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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » British Royal Wedding Spotlights Interest in All Things Regal

British Royal Wedding Spotlights Interest in All Things Regal

This article was first published on Suite 101, 9 April 2011. With continuing interest in the Queen’s Jubilee of 2012, it still has something to say about the monarchy in Britain today.

Kate and William’s April 2011 nuptials are like a British movie with a global audience and a reminder of how films about royals endlessly fascinate people.

Peter Kellner, President of the UK’s YouGov Opinion polling organisation, said in April 2011: “For 123 of the past 174 years, we’ve had a female monarch. For how many of the last 174 years has American democracy produced a female president?” His point was wider than a dig at Americans; it illustrated a British acceptance of the Royal Family in general and The Queen in particular.

Whether Brits are naturally Royalists or not, the fact is that Britain is still an unwritten constitutional monarchy, and interest in all things royal is part of the cultural, historical and commercial fabric of the nation. Films about British royalty support that.

Today’s royals refer to themselves as ‘The Firm,’ an affectionate name for the family business: attending state and civic functions, advising the government of the day and acting as the national figurehead. If Britain didn’t have a Royal head, it would elect a president like other countries.

The House of Windsor

Since King George V changed the German ‘Saxe-Coburg’ in 1917 during the First World War, Windsor has been the Royal Family surname. The 1994 TV comedy series The House of Windsor showed it as a family enterprise, affected by topical issues, particularly as seen from a U.S. perspective.

Penny Junor’s book, The Firm: The Troubled Life of the House of Windsor (2005), gave a sympathetic overview of their success that “lies both in the magic of the monarchy and in the family’s organization into the titular businesslike entity, a phrase coined by Prince Philip.” She asserted the value of the monarchy during this era without hierarchy, deference and respect was to act as “a fixture in this morass of modern life.”

This is the soap opera of royalty. The most recent and acclaimed outing was The King’s Speech (2010), which Listal described as: “George VI, also known as Bertie, reluctantly takes the throne of England when his brother, Edward, abdicates in 1936. The unprepared king turns to a radical speech therapist, Lionel Logue, to help overcome his nervous stutter and the two forge a friendship.”

Set against what was a very real crisis for the monarchy and the onset of World War II, it was simultaneously real history brought to life, a genuine human interest story and well directed, acted and filmed. People and most critics alike took to it. They also did with The Queen (2006).

Listal described that as an intimate behind-the-scenes glimpse at the interaction of Monarch and Prime Minister Blair during their struggle in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, “to reach a compromise between what was a private tragedy for the Royal Family and the public’s demand for an overt display of mourning.”

Its success was partly due to “humanising the Sovereign.” After it, Helen Mirren was sometimes mistaken for the Queen. It was more than people being unable to separate fiction from fact, it was that the Queen, generally much-loved and admired, was humanised so convincingly by the actress, that people felt they knew their monarch.

Earlier Royalty On Film

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) distorted history in a romanticised account of Mary Boleyn, one-time mistress to Henry VIII and her sister Anne, who became his second wife. His daughter Queen Elizabeth I appeared in Orlando (1992). Internet Movie Database said: “Young nobleman Orlando is commanded by Queen Elizabeth I to stay forever young. Miraculously, he does just that.” The film followed him through centuries of British history, experiencing a variety of lives/relationships, including changing sex. Fantasy overtook fact.

Elizabeth (1998) kept historical accuracy in the young Queen wrestling with personal love versus her sense of royal destiny against a backdrop of court conspiracy and betrayal. Elizabeth also appeared in Shakespeare in Love (1998), a clever imagining of how Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, paralleling his own romantic passion.

The ill-fated ‘Nine Days Queen’ of 1553 was the subject of Lady Jane (1986), where politics, scheming, treachery and love abounded, ideal movie material. The rakish Charles II made it legal for woman to appear on stage in Stage Beauty (2004), a glimpse of theatre life in Royalist-Restoration England after the civil war. The same period fascinated Johnny Depp and John Malkovitch who made The Libertine (2004) and the makers of Restoration (2005).

Few films focussed on Queen Victoria’s long reign. The Young Victoria (2009) IMBd described as “a dramatization of the turbulent first years of Queen Victoria’s rule and her enduring romance with Prince Albert.” Her Majesty, Mrs Brown (1997) was a controversial probe into her extended period of mourning him. Servant Brown gradually brought her back to life with a touching but frowned-upon relationship.

Rich Movie Plots

King John, King Richard (Lionheart), the English throne, taxation and the Crusades accompany the legend of Robin Hood. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Robin Hood (1973) with animals, Robin and Marian (1976) and Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) exploited it in differing interpretations of the Middle Ages. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) was the comic version.

Shakespeare’s interpretations of English kings got a makeover in Henry V (1944), seen by many as buttressing patriotism on the British home-front during the war, a remake in 1989 and Richard III (1955; 1995). The Lion in Winter (1968) was about Henry II and his three sons, each wanting to inherit the English throne. Becket (1964) saw that same king turn against his friend Thomas-a-Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

A Man For All Seasons (1966) was about Henry VIII wanting divorce and the principled Sir Thomas More opposing him. The Madness of King George (1994) was described by Listal as a “meditation on power and the metaphor of the body of state, based on the real episode of dementia experienced by George III [now suspected a victim of porphyria, a blood disorder].” As the king went mad, he was marginalised, so the film asked: Who was really in charge? A valid question with sovereigns, then and now.

Cinema-goers like their kings and queens to be real, plausible, outrageous, incredible, stubborn, tragic, vulnerable, confused, dark-sided people, just like them. They want human monarchs on screen, even if not telling the whole truth. That’s why royalty is such an enduring theme for movies.

Image: Some of ‘The Firm’ During Trooping of the Colours, 2007 – jon

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