How do you play the Queen? Depictions of Elizabeth II on stage and screen may once have been as rare as hens' teeth but nowadays you can hardly move for her on both stage and screen; and with filming about to commence on Netflix's multi-million pound blockbuster The Crown (with a second series reportedly already in the pipeline), there's never been a better time to perfect a passable imitation of Her Majesty.
The problem for any actress playing the Queen is that despite six decades in the top job, she remains a distant, not to say illusory, figure. Her image may be all around us, from the stamps we put on our letters to the pound coins we use to release our supermarket trolleys, yet does anyone beyond her closest family circle really know what's going on behind that tiara and those spectacles?
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While many of her most illustrious predecessors can be conjured up in a few visual short cuts – Henry VIII with his girth and inelegant table manners, Elizabeth I with her chalk-white visage and starched ruff, Queen Victoria with her bustle and dyspeptic countenance – our reigning monarch remains intriguingly opaque. Even her siblings are easier to portray then she is (as I discovered myself when I recently auditioned to play Prince Charles, a task I was able to manage perfectly adequately merely by twiddling with my cufflinks and speaking through clenched teeth).
No such short cuts with Her Majesty. It's her contrasting (and contending) blend of energy, warmth and steely reserve that makes her such an intriguing subject for dramatists and actors alike. Any actor portraying a famous person must blend both the individual's actual traits with those accentuated by the dramatist.
For instance, if the role you're playing is intended for satire or spoof, basic characteristics must be distended for comic effect – in the Queen's case her oh-so-distinctive voice, her unmoving visage, and her perpetual hauteur dwelling just beneath the veneer of approachability. If a more realistic depiction is required, the actor's job may be harder but infinitely more satisfying. In my experience the key to unlocking a role in these circumstances is to be found by studying the eyes. Whoever described them as "the windows to the soul" was giving actors the best possible steer on how to get inside the mind of an individual.
I recall some years ago shooting a scene opposite Meryl Streep in the 2011 Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady. Mrs Thatcher is another of those iconic individuals who is often mimicked but seldom captured, yet my three days filming at Pinewood allowed me to scrutinise Streep's mesmerising artistry at close quarters. Despite three hours each day in the make-up chair (even at the distance of mere few inches it was impossible to see where Thatcher finished and Streep began), the genius of her unsettlingly accurate portrayal was in how successfully she caught the famous Thatcher "look". When the cameras rolled, on cue that famous basilisk glint came into her eyes, one I'd seen on news and current affairs over so many years but which I'd never expected any actor to be able to re-create. For all the prosthetics, the wigs and the meticulous artistry of the make-up department, it was Streep's ability to capture Thatcher's inner spirit that made her performance so memorable, and which ultimately gained her the Oscar award in 2012 for Best Actress.
But if anything the Queen is even harder to pull off. Indeed, once upon a time the very notion of representing her in a drama would have been considered the height of impertinence. When I was starting out in the business in the late 1970s the only actress you'd ever see in the role of The Queen was lookalike and theatrical curio Jeannette Charles. Miss Charles had the celestial good fortune of being a dead ringer for Her Majesty, and made a tidy living out of personal appearances, publicity stunts, and the odd fleeting cameo on TV and in films such as The Naked Gun and Goldmember. But an actress of serious pretensions she wasn't.
The first to attempt a rounded portrayal was Prunella Scales (better known as the long-suffering Sybil in Fawlty Towers). In 1988 she starred as the Queen in Alan Bennett's one-act play A Question of Attribution (later filmed for the BBC and garnering Scales a Bafta nomination in the process). Scales set the bar high, adroitly suggesting a monarch who was sharp, witty, ironic and always a step ahead of her quarry, in this case the art expert (and suspected Soviet spy)
Anthony Blunt. Her interpretation of HRH was very much that of the play's author, and thus depicted her as a figure of "delicious drollery" as Variety magazine described her; bizarre, funny yet respectful, and "wittily savvy to the political non-niceties of the land". It may not have been the Queen as we knew her, but very much how we – or at least Bennett – imagined she might be behind the closed doors of the Palace.
In more recent years portrayals of HRH have been queuing up like London buses. Sue Townsend's savage Republican comedy The Queen and I re-imagined Mrs Elizabeth Windsor and her family forced to live in the hell of a modern council estate in Leicester (with Pam Ferris in the eponymous role): while in Moira Buffini's 2013 satirical play Handbagged, dealing with the Queen's fraught relationship with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, actresses Marion Bailey and
Clare Holman gleefully satirised between them the many sides of the monarch (few who saw the original production at the Tricycle Theatre will forget Holman's stoniest of stares when asked by Thatcher whether she'd ever read Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.) But why stop at two? Channel 4's elaborate 2009 docudrama The Queen included no less than five separate interpretations in as many episodes, with performers as diverse as Samantha Bond and Patricia Hodge playing her in a
successive decade of her reign. Barbara Flynn, who played her in the fourth episode (the decade including her "annus horribilis"), has some interesting things to say about tackling the role.
Far from the months of painstaking preparation one would assume to be vital for success, rehearsal was minimal. "I was offered the job on the Friday, had the costume fitting on the Saturday and began filming on Monday morning," she recalls. Flynn quickly latched on to what she felt to be the Queen's key personal traits, namely "enthusiasm tempered by iron discipline". Oh, and that trademark hairdo of course.
Yet despite the doleful subject material of the Queen's fifth decade, it wasn't all doom and gloom. During filming for the scenes at Windsor Castle Flynn recalls the "corgi wrangler", hired to look after the accompanying dogs, insisting that she secrete chunks of cheese (their favourite morsel) inside the cuffs of her outfit. "It was the only way to guarantee their attention during the various takes," Flynn says. One can only hope the real monarch never has to resort to such blatant bribery to retain our affections.
Yet of all the actresses of who've had a tilt at the role, Helen Mirren is the undoubted gold standard. Her portrayal of HRH in Stephen Frears's 2006 film The Queen, a movie which explored her misguided attempts to remain secluded with her family in the days following the death of the Princess of Wales, won Mirren Oscar glory, and grossed £100m at the box office.
Mirren worked hard at perfecting the crucial vocal and physical aspects of her dramatic quarry, including the way she held her head, what she did with her hands, and the way she held her handbag or her glasses.
So compelling was her performance that a further collaboration with screenwriter Peter Morgan was inevitable, and in 2013 they teamed up again, this time in Morgan's stage play The Audience – an imagined series of private encounters with a gallery of her various prime ministers over five decades.
The play proved was a runaway success. Having sold out in London's West End (and having gained Mirren an Olivier award to add to her groaning mantelpiece), both she and the original cast have now transferred to Broadway where they're now receiving similar acclaim, even if New York audiences are a trifle shaky on their British political history ("Tony Blair – was he alongside Richard Nixon?" asked one bewildered punter to a cast member at the press night party).
Mirren herself has some telling observations about playing the central role. In a recent interview she likened the royal family to "aliens – a life of doors being opened, never having to queue, or stop for traffic lights, or worrying about what you're going to cook that evening". The Queen's may be a rarefied life, yet according to Mirren, "the public were prone to misunderstanding her, because she doesn't smile all the time. But she's not a movie star; she's a Queen. Smiling is not a requirement. What's required is to be dignified."
Her remarks chime perfectly with the views of one leading theatre critic I spoke to recently who has seen virtually all the incumbents. "One of the reasons the Queen is such a gift to a skilled actress," he said, "is surely that because her constitutional powers are so limited she has to express herself obliquely. And
that makes her – and those interpreting her for our entertainment – seem intelligently ironic."
So who's the best? Mirren? Jeannette Charles? Eddie Izzard, who voiced the Queen during the four separate appearances she has made in The Simpsons? Perhaps it will turn out to be the next contestant, Kristin Scott Thomas, who has taken over the role of our eponymous heroine in a remount of The Audience here in the West End?
In fact there's only one contender. When director Danny Boyle came up with the lunatic idea of asking the Queen play herself during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, nobody, least of all he himself, had any hope that she would agree to it.
Yet his idea somehow tickled her imagination, and thus the coup de grâce of the Olympic opening ceremony – indeed, of any Olympic ceremony – was secured. You could almost hear the collective gasp of 30 million TV sets that summer's evening when HRH turned to greet James Bond in her private apartment, and revealed herself to be not Mirren, not Charles, not even Izzard, but the original and best.
She may have only spoken four words – "Good evening, Mr Bond" – but was there – could there ever be – a more exquisite moment in Olympic (or TV) history? And here, perhaps, is to be found the key to playing her; a refusal to be phased by anything, even by Daniel Craig in a tux.
Here, also, perhaps, is the key for any pretender. In one memorable scene from Channel 4's The Queen, Barbara Flynn's HRH sits watching the 1992 Labour party rally in Sheffield on the eve of that year's General Election. Observing party leader Neil Kinnock's flamboyant (and, as it turned out, decidedly premature) podium celebrations that night, she turns to the Duke of Edinburgh and observes, somewhat acidly: "Give an ordinary person a bit of public recognition and it
goes straight to their head."
Too true, Ma'am, too true.
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