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The Queen in culture: how art puts a public face to a private life | Queen’s platinum jubilee

The Queen’s daily life of duty and dilemma has been monitored closely for seven decades. Each diary appointment, along with every deadpan impromptu aside, has been noted by royal pundits and historians.

But the imagined private life of Her Majesty has been at least as powerful a cultural influence as the actual public life. In our collective stories, and even in our dreams, Elizabeth II has been a regular member of the cast: a constant symbol of authority and regimented splendour. And now, towards the end of her reign, in a less deferential age, the monarch’s thoughts and concerns are familiar topics for literary speculation and satire. The image of the Queen, whether in profile on a postage stamp, or on canvas in regal portraiture, has been given a range of artistic treatments, many of them subversive, from Andy Warhol’s pop art portrait, to the one where the monarch’s eyes are shut, Chris Levine’s 2004 Lightness of Being.

The popularity of The Crown, Netflix’s Buckingham Palace saga, is only a small part of this picture. Where Peter Morgan’s script sketches in the gaps with carefully researched invention, other writers have leapt in to have some fun.

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown.
Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. Photograph: Liam Daniel/AP

When Alan Bennett brought his version of the Queen to the stage in 1988, he was one of the first to take a parodic look at the woman who personifies the British national brand. His one-act play, A Question of Attribution, tackled Soviet espionage in the royal staff; Prunella Scales, stately and sardonic, caused a sensation in the role of the Queen.

Twenty years later, Bennett returned to the supposed inner life of the monarch in his novella, The Uncommon Reader. When the royal corgis chance upon a mobile library, the Queen borrows a book, prompting a broadening of perspective that upsets her worldview.

In the 1992 comic novel The Queen and I, the late Sue Townsend also acknowledged the strange mix of approachability and formality embodied by Elizabeth II. In her story, Britain’s monarchy ends with a republican parliamentary victory and the Queen moves to a council estate. Her corgis are not allowed. Worse still, she has to dress herself, grappling alone with hooks and eyes and zips, like normal women do.

Possibly, the urge to set the Queen in humble domestic surroundings is linked to her frequent manifestation in the nation’s dream life. Like other famous people, her appearance in the sleeping mind is thought to represent the urge for acceptance and fulfilment, or alternatively the threat of authority. For the psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, considering the question this weekend, Elizabeth II is an emblem of a subconscious desire for security: “She is the fictive mother of the nation; someone on to whom we can project our wishes, longings and our hope for stability.”

Helen Mirren in the 2006 film The Queen.
Helen Mirren in the 2006 film The Queen. Photograph: Pathe/Sportsphoto/Allstar

As a familiar parent figure who might grant us favour, she also remains ultimately unknowable. Academic psychologists have chronicled the part royalty often plays in psychotic disorder. For some of the Queen’s most troubled subjects, she becomes the focus of the sort of delusions that compelled Michael Fagan to break into her palace bedroom in 1982. He was aiming, apparently, for a friendly chat.

In 2012, this real incident prompted Helen Greaves to write the television drama Walking the Dogs. It featured Emma Thompson as the Queen and Eddie Marsan as the interloper in her chamber, re-enacting the scene long before Morgan had Olivia Colman and Tom Brooke play the encounter in the fourth season of The Crown. This time Fagan himself was annoyed by Morgan’s suggestion that the pair had discussed Margaret Thatcher.

The writer admits tiptoeing with unease through the mind of his Elizabeth. He first essayed her in his 2006 screenplay for Stephen Frears’ film The Queen and then brought her to the stage in the guise of Helen Mirren, and later Kristin Scott Thomas, in his royal play The Audience. Morgan recently told the Observer that he knows he cannot access the monarch’s “internal journey”. “What we can see, though, is an emotional reticence, and then wonder if that has come about programmatically, or whether she was born with something missing,” he said. “Perhaps the process of separating out Elizabeth Windsor from Elizabeth Regina has damaged her? I have always thought the danger of being queen is losing sight of who you are because you have to do certain things automatically, as the crown. So how much is her, and how much is the crown? That is the question. And how much is the cost?”

A succession of children’s authors have grown bold in their use of the Queen. Since Sophie, heroine of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, first went to the Queen for help defeating the giants, several other fictional children have trodden the same path. In fact, the Queen is often the source of salvation in children’s stories. In Two Weeks with the Queen, a 1990 novel by Morris Gleitzman, an Australian boy, Colin, writes asking for treatment for his sick little brother, while in 2018 a group of pupils in Onjali Rauf’s The Boy at the Back of the Class, write to ask for help for a Syrian refugee. In Me, The Queen and Christopher, a 2012 book by Giles Andreae, the Queen takes time to look out for a girl with a disabled brother. More anarchically, David Walliams has written a literary jape in which the Queen runs off, leaving an orangutan to rule the country.

Marina Warner, an expert in fable and myth, has watched the Queen’s “charismatic aura” enlarge with time. “The radiance she has now is partly just due to longevity,” she said. “It is not to do with power, which is only symbolic.” While rulers in fairy tales are often tyrannical and must be overthrown to let the young prince or princess flourish, our Queen is instead a symbol of continuity.

A portrait of the Queen by Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy.
A portrait of the Queen by Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy. Photograph: Reuters

“She has remained stoical and largely unblemished while her family is shipwrecked around her. The current state of the myth is one that gives Britain an illusion of consolidation and comfort, but it also deceives us into thinking this is the same country it always was.”

Several fictional versions of our Queen have had her kicking off the traces of majesty. The 2015 film A Royal Night Out follows Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret escaping into the crowds on VE night, while Emma Tennant’s 2009 comic novella The Autobiography of the Queen, allows her to scoot off to the Caribbean for a break under a fake name. Four years later, William Kuhn pulled a similar trick, setting her free at King’s Cross station making for a train to Scotland, head covered by a hoodie.

Sometimes the artist that has shaped an imagined, fresh version of the Queen has had the benefit of actually meeting her. Official portrait painters have enjoyed a succession of formal sittings, producing well-known works like Pietro Annigoni’s 1969 red-cloaked avenger and Henry Mee’s sunlit figure from 1990. The late Michael Noakes even travelled with the Queen to all her engagements for a year. The monarch he portrayed in his resulting book was both hardworking and amused, but was she the real woman?

Most of the music inspired by the Queen has fallen into two camps: the formal and the determinedly irreverent. Among the formal works are the pieces composed for her coronation, William Harris’s Let My Prayer Come Up Into Thy Presence, George Dyson’s Confortare and the Coronation March by Arnold Bax. The irreverent ones include the Smiths’ 1986 track The Queen is Dead, Leon Rosselson’s satirical On Her Silver Jubilee and, of course, from the same year The Sex Pistols’ banned God Save the Queen. Rather more sympathetic, perhaps unexpectedly, is Billy Bragg’s Rule Nor Reason, a song that paints a pathetic, lonely, if regal, figure. For an out-and-out tribute it is necessary to turn to the casual affection of Paul McCartney’s little squib, Her Majesty.

But the jazz classic inspired by a 1958 meeting with the Queen at Yorkshire arts festival may well top this list of tunes. The American band leader Duke Ellington composed the lilting theme for the Queen’s Suite shortly after his encounter with Elizabeth II and he recorded it the following year, romantically sending the only copy to Her Majesty and refusing to release it in his own lifetime. Recalling the encounter in a later interview Ellington said: “I told her she was so inspiring and that something musical would surely come of it. She said she would be listening, so I wrote an album for her.”

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