On Thursday 8th September the whole landscape of Britain changed as news broke of the sad death of the nation’s longest serving monarch; Queen Elizabeth II. A symbol of consistency and steadfast support for the past seventy years, she represented comfort and reliability in a world of change. Devoid of political opinion and vocal controversy, The Queen remained a timeless ambassador of the people of the commonwealth against the ever changing cultural backdrop. As someone who was never born to be queen, Elizabeth Windsor would go on to redefine the monarchy for modern Britain and saw the country through the struggles of post war depression to an internationally robust nation of the post millennium age.
Coming to the throne somewhat unexpectedly at the age of 25, she discovered the sad news of the sudden death of her father King George VI whilst on a royal tour of Kenya. Her husband Philip was forced to break the sad news to his new wife which resulted in the tour being cut short as they returned to England where she was met by well wishers. The Prime Minister Winston Churchill welcomed both of them from their flight and proceeded to aid her through her early reign. This close relationship continued following Churchill’s tenure of PM and the young queen always looked to him as a pillar of strength and wisdom. The ultimate symbol of her deep gratitude and affection for Churchill was epitomised at his death when the Queen visited his bedside just days before his passing before commissioning his state funeral in 1966.
The voice of Royal Variety Charity Treasurer Ian Freeman
Throughout her reign, the Queen swore in an unprecedented fifteen prime ministers and despite being the ultimate symbol of neutrality, upheld a significant role in the inner workings of British politics. Indeed just a day before she passed away, she held a reception with the new Prime Minister Liz Truss. This was the antithesis of her sense of duty which she declared as part of her coronation speech back in 1953 and one which never faltered during her seventy years on the throne. From then until the day she died, she reigned with compassion, composure and dignity which provided comfort to millions of people throughout the commonwealth.
The first monarch to have direct contact with the public as a result of the advent of popular culture, the Queen oversaw Britain’s new identity. After the bleakness of the Second World War, the country desperately needed a new and bright future to focus on and this was embodied by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Millions of television sets were either bought or rented for the very first time as families gathered in their large groups to huddle around a small box in the living room to watch the Queen’s Coronation from Westminster Abbey. This had a profound effect on the vast expansion of Britain’s popular culture as this box in the corner of the living room wasn’t just merely a source of information but could be something used for entertainment. Therefore it’s impossible to overlook the substantial influence that the Queen was able to have on the direction of licensed television and without this significant event, it’s difficult to establish how television would have looked.
The Coronation was the first major television coverage of a national event and pushed boundaries of public broadcasting which had never previously been seen. Before 1952 there were just two million domestic television sets in the UK with the medium yet to catch momentum. However, the coronation in 1953 drew great interest in this new medium with sales increasing at a dramatic rate. Never before had people been given such mass exposure to royal events but thanks to the advent of television, an audience of thousands could watch this groundbreaking moment from the comfort of their living rooms. It’s difficult to overlook the significance of such a moment on the direction of televisual entertainment as once the new medium had appeared in the living rooms of many people throughout the country, it was here to stay.
Yet Elizabeth was no stranger to the airwaves. Making her first radio broadcast alongside her younger sister Margaret in 1940 as part of the Children’s Hour Broadcast on the BBC Home Service. Speaking to millions of evacuated children who were attempting to adjust to their new, unfamiliar surroundings, the then Princess Elizabeth provided words of reassurance at a very difficult time for Britain. Aged just fourteen, she was already becoming aware of her significant duty to serve the country which she would inherit merely twelve years later. This was just the start of her unique relationship with the British public which became more direct and personal than any previous monarch. In her seventy year reign, she would go on to become the world’s longest serving and traveled royal figure who realised the huge significance of international relations.
Voice of comedy legend Jeffrey Holland
Attending her first Royal Command Performance as princess in 1945, The Queen realised the importance of maintaining her support to the charity; The Entertainment Artistes Benevolent Fund raising vital funds for former and disadvantaged entertainers. This was something very close to the Queen’s heart and for over seventy years, remained a loyal supporter of this worthwhile charity. In such time, The Royal Variety Performance became an important date in the royal diary and an annual celebration of contemporary entertainment featuring the biggest stars of the day. On one famous occasion, during the lineup at the end of the show, as the legendary Tommy Copper was greeted by Her Majesty, he asked her if she liked football. For a moment the Queen was taken aback and replied “Not particularly”. To which the comedian replied “in that case, can I have your ticket for the Cup Final?”. Obviously the Queen was able to appreciate the joke and the story has gone down in British comedy folklore but beyond the japes, here was a modern monarch who didn’t take herself too seriously. A queen for the modern age.
Making her first televised Christmas message in 1957, for over sixty years The Queen worked with some of the most experienced television producers to create her annual speech. Recorded at the main royal residence at Buckingham Palace, the content of the speech was forever shrouded in mystery and intrigue. The only broadcast never to be repeated, The Queen’s Speech has remained a pillar on which the Christmas Day schedule is shaped around. Normally recorded a few weeks in advance of broadcast, the recording is then shown to a select audience of journalists at an undisclosed location in London who each sign a confidentiality agreement pledging not to disclose any of the content prior to the national broadcast. This enigmatic method reinforces the place and significance which The Queen still upheld within everyday life. Although it has been several decades since the speech was at the centre of mass media speculation, it still offers the comfort of tradition in an ever changing world.
Whether it was presenting Bobby Moore with England’s first and only World Cup in 1966 or being told to rattle her jewellery by an excitable John Lennon at the London Palladium, the 1960’s was a celebratory period for The Queen. In 1961, on completion of the highly anticipated BBC Television Centre, she was invited to visit the studios and was greeted by the legendary Harry Secombe; a favourite of the royal family. She was then shown one of the eight working studios and met an array of different stars and crew. This would be the first time a British monarch had been given a guided tour of a television studio and was another symbol that the establishment was changing. Such a gesture opened the doors for The Queen to interact with the world of television and in 1982 even walked the cobbles of Coronation Street not just once but twice respectively in 1982 and just last year.
Hosting a reception with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin provided a thrilling experience for the space enthusiast Prince Philip in 1969 and was a sign of the Queen’s desire to stay relevant for the ever changing time. She realised that while she couldn’t be seen to be making the most of the carefree attitude of the sixties as her sister Margaret was currently enjoying, she could maintain an active interest in the culture which the sixties offered. This would become a culturally defining decade for Britain and the addition of a young monarch with a young family was the perfect antidote to the free spirited philosophy of the decade. Ever-present but slightly removed from popular culture, The Queen quickly perfected the balance between engaging with and overseeing public life. It was this formula which was the key to her long and successful reign.
During the 1970’s, in what was her second full decade of her reign, interest and speculation began to grow about the extraordinary day to day life of the royal family. Originally airing on BBC 1 and ITV in June 1969, Royal Family offered a rare insight into The Queen and senior members of royalty as they went about their everyday business. Allowing cameras to have a glimpse into the domesticity of royal family life was something radical and revolutionary for the time. Never before had the British people seen The Queen in such an informal setting, stripped of the ceremonial discourse which surrounded her public profile. Five years before Paul Watson’s landmark documentary series The Family which is now cited as the precursor to reality television, Royal Family proved groundbreaking for the time. Still in the era where the press adopted a very formal attitude towards the monarchy, this documentary represented The Queen’s contemporary approach to her place within society.
Television was now a vital part of national life and in 1977 both the BBC and ITV presented coverage marking The Queen’s silver jubilee. Coverage of street parties, scheduled celebrations and an outpouring of patriotism helped to lighten up what was a rather bleak decade for Britain. This was also a fitting opportunity to gauge the massive cultural changes that had taken place since her ascension to the throne but yet certain areas of the country were still living in the same poverty as suffered in postwar years. This was something which the Queen never dismissed or shied away from and was always a calming voice for those in need. Ever supportive with a genuine interest for those in unfortunate circumstances but with a political neutrality that never compromised the crown’s position, the queen was a master of diplomacy and harmony.
Her silver jubilee celebrations included her second scheduled visit to Television Centre where she was invited to watch a recording of the best loved self sufficiency sitcom The Good Life. In the episode entitled When I’m 65, Jerry undergoes a health check by the doctor to ensure his pension plan which triggers Tom to reflect on his own future insurance plan. Following the live recording, The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh met the cast and crew in an official lineup which was succeeded by a guided tour of the set. What had been revealed among her favourite television programmes of the era, The Good Life had been chosen to represent this significant but somewhat complicated relationship between the monarchy and the BBC. This was the ultimate royal acknowledgment of the power and reach of the corporation in a culturally defining decade for Britain.
Throughout the eighties and nineties, The Queen continued to keep her pledge to the Entertainment Artistes Benevolent Fund by regularly attending the annual Royal Variety Performance. Sharing this duty with the then Prince Charles subject to the specified agreement between the BBC and ITV that they would broadcast the show on alternate years, they had an unofficial agreement that he would attend the BBC shows while The Queen honoured the ITV contract. While the mere gesture of her attendance fulfilled the seal of royal approval, she continued to take a direct interest in the vast range of different acts who appeared. In 2005 comedian Catherine Tate pushed the boundaries by directly addressing The Queen in the character of her mouthy school girl Lauren. Asking her “Am I Bovered” was enough to send shockwaves throughout both the audience and fellow performers watching from the wings. Yet The Queen was forever blessed with an earthy sense of humour and immensely recognised the comedy in such a stunt. This showed a side to The Queen very rarely seen in public but at this moment, her humanity shone through.
It was this humility which endeared The Queen to millions of people around the world. In her seventy year reign, she made a grand total of one hundred official royal tours of countries from all four corners of the globe and forged a substantial contribution to international relations. In 2011 she made a highly contentious state visit to Southern Ireland and met with then-Irish President Mary McAleese. This symbolised an air of hope in the much documented troubles and was seen as a pivotal moment in repairing the generational feud between these two nations. Throughout her reign, The Queen very seldomly involved herself in the inner workings of domestic politics. Reserved, understated and impartial, she recognised that it was never her role to comment or pontificate on political issues which concerned her country. Instead she remained a pillar of continuity in a changing world.
The nineties was a turbulent period for the Royal family. 1992 specifically became a dark period in the story of the modern royals with the official end of the marriages of the queen’s three eldest children. The high profile separation of Charles and Diana had a personal effect on The Queen who forever held the loving concept of family close to her heart. A substantial fire at her beloved Windsor Castle would further shape this year into one to forget for the monarch who was celebrating forty years on the throne. All these tragic events culminated in the Queen’s Christmas message where she labelled the year as “Annus horribilis” which was out of character for a figure of such positivity. Her words were to have great impact and in an era when the monarchy was beginning to become out of touch with the new culture of the United Kingdom, this speech was to resonate with a significant part of the population.
At the turn of the new millennium, the royal family continued to heavily divide the nation over their purpose in the ever changing identity of modern Britain. On New Year’s Eve 1999, The Queen joined other senior members of the Royal family and Prime Minister Tony Blair for the ultimate celebration to open the Millennium Dome. Such a historic moment in the history of humanity, it seemed pertinent that the British monarch was right at the very centre of the commemorations. In celebration just as in disaster and grief, The Queen was an ever present bastion of loyalty and continuity. The first monarch to both embrace and celebrate popular culture, she recognised the significance of her presence at such national events in giving an air of approval to such proceedings.
Such a celebratory tone was carried forward to the Queen’s golden jubilee just two years later. Not since 1977 had the royal family been celebrated in all areas of Britain and in the post millennium era, this was a tidy reminder of the place which the Queen occupied in modern society. This culminated in a live star studded pop concert in the grounds of Buckingham Palace which was the first of its kind. The iconic image of Brian May playing his electric guitar on the roof of the royal residency proved the perfect symbol of the evolution of the monarchy. This launched a night of entertainment, the like of which the palace had never seen with some of the world’s biggest names including: Sir Paul McCartney, Diana Ross and Joe Cocker. Patriotism was back and redefined the monarchy for a new generation. For some, this was the first time they had felt a close connection with the royal family which was to increase in the coming years as the monarchy went through a minor modern revolution to triumphantly re engage with the youth demographic
During the summer of 2012 The Queen found herself back at the Millennium Dome (now renamed as the O2 Arena) for the proud opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. Not only was she in attendance as representative of the commonwealth but unbeknownst to the whole watching audience including senior members of the royal family, she would also play an important role in proceedings. Appearing in a short sketch with Daniel Craig’s James Bond became one of the most memorable moments of the whole event and demonstrated The Queen’s perfect comic timing. For many, it seemed unbelievable that a reigning monarch would be willing to relinquish her dignity for the sake of this very special occasion but such was her passion and duty to fully represent everything that was great about Britain that she wholeheartedly obliged. This once again put her centre stage on a global platform and sixty years after ascending the throne, she was still culturally relevant to public life.
Even earlier this year and without the support and steadfastness of Prince Philip who sadly passed away in April 2021, The Queen celebrated her platinum jubilee: an unprecedented milestone in British royal history. Sadly, due to ill health and mobility issues, she couldn’t participate in as much of the celebration as the public had first hoped. Yet she was able to reprise her acting role for a short sketch alongside Paddington Bear which reminded the watching audience of her propensity for comic timing which maintained that unique and magical twinkle in her eye. This was sadly the last TV appearance by Her Majesty but it seems somewhat fitting that one of the last images of The Queen was an all together joyous one. The fabric of Britain has been carefully crafted by our unique humour in how we never take ourselves too seriously and this sketch remains the epitome of our upbeat, downtrodden but positive spirit.
Reflecting on her life, reign and service, it’s difficult to sum up The Queen’s formidable contribution to all areas of public life. While the subject of the monarchy continues to divide the population, her duty and service remains unparalleled and something to marvel through her seventy years of national devotion. All of these things will no doubt continue to form the backbone of public debate for generations to come. Yet in terms of popular culture, the death of Queen Elizabeth II forms a natural end of an era of big stars, big shows and a sense of cultural duty which was felt through the annals of entertainment. Alas we can be comforted in the reassurance that The Queen remained an ever present supporter of the Arts and the entertainment landscape would look very different without this. Essentially, her cultural contribution was so important because she represented us. For this, there is no better legacy.