Voices: She’s the most famous woman in the world – so how has the Queen remained so mysterious?

·4-min read
By contrast, others in her family have been rather too eager to opine (AP)
By contrast, others in her family have been rather too eager to opine (AP)

The Queen is ubiquitous. There’s the life-size cake of Her Maj that TikTok influencer Lara Mason spent five days concocting, pensioner Ben Bennett’s terracotta sculpture, which social media wags decided bore a passing resemblance to Colonel Gaddafi, and the giant woollen likeness crafted by a bunch of Cheshire knitters.

She’s the most famous woman in the world. And yet, after 70 years on the throne, she remains unknowable.

It’s perhaps the secret of her success. Most high-profile figures pepper their careers with interviews and public interactions. The Queen has never submitted to questions. Even the BBC’s 2018 documentary about her coronation was billed as a “conversation”, not an interview, and the presenter Alastair Bruce managed to smuggle in only one unofficial question. And that involved 22 years of negotiation.

The Queen’s mystique, despite her extraordinary fame, is one reason why the unseen footage from her home videos felt so intimate. The monarch, whether rendered in cake, cup or cashmere, is instantly recognisable. The private woman is almost entirely off bounds.

“Never complain, never explain” is a mantra that has always served her well. The Queen’s obligation to remain politically neutral has come under strain only when errant politicians threatened to let the cat out of the bag (David Cameron’s admission she’d “purred down the line” after he phoned to tell her Scotland had voted no to independence springs to mind).

By contrast, others in her family have been rather too eager to opine.

Her son and heir to the throne, Prince Charles, has made his views apparent in his infamous “black spider” memos, intervening on matters as diverse as equipment for troops in Iraq, badger culling and the availability of herbal medicine.

While William appears to have learnt his grandmother’s lesson of reticence, his younger brother Harry and his wife Meghan Markle had so much to say they had to leave for California to book a spot on Oprah’s sofa to say it.

It’s interesting that the most vocal royals also appear to be the least popular. While a staggering 92 per cent of people over the age of 65 have a positive opinion of Elizabeth II, and 60 per cent of those aged from 18 to 24 – according to the latest YouGov figures – only a small majority of the British public hold a positive view of Charles, and only one in three sees Harry in a positive light.

It stands to reason that if a public figure speaks out, some will agree, others will disagree. By keeping her own counsel, the Queen can bring a divided nation together. And that role as the glue that binds the nation is perhaps the greatest legacy of her 70-year reign.

In the home video documentary on the BBC, she went out of her way to deliver this message: "I hope my platinum jubilee will be an opportunity for people everywhere to enjoy a sense of togetherness.”

She seems to be telling us that it’s not about her, it’s about us.

That sense of duty was instilled in her from a young age, ever since she told her six-year-old sister Margaret that “Papa is to be King”. Her little sibling queried: “Does that mean you’re going to be Queen?” When she answered in the affirmative, the fun-loving Margaret is said to have responded: “Poor you!”

And after the Partygate revelations of recent weeks, it’s hard not to observe the starkly contrasting attitudes to public service embraced by head of state and head of government.

The Queen grieving alone for her husband while senior members of her government broke lockdown laws was the iconic image of the scandal. You can’t imagine for a second the dutiful monarch bending the rules, let alone breaking them.

Of course, politicians might argue it’s far easier to be anointed than elected. But despite the palaces, the servants and the gilded carriages, how many would truly relish the Queen’s role?

After 70 years, and at the age of 96, she’d be forgiven for putting her feet up. But despite the “episodic mobility problems”, she’s pretty much getting on with the job.

And the more Britons venerate her this weekend, the tougher it will be for Charles to assume her mantle.

Cathy Newman is presenter and investigations Editor of Channel 4 News

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