OPINION - For many of our best creatives, the Queen was the ace in the pack

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

“I could see she was a good card to have in my hand,” director Stephen Frears told me when I interviewed him about The Queen, his 2006 film starring Helen Mirren as the monarch, adjusting to the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death. Yet neither he nor the movie’s writer Peter Morgan had reckoned with the success of the movie, which made around £108 million globally on a £13m budget, nor the warmth with which the public responded to Mirren’s austere, muti-award-winning performance.

Instantly recognisable but ultimately unknowable, Queen Elizabeth could be interpreted however creative artists or audiences wanted but the result was almost always fascinating and the response affectionate. A good card for creative types indeed.

Alan Bennett understood this when he put Prunella Scales’s distinctly witty Queen on the National Theatre stage in A Question of Attribution in 1988. In this one-act play, filmed by the BBC three years later, she verbally jousted with her art adviser Anthony Blunt, soon to be unmasked as a member of the Cambridge Spy Ring. Here was a favourable facsimile of the Queen exploring truth and deception in the worlds of art and espionage.

Sue Townsend, the creator of Adrian Mole, imagined the royal family transposed to a council estate by a hostile government in her 1992 novel and play, The Queen and I. Although satirical, this depiction of the monarch was similarly fond. Another warm portrait came in Julian Jarrold’s 2015 film A Royal Night Out, imagining the spirited undercover capers that a young Princess Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and her sister Margaret (Bel Powley) got up to on the night of VE Day in London.

Writers found it almost impossible to be mean about the monarch — we had to rely on the Sex Pistols for that. Derek Jarman transported her predecessor, Elizabeth 1, into his critique of Seventies Britain, Jubilee. She’s an absent or peripheral figure in most recent films about Diana. Even the mockery went soft. She was a down-to-earth housewife in Spitting Image, and (in the shape of impersonator Jeanette Charles) a game foil for slapstick in National Lampoon, Austin Powers and Naked Gun movies.

Peter Morgan admitted the character he presented to Mirren for Frears’s film was meant to be unfeeling but audiences found her sympathetic. He and Mirren teamed up again for a spirited take in The Audience, pictured, the extraordinary 2013 play examining HM’s relationships with some of her prime ministers. And in The Crown, Morgan provided sympathetic iterations of her character for Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and — in due course — Imelda Staunton. Bennett, too, returned to her in 2007 for his book, The Uncommon Reader, imagining the Queen as a champion of literature. She was brought up, she says, to believe that once started, a book must be finished, like bread and butter.

Clearly, the Queen was good subject matter. Her successor has already had walk-on parts but I suspect he will find his mother, yet again, a tough act to follow.


I live close enough to the Kia Oval to hear the roar of the crowd when a six is scored, but I’ve never seen a single game — match, whatever — there. As an outsider, it’s interesting to see how major cricket events affect the area. During the decisive Test match between England and South Africa, which finished yesterday, the profits of our local pubs must have gone up tenfold, and the owner of the local kebab shop might even be able to pay his heating bills next year.

In the past, however, before residents’ parking and then traffic-calming measures were brought in, our streets were rat runs for cars. This week, the pavements were littered with electric hire bikes. Dozens of them. Which, if you grouped them  together, would take up less space than three SUVs, I reckon. I know which form of congestion I prefer.