Yesterday afternoon – because there was nothing else on television – I sat down with my 90 year-old father to watch the drama-documentary film The Queen [2006 – starring Helen Mirren, script by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephen Frears] on ITV1, with Martin Sheen in the main supporting role as prime minister Tony Blair, about the extraordinary behind-the-scenes Establishment machinations following Princess Diana’s death up to her funeral.
I first saw this in the cinema but watching it again was a fascinating experience, both because of the events it depicted and the reactions of my father who was seeing it for the first time.
The first thing that struck me was the experience of being reminded of those strange times, especially the public’s outpouring of collective grief which eventually forced the Royal Family – specifically the Queen – to return to London from Balmoral in order to demonstrate their acknowledgement of the importance of Diana’s demise and her extraordinary ‘connection’ with the public.
The whole episode seems a word and a half away, for a start. Looking back now it plays almost like a fictional historical story about a collective national ‘loss of grip upon reality’.
I’m sure the Royal Family is relieved that this is so, leading as it did to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 2012 which reaffirmed (with bells on) her own place in the public’s affections. As it was happening the aftermath of Diana’s death must have seemed like a living nightmare for them, not least when her brother Earl Spencer effectively delivered a personal broadside from the Westminster Abbey pulpit virtually accusing them and the British media of causing it.
The other thing that occurred to me was the bravery of the film makers in even devising the movie and imagining that it would become a viable, let alone commercial, proposition.
I can think of two similar projects since, if memory serves a B-grade movie about the life of Diana and a television piece on the ‘love story’ of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge which bombed almost immediately to the point where they disappeared without trace in Britain (though that’s not to say that they might not have produced zillions of pounds’ worth of revenue in those parts of the world in which interest in the British Royal Family is keen).
To be sure, in The Queen the performances of Helen Mirren and Martin Sheen were remarkable, both as impersonations in themselves and in delivering their lines in a manner which was innately convincing. With lesser actors – especially when depicting a story and outcome this well-known to the punters – the enterprise could have been a disaster from start to finish. And it wasn’t.
Lastly, as mentioned, the experience of watching the film with my father was ‘interesting’.
From the outset he had great difficulty recognising which actor was playing which real-life person, indeed who any of the real-life people involved were anyway. This was undoubtedly partly because, whilst some actors genuinely looked like who they were playing (either naturally or thanks to brilliant prostheses and/or make-up), others bore only the faintest or passing resemblance.
My father’s biggest area of potential confusion was the film’s practice of ‘dropping in’ genuine contemporary footage of news reports, and/or general scenes of the public’s reaction to Diana’s death.
Never mind that he kept having to ask “Who is that … and who is that?” – e.g. when a scene began in which Mr Blair rang the Queen to discuss how the Royal Family should respond to the extraordinary public reaction and the media frenzy that was feeding off it – he was also regularly confused whenever real-life footage was interspersed with drama scenes. He kept thinking that the drama scenes were documentary footage … and vice versa.
To be honest, I never became involved in the film watching it for the second time – I spent most of it considering the ongoing acting performances, set dressing, props, costumes and the artificial devices of the script (rather than the storyline).
No doubt this was partly because of the constant running commentary that I was obliged to provide for my father throughout the action.