The Queen: a life in front of the camera

·4-min read
The Queen: a life in front of the camera

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, we lose the royal depicted in film and other media more than any other royal in history.

In part, Elizabeth II’s proliferance across the media is due to the length of her reign. Coronated in 1952, her 70 year stint on the British throne has endured the growth of film and television to become the primary art forms of the 20th and 21st century.

But the late Queen’s close relationship with the media was in large part due to efforts on her part.

A life spent in front of the camera

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1952 was the first to be televised in full live when it aired on the BBC. It was also the first major event to be broadcast internationally.

Getting the images of Elizabeth accepting her new title required the RAF to fly the tapes in the first non-stop flight between Canada and the UK. Tapes were also flown to the US and Australia.

Following her coronation, a documentary of the event, narrated by Lawrence Olivier was commissioned. 1953’s ‘A Queen is Crowned’ was nominated for the Oscar for documentary feature.

The Queen was by all means the first media facing royal. She saw the cameras of television and film as a means of connecting with the Empire she had inherited.

One slight misstep was the family’s first attempt at a TV series, documenting the normality of palace life. Commissioned by Elizabeth II, ‘Royal Family’ followed the day-to-day life of the family in 1969.

The intent was to humanize the family, with scenes of the Queen and other members playing sport, instruments, and eating together.

The response was initially positive, with many praising the down-to-earth depiction of the royals. But others were critical of eroding the mystique of the position. Eventually, the family decided against the film being viewed again after 1977.

Nonetheless, the Queen continued to recognise the importance of appearing before the cameras which cemented her place on top of multiple other elements of contemporary British iconography.

She appeared in a short skit alongside James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Most recently, her final major media appearance was a sketch to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee when she shared afternoon tea with Paddington the Bear. They were both rare occasions to see her in a humorous role.

The most depicted monarch on film

When Elizabeth II wasn’t in front of the camera herself, she was more than likely being depicted by someone else.

Few will have been portrayed as many times as her. But like many legacies, they start off in a surprising way.

The Queen’s first film portrayal was likely the 1971 X-rated spoof film ‘Tricia’s Wedding’ where she was played by Steven Walden in drag.

Since that inauspicious beginning, she has been depicted by multiple impressive actors.

Jeannette Charles has basically made a career out of her resemblance to Elizabeth II. Just two years her junior, Charles has appeared in no fewer than 10 films as the monarch. Most recently she appeared in ‘Austin Powers in Goldmember’ in 2002 and a cameo in the 2009 season of ‘Big Brother’.

Elizabeth II has been portrayed by many famous names in film and television, including Joanna Lumley, Jennifer Saunders, Penelope Wilton, and Julie Walters.

Dan Steinberg/AP2007
Actress Helen Mirren stands next to a poster for the movie "The Queen," - Dan Steinberg/AP2007

But perhaps her most famous film portrayal was by Dame Helen Mirren in 2006’s ‘The Queen’, depicting the fallout in the palace after Princess Diana’s death. Mirren won an Oscar for her performance as Elizabeth II.

The Queen was also a regular character in British and international television.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a TV show or film in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II. She has featured as a character in pretty much every British TV show from Doctor Who to Thomas and Friends.

Jordan Strauss/2018 Invision
Claire Foy, winner of the award for outstanding lead actress in a drama series for "The Crown" left, and Matt Smith attend the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards - Jordan Strauss/2018 Invision

The most famous of which is probably the ongoing Netflix series ‘The Crown’. Created by Peter Morgan, the writer of The Queen, the show chronicles the life and times of Elizabeth from the first days of her reign through to the 90s.

Depicting Elizabeth II at different ages, Verity Russell, Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton have played the queen to massive accolades.