“The Queen Will Be Phlegmatic”
Watching the Diamond Jubilee from the other side of the pond.
Photograph by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images.
The Elizabethan Era (1558-1603) saw the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the debut of The Comedy of Errors.* An empire was won and lost, and then they had Victoria and Rupert Brooke, Churchill and Thatcher—and Rupert II rearing up from the Antipodes. The English used to have an East India Company. In recent days, they’ve had India Hicks on air with Piers Morgan on CNN. Hicks is a model/interior designer/Bravo TV personality/Waugh character. It was lightly mentioned on CNN that Hicks is “678th in line for the throne.”
They were celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in the style of the
Elizabethan Media Age (1952-). For the past several days, watching the celebration in London from the comfort of the couch, we’ve been anthropologists of Angles and Saxe-Coburg-Gothas, studying tribal behavior and codes of class. We’ve been pop astrologers admiring a celebrity phenomenon more rare than the Transit of Venus, and astronomers searching the film and video history of a culture where, heavens, it’s Moonraker, Jesus Christ Superstar, and the sparkle of Elton John’s fuchsia jacket transmitted by BSkyB.
I love the crackling sound to this Variety article—“Coronation was a royal challenge for nets”—in which the trade magazine ransacks its archives to document early TV news competition. The race to put footage of Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation on air in America involved secret transatlantic flights making emergency landings—and it’s an important starting point on the line that runs through Royal Command Film Performances and “the People’s Princess” on the cover of People. At the time, the BBC thought that NBC was degrading the event by bringing Dave Garroway’s chimp. There was no risk of NBC booking its current monkey star—his pilot got picked up. But they did bring us some Donald Trump over the past few days, and that’s comparable.)
BBC America has been inundating its viewers with coverage like rain clouds inundating London, which is exactly what rain clouds have been doing. On CBS and ABC and Fox News, there was a frequent refrain from American hosts fretting that the rain would bother the queen. “The queen will be phlegmatic,” said Richard Quest on CNN. “And so are her subjects. We’ve been getting rained upon well and often.” I quite enjoyed the palpability of Quest’s excitement. At one point, when the weather was still merely a pleasant light grey, Piers Morgan had to beg him to stop taking pictures of the royal barge with his camera phone and concentrate on talking.
This was during Sunday’s majestic boat show—a flotilla on the Thames. The 86-year-old monarch was on her feet for four hours reviewing the pageant from the desk of her royal barge. The BBC thought that, wearing white, she looked “like a pearl” amid all the gray.
The BBC had positioned reporters on bridges, where people were celebrating Britain’s cultural heritage. For instance, the actor Richard E. Grant read a Wordsworth poem off an iPad while wearing Union Jacks on his socks, his cravat, and, he claimed, his underwear. Elsewhere over the Thames, a diverse collection of subject gathered with easels and implements to record their artistic impressions. “Turner would be proud,” said one reporter, encouragingly. “I think it would be easier without the rain, but we’ll solider on,” said one cheerful young woman. “I prefer snow, to be honest.”
(Somehow, on the Today show on Tuesday, it looked like Matt and Meredith forgot to ask Al about the weather. They chatted about other stuff, but forgot to ask the weatherman about the weather. Who knows?—maybe Al’s got a new contract stipulating that he no longer has to break bad news—but NBC needs to get its game tight before the Olympics. I hope they got some good B-roll.)
Watching BBC America, I learned a lot of new facts. Did you know that Queen Elizabeth II was born in Kenya? No one knows exactly when—her father died in his sleep—but it happened 60 years ago, in February of 1952. Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, as she then was, had been enjoying Sagana Lodge, the retreat she’d received as a wedding present. Word came that the king was dead at age 56. According to Sally Bedell Smith’s Elizabeth the Queen, when a lady-in-waiting—Pamela Mountbatten, India Hicks’ mother—offered condolences, Elizabeth said, “Oh, thank you. But I am so sorry it means we’ve got to go back to England and it’s upsetting everybody’s plans.”
She flew back from Kenya on an Argonaut, B.O.A.C. There is a quietly amazing moment of Elizabeth’s return to her native soil in BBC’s Memories of a Queen, a 90-minute retrospective documentary. We first see her at the top the airstairs, wearing black. Before she steps down, she stretches her neck to her right. I swear it’s as if she’s cracking her shoulder and putting on the game face she’s yet to take off. The ascended Elizabeth then elegantly descends the airstairs. She shakes the hand of the first officer to present himself, and smiles warmly at him. Cable-guide synopsis of Memories of a Queen: “The life of Elizabeth II as a princess, wife, and monarch.” Cable-guide genre listing: “Inspirational.”
Correction, June 14, 2012: This article incorrectly stated that Macbeth debuted during the Elizabethan Era. In fact Macbeth was written after the end of Elizabeth's reign. (Return.)
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.