In a speech marking the 40th anniversary of her accession to the throne, Queen Elizabeth II infamously described 1992, a year which had seen two royal divorces, the publication of Diana, Princess of Wales’, tell-all memoir, Diana: Her True Story, and a devastating fire at Windsor Castle, as an “annus horribilis”.
Worse was to come.
Five years later, on 31 August 1997, Diana was killed in a car crash. The Queen’s slow response and failure to return immediately from Balmoral would see her pilloried by press and public alike as the British monarchy’s stock reached its lowest point in living memory.
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Flash forward 22 years and circumstances are different. Scandal is still never far away from the Royals – as evidenced by this weekend’s television interview with Prince Andrew over his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But as far as the Queen herself goes, the 93-year-old is now arguably the most popular member of the Royal Family. She has been described as an “ultimate feminist”, been the subject of endless lists titled things like ‘25 Reasons Why We Love the Queen’ and seen her outfits, hats and even her brooches eagerly dissected by a new generation.
The Queen has weathered many storms over the years, but is now arguably the most popular member of the Royal Family (Credit: Alamy)
So what brought about this change? In part it’s a simple matter of longevity. In the 67 years since she has been on the throne Queen Elizabeth has weathered deaths, divorces and national tragedies. Her very existence offers many people a sense of stability – a belief that as long as the Queen is alive then nothing too terrible can happen.
The other factor is The Crown.
Netflix’s glossy series about the life and times of the British monarchy released its third series yesterday, and it’s arguably the best so far, as an embattled Elizabeth, now played by Olivia Colman, wrestles with middle age and the pressures of duty versus reality.
Britain’s greatest rock?
“Most of us have only known a world in which Queen Elizabeth sits on the throne. I think we all hoped that The Crown would peel back the layers on the onion a bit where she is concerned,” says Heather Cocks, US journalist and one half of fashion blogger duo the Fug girls, who co-wrote The Royal We, a 2015 novel about a fictionalised British royal family.
“Here is this person who’s seen an unbelievable amount of history and change and turmoil and insanity and joy and tragedy. For almost seven decades, through countless prime ministers and presidents and other world leaders, she’s been the constant.”
That notion of the Queen as a steady rock at the centre of an increasingly turbulent world is a recurring theme in the new season as we watch Elizabeth deal with a new prime minister, Jason Watkins’ bluff Harold Wilson, and a national tragedy in the form of the Aberfan mining disaster, as well the growing pains of her two oldest children, Charles and Anne, and her sister Margaret’s (Helena Bonham Carter) increasing discontent. Throughout it all Colman gives us a portrait of a woman placing duty first, determined that no one will ever know what she really feels. But how true is it?
It’s made monarchy into an entertainment, which it wasn’t before, but I think it’s also allowed people to appreciate both the challenges and the benefits of being in the Royal Family – Robert Lacey, historian
As always, it’s impossible to say. But what is clear is that The Crown will continue to inform our own sense both of the Queen and of other members of the Royal Family, making us feel as though we know them intimately, when in reality we know them barely at all.
“There’s no doubt that The Crown has changed our perceptions of the monarchy,” says historian and royal expert Robert Lacey, who is a historical consultant on The Crown and whose latest book, The Crown: The Inside History, is designed to accompany the series.
With Prince Charles (played by Josh O’Connor), it will be interesting to see whether the show changes the perception of this controversial figure (Credit: Netflix)
“It’s made it into a sort of entertainment, which it wasn’t before, but I think it’s also allowed people to appreciate both the challenges and the benefits of being in the Royal Family.”
Lacey argues that one of the show’s key aspects is the way in which it allows us to reconsider both our past and how we feel about the nation.
“The monarchy is a tremendously important part of British identity for good and ill and I think The Crown makes people think about that,” he says. “The strength of the Queen is that the constitutional monarchy is ultimately supposed to stand for the power of the people in that even the grandest of prime ministers must answer to the people. The Queen’s great skill is to embody that well and The Crown in turn conveys that challenge really skilfully.”
An antidote to the press
Not that it’s all about the machinations behind the scenes, however cleverly they are told. For The Crown’s greatest appeal is the way in which humanises the Royals, often in the most surprising of ways.
“There is a great element of cruelty in the British press coverage of members of the Royal Family,” says Lacey. “The Queen is spared it but it’s absolutely clear that Meghan has been knocked sideways by its sharp edge. What the show does brilliantly is remind us that these are people. The second episode of the new series, Margaretology, concentrates on Princess Margaret and it really depicts her dilemma, that of always being sidelined and having no real role, in a way people will find sympathetic.
The Crown depicts the Royals’ life as a soap opera, which in turn makes us believe that we know more about the Royal Family than we actually do – Greg Jenner, historian
“Similarly the way [in the third episode] in which the Queen shies away from emotional involvement after Aberfan will certainly elicit a response because it really allows you to see both her strengths and her weaknesses. You really see how she was formed by the Second World War years [with] that whole sense of duty and the stiff upper lip at all times.”
Yet, while the show has humanised the Royal Family, has it also irrevocably changed the way we view them in less beneficial ways? After all, it used to be said that they were above celebrity; now they appear simply to inhabit their own strata of it.
“It’s an interesting notion because monarchy and celebrity are a very different thing – yet they are increasingly considered in the same way,” says Greg Jenner, historian and author of the upcoming book Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity From Bronze Age to Silver Screen. “The Crown accentuates how removed and how unknowable the monarchy are, yet it also to an extent depicts [their life as] a soap opera, which in turn makes us believe that we know more about the Royal Family than we actually do and additionally makes them seem more like celebrities.”
It’s also true that over the years the Royal brand has become an increasingly global one, with its ‘stars’ getting a high level of international coverage – which can also, of course, have its downsides.
As time has gone on, the Royals have become celebrities, with ‘stars’ such as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex getting massive international coverage (Credit: Alamy)
“The branding of the British monarchy is traditionally very different from the branding of celebrities in part because celebrities do not have the rich heritage from which to draw,” says Prof Cele C Otnes, co-author with Prof Pauline Maclaren of Royal Fever: The British Monarchy in Consumer Culture. “There is definitely an emotional bond that many people feel with the British Royal Family to which celebrities typically do not have access and that plays into the way in which we see the brand. It’s also worth stressing that the British Royal family very much understands itself as a brand...”
The Royals are politically charged for us since they’re not supported by our taxes and so we’re able to view them an interesting bunch of (sometimes unwilling) celebrities – Jessica Morgan
In that sense, while Buckingham Palace retains a discreet distance from The Crown, never allowing us to know what members of the Royal Family might think of the show (or even if they watch it), it also understands that its existence helps burnish the royal image.
“I do think Americans tends to see the Royal Family as part of a very long-running and very dramatic soap opera,” says Cocks’ fellow Fug girl and co-author Jessica Morgan. “They’re less politically charged for us since they’re not supported by our taxes and so we’re able to view them an interesting bunch of (sometimes unwilling) celebrities. Because we’ve known them since birth there’s also a level of investment that sometimes feels more personal than, say, what we would feel for a TV star.”
Jenner agrees that the show has caused our perception of the Royals to shift – even as contemporary events are capable of reversing that. “It’s inevitable that you warm up to characters as you watch,” he says. “There is something addictive about imagining what it’s really like inside Buckingham Palace and I do think it’s probably made us more sympathetic to the Queen and to Princes Margaret as well. It will be interesting to see whether it changes people’s views on Prince Charles, arguably a more controversial figure.”
As to whether the show will have any lasting change on our relationship with the monarchy, Lacey mischievously notes that there is one key element that critics perhaps overlook. “The whole time we’re seeing pumped-up, powerful and ambitious figures bowing to a woman,” he says. “It’s one of the most appealing things about the show that, regardless of their own sense of self-importance, they have to come to her, talk to her and hear what she thinks.”
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