'Like so much in British life — scones, soccer, the Battle of Agincourt — the story of the Queen’s relationship to pop culture comes in two parts.
The first unfolds in a state of siege. In 1977 the Sex Pistols rhyme “Queen” with “fascist regime” on God Save The Queen, cut-n-pasting her image, ransom-note style, onto the cover. The BBC ban the record and it goes to number two in the charts, marking a new low in public protocol towards the Royals. A new era of pop-cultural plunder dawns. The Queen is paraded in comic effigy by the makers of Spitting Image, flattened into a silkscreen by Andy Warhol, rugby-tackled by Leslie Nielson in 1988’s The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad, and mooned by Mike Myers in 2002’s Goldmember. Both comics are Canadians, too. Her majesty sits purse-lipped, disapproving. She is not — as they say — amused.
Then comes Diana, or more importantly, Elton John’s rendition of Candle in The Wind at Diana’s funeral: an unprecedented pop flourish amid the solemn protocols and processionals of Westminster Abbey. Diana leaves behind her two young princes, trailing iPod’s, iPads and Nintendo game-consoles around the palace. The Queen’s secretary lets it be known that Her Majesty is “addicted” to the Nintendo, and when the movie The Queen comes out, she receives the director and star, Helen Mirren, for tea. She ‘gets’ it. In 2002, as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations, she watches Paul McCartney sweat his way through his 1969 ditty Her Majesty — “Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl but she doesn’t have a lot to say” — looking as shame-faced over his former cheek as a kid forced to repeat the joke in front of the class. The Queen sits Sphinxlike, neither amused nor unamused, much as she sits through African tribal dances, while the ghost of John Lennon chokes on a semolina pilchard in the corner.
The Queen and popular culture just don’t mix, which is precisely her appeal in the popular imagination: a symbol of all that is most timeless and proper about British life, she cries out for boisterous mash-up. A Whoopie cushion for Hollywood, a piñata for the rowdier species of rock star, she is the ultimate empathy challenge for novelists: how unstiffen that lip? In the novel and play, The Queen & I, Sue Townsend ransplants her to a working class council estate, where she has to learn how to zip herself and feed the Corgis on a state pension. In the novella An Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett sends her on a marathon reading binge that takes in Salman Rushdie, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Becket, even the “notorious jailbird and homosexual” Jean Genet. “I think I may be turning into a human being,” she notes primly. “I am not sure this is an altogether welcome development.”
Bennett has been here before, in his play A Question of Attribution, where the Queen makes a cameo appearance as a shrewd connoisseur of duplicity, in both art and life. Her own tastes run, famously, to the middle-brow and dustily pre-War: she disdains literary novels, preferring farces, once giggled through Wagner, preferring show tunes from the 1930s like the ones loaded onto her iPod by the Obamas. The Queen’s relationship to popular culture is fascinating precisely because she largely predates it. The only still-serving world leader outside of Fidel Castro to have seen the arrival of the internet, the pop single and television, she acceded the throne while Britain was still in it’s infatuation with wireless radio, on which listeners could look forward to having their socks blown off, if they were lucky, by a singer plus piano accompaniment, broadcast “from a factory somewhere in England as one show had it. Or the latest news about the royal family. The thing most closely resembling what we would now identify as popular culture, funnily, was the Queen herself, whose image was printed on coins and stamps, hung in pubs and town-halls, sewn into every inch of British public life save the cinema, where impersonation of the monarch was forbidden. Otherwise it was Queen for breakfast, Queen for lunch, Queen for afternoon tea.
“The Queen views the monarchy as a kind of national adhesive,” writes Andrew Marr in his recent biography, The Real Elizabeth, quoting one of her ladies-in-waiting as saying “we’re in the happiness business.” The story of the monarchy in the 20th century is largely the story of its battles with, and eventual accommodation of, new media — George VI’s struggle to master radio, Elizabeth’s battles with the tabloid press which came to a head after the death of Diana, when the palace was caught with its flags at half mast, engulfed in a froth of public indignation, whipped up by the tabloids. Essentially, it was a fight over iconography. The press were asking the Queen to produce something she had not been asked to show in her nearly five decades as monarch, but which happens to be the price of admission for any public figure in the era of Oprah and Hello: a display of emotion. They wanted her to act like Diana, which is to say — like a celebrity.
Round one went against the Queen: the tabloids were never her medium. They belonged to Diana, that child of the celebrity-driven eighties, the pop princess incarnate, friend to pop stars and fashionistas, and arch press manipulator. But replay those events on the big screen, as Stephen Frears did in his 2006 film, The Queen, and it’s a different story, quite literally. For all their gimcrackery and glamor the movies are much more sympathetic to emotional reserve and the telling gesture, and so it was with Mirren’s Elizabeth who sheds a single tear for Diana with her back to camera, a touching fig-leaf of dignity which seemed both an answer to the public clamor for Royal waterworks and a rebuke to it.
The Queen’s tacit endorsement of the film may, in time, come to seem one of her smartest moves as monarch: that winning display of humor and shrewdness seemed to usher in a new era of pop-cultural glasnost with regard to the Royals, who have received noticeably better treatment since, in books Bennett’s and Marr’s. After Kate and William’s recent wedding, the palace echoed to the sound of God Save The Queen, this time played, with punning obsequiousness, by Brian May of Queen. It’s hard to pin that all on one movie, yet maybe the Queen simply found her medium. She turned out to be a movie star, after all.