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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (9/9/2022)

(A Royal Revisitation)

There can only be one film under review this week, even though it first appeared back in June. We shall leave the text in the present tense, while acknowledging the passing of an era and the debt of gratitude owed by so many around the world.


A lot has happened in the last 70 years. Britain is almost unrecognisable from the country shaken by a recent showdown with the continent and bearing the socio-economic brunt of the government's need to recalibrate after skirting calamity. Hold on, maybe not that much has changed after all!

One woman would know. She's seen it all. Wisely, she's kept her counsel. But, as she celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, there's a chance to get to know her a little bit better through the late Roger Michell's documentary, Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s).

Although expertly edited by Joanna Crickmay, this is a difficult film to get a handle on, as it keeps switching between admiring deference and hipster sniping. Some of the footage of the royal tours is undeniably discomfiting. But, therein, lies the key to this unprecedented reign. Queen Elizabeth II has presided over a transition from empire to empathy and, therefore, deserves gratitude rather than griping. Think how much worse things might have turned out, considering some of the politicians with whom she has had to deal since 1952. This excuses nothing from Britain's often shameful imperial past, but the point stands.

Despite touching on such major ceremonial moments as Princess Elizabeth's marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh, the funeral of her father and her Coronation in Westminster Abbey, this is not a chronological record. Michell dips in and out of the decades, as though under the influence of Adam Curtis's TV treatises and Craig Brown's book on The Beatles. The latter crop up regularly, whether they are receiving their MBEs in 1965 (to the accompaniment of `Norwegian Wood') or a Buckingham Palace functionary is showing us the filing cabinet containing the card stating that John Lennon returned his `for various reasons' in 1969.

Paul McCartney - the composer of the Abbey Road closer, `Her Majesty', which is heard over the closing credits in an outtake - has always been a fan and confides in a press conference clip that his classmates had fancied the young Elizabeth in the same way they had film stars like Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. This section on regal glamour includes lots of royal premier line-ups and a smugness of celebrities describe what they overheard of the tittle-tattle on the red carpet.

Segments on garden parties, investitures and official engagements follow much the same pattern, as people are always too much in awe to risk being themselves. Apart from the children who present the Queen with bouquets when she's on walkabout. This turns out to be a dangerous business, as one girl gets slapped in the face by a saluting soldier. Her Majesty had already turned to leave, but it would be nice to know if she smiled when she saw the clip and if she ever tried Googling herself.

One suspects she will view this film with a good deal of affection, as it makes a nice audiovisual scrapbook of her 96 years. We see home movies of life with George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret and realise why she has formed attachments to places like Balmoral, Sandringham, Windsor and the Royal Yacht. Britannia's decommissioning was one of the few occasions on which the Queen let her emotions slip, although anyone who has trained their binoculars at a racecourse will probably have seen her scurrying between TV sets and the finishing strait to cheer on her mounts.

More insights like this would have been most welcome. The BBC clearly snaffled lots of rare material for its own documentary, The Unseen Queen. But, surely, this would have been the time to allow access to Richard Cawston's 1969 film, Royal Family, which was deemed to have diminished the monarchy's mystique and has since been misfiled and left to develop Vinegar Syndrome in a cold, dank corner of the Tower of London. Apart from the leaked version that's on YouTube, of course.

Michell shrewdly avoids ogling ceremonials, with their ostentatious pageantry. However, he does muddle up the Queen's Speech and her Christmas broadcast. Actually, he ignores the former, perhaps out of sympathy for the number of duffers whose policies she has had to outline at countless State Openings of Parliament. He does remind us, however, that the Crown is a burden, as Her Majesty lets slip that it's so heavy it would break her neck if she had to wear it for a prolonged period.

She can be candid when she wants to be, as in her discussion about a sun dial with David Attenborough. But she has rarely spoken from the heart to her people, with the notable exception being the ill-judgedly delayed address following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.

This tragedy is included in a section entitled `Horribilis' that rather gets carried away, as it details the failed marriages of Princess Anne and Prince Andrew, the latter's sweat glands and Prince Edward's inability to stage a royal variation on It's a Knockout. Children may be a reflection on their parents, but it's going a bit too far to crosscut these domestic disasters with footage of the Winter Palace being stormed from Sergei Eisenstein's October (1927) and the murder of the Romanovs from Franklin J. Schaffner's Nicholas and Alexandra (1971).

At least, the film-makers have the decency to be shocked by Marcus Sarjeant firing six blanks at the monarch during the Trooping of the Colour ceremony in 1981. However, they miss the chance to include the Spitting Image sketch about the Queen forgetting to Troop the Colour and promising Prince Philip kebabs for breakfast if he nips out in the middle of the night and Troops it for her. They might also have added Bobby Moore at Wembley in 1966 to the montage of handshakes. Still, they did find room for Harry Enfield dragging up for Who Does One Think One Is on Walliams and Friend (2016) and the soundtrack is pretty special. Let's hope the DVD version can also accommodate, the Queen's memorable encounters with James Bond in 2012 and Paddington Bear in 2022.

The are more horses than corgis and more references to public duty than family time, but this appears to be common knowledge after The Queen (2006) and The Crown (2016-). Something on the faith that has sustained Elizabeth during her trials might have been insightful. But, while it succeeds in being both affectionate and critical, this is a documentary that concerns itself with the visible and the knowable. A little more of the impish inquisitiveness that Prunella Scales brought to Alan Bennett and John Schlesinger's A Question of Attribution (1991) might not gave gone amiss.

Thus, while it makes a suitable souvenir for the Jubilee, it rather undersells a woman who has tirelessly dedicated herself to service. More than a mere figurehead and (despite Johnny Rotten's assertion) very much a human being, she has been a model of discretion, sense and stability during often tumultuous times. Throughout it all, she has shown good grace, deceptive toughness and enviable self-awareness and even her harshest critic must begrudgingly concede at this time in her remarkable reign that, by and large, she has consistently risen above the anachronistic absurdity of her role and done a bloody good job.

Thank you, Ma'am. Good luck, Sir.

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