannot let any more daylight in upon magic.
The Queen has known this all along. Monarchy, like Religion, depends upon mystery, upon the scared and upon the hidden, and she has worked very hard to preserve her mystique through silence and discretion.
This was all very well in the 1950’s when we expected our Monarch to work with sublime detachment from everyday needs and ordinary people, but today we live in an age of disclosure. People want to know everything and some members of the Royal Family have obliged all too well (Diana, a bit of Charles, a bit of Edward, you know the story).
This makes it far harder for the Queen because the fact that we know so much about the rest of the Windsors makes her own discretion almost impossible. You can’t have one section of the family admitting adultery on television, while the other half tells us that it is none of our business. You can’t have a genie that is both half in and half out of a bottle.
The gulf between royalty and everyday life has now become so vast (partly due to the collapse of the social armour of the aristocracy which used to protect them) that The Windsors are almost scared to go out. Take the death of Diana. Of course it was a terrible time, and the public were on the verge of hysteria, but to say nothing and insist on royal precedent by not lowering the flag to half mast only showed how remote from the public they had become. “They didn’t know what to do,” said one Palace insider, “they made a bish of it” said another.
It was almost too late. The Queen’s impartiality was perceived as remote and uncaring, and she was forced to come out and address the nation, live on television, because she knew that she could no longer take the support of the British people for granted.
In Europe there’s been a little more modesty and a little less of the assumption that the public will provide. The Windsors have recently tried to go through the motions and look cautious with money, The Queen has even slummed it by going in a taxi to see Billy Elliot, but when the heir to the throne jets in flowers at £100 a stem and thinks that sitting in Club Class is “the end of Empire” it’s clear they still have a long way to go.
So now we have a stalemate, between the Monarchy, the Press and the People. In attempting to avoid all forms of criticism, and in refusing access to even the most sympathetic of their critics, the Windsors are preventing any real debate about the future of the Monarchy. And so what we have is a polarised debate between die-hard royalists who need the The Royal Family to define what it means to be British and fervent republicans who want to get rid of the whole bloody lot of them. Neither of these positions are pragmatic enough to make the Monarchy a realistic proposition.
It’s a ridiculous situation. What we need to do is to cast aside suspicion and prejudice, privilege and pre-conception, and start a real debate about the future of the Monarchy: because if we do not then there will be no future, and the Royal Family will find their survival withering on that most diseased of vines: public apathy.