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The British Monarchy on Screen


Edited by Mandy Merck


Manchester: University Press, 2016

Hardcover. xv+413 p. ISBN 978-0719099564. £70

Reviewed by Allister Mactaggart

Chesterfield College



This wide-ranging collection of essays developed from an eponymously titled conference held in London in 2012. The resulting publication consists of an editor's introduction, together with seventeen chapters split into six parts. Collectively the publication demonstrates how the relationship between the British monarchy and its subjects has been effectively sutured by its screen representations since the early days of photography, and seemingly continues unabated in both documentary and fiction productions. As Mandy Merck points out in her introductory chapter, central to the issues raised in the book 'is the continuing role of royal representations in film and television as patriotic signifier and entertainment commodity' [1]. The interconnection between patriotism and entertainment thereby provides a valuable insight into the ways in which screen representations have enabled the British monarchy to maintain a seemingly paradoxically position of both aloofness and a simultaneous illusion of proximity.

'Part 1: Victorian inventions' provides four chapters, the first of which reveals Queen Victoria's astuteness in being aware of both the documentary and personal value of photography and 'animated photography' (film) as a suitable means of promoting the royal family and British imperialism. As Ian Christie points out, Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in June 1897 'provided the first major spectacle of the film age' [31], the importance of such events being filmed then resonates with the current queen's various Jubilee celebrations over the course of her long reign. In the next chapter Jude Cowan Montague analyses the popular success of the film Sixty Years a Queen (1913) as the result of the combination of cinema and a sense of civic duty which represented ‘a late flowering of the Victorian philanthropic event’ [55]. As well as documentary footage of Victoria's reign, subsequent fictional films such as Mrs. Brown (John Madden, 1997), released the same week as Princess Diana's death, demonstrate, as Steven Fielding points out, how imagination shapes reality, or even misshapes reality, but in ways which provide a sense of perceived continuity between different reigns. This section concludes with James Downs's chapter analysing the appeal, impact and success of the Viennese-born actor, Anton Walbrook's (Adolf Anton Wilhelm Wohlbrück) film portrayals of Prince Albert, particularly in Victoria the Great (Herbert Wilcox, 1937).

'Part II: The Elizabethan diva' provides three chapters exploring Queen Elizabeth I's cinematic representations. Victoria Duckett analyses Sarah Bernhardt's performance in Queen Elizabeth (Les Amours de la Reine Élisabeth, Henri Desfontaines and Louis Mercanton, 1912) which 'was one of the first multiple-reel feature films released in America' [112]. Elisabeth Bronfen and Barbara Straumann focus their attention upon the ways in which the representations of Elizabeth I 'cite and reconceive previous representations of queenship according the cultural concerns of their times' [148]. Glyn Davis then takes on the significance of Quentin Crisp's role in Sally Potter's Orlando (1993) in 'its yoking together of the queerness of Woolf's novel with the author's equivocal attitude towards royalty' [157]. The performative aspects of royalty, and the relationship between filmic representations and painterly portraits or other art historical sources, thus takes centre stage in this section of the book, demonstrating the interconnected relationship between previous and current royals.

'Part III: Images of empire' consists of two chapters, one analysing the role and importance of the recently crowned Queen Elizabeth II's tour of Australia in 1953-1954, and the other providing a reading of The King's Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) as an allegory of imperial rapport. The former chapter by Jane Landman explores the organisational complexity involved in making the documentary which, it is argued, 'is best understood as homage to [John] Grierson, in its conception, style and mode of production, as well as its world-view' [186], and as a tour which 'has been described as a “last gasp of empire”' [196]. Deirdre Gilfedder's chapter on The King's Speech is one of two in the collection focusing upon this film. This chapter is read alongside a shift against republicanism in both the UK and Australia in the twenty-first century, reflecting ‘new configurations in global media patterns where circulating icons clearly enhance the soft power of the monarchy’ [206]. When the diaries of the king's speech therapist, Lionel Logue, were published by his grandson in 2010, it was seen that they portrayed 'a perfectly loyal imperial subject with no shading of the Aussie egalitarianism suggested by Geoffrey Rush' [217]. As such, Gilfedder concludes that, 'For contemporary Australian spectators, Rush's Logue personifies the indecisiveness of their republican dream' [217].

The next section, 'Part IV: Popular participation in royal representation', consists of three chapters which explore the interconnection between royalty as 'real' people and their symbolic power/value. Karen Lury's chapter emphasises how the conception of a monarch’s two bodies, the body natural and the body politic, with its origins in medieval Christology, still prevails in certain respects, and thus identifies some of the peculiar power this institution manages to maintain even into the twenty-first century. Jo Stephenson then analyses the close links between the British royal family and British fashion, with Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding taken as a prime example of bringing together differing notions of Britishness. In the final essay in this section, Ruth Adams analyses the importance of public congregations watching outdoor screens 'as a significant element in the UK's rather complex and paradoxical national identity' [265].

'Part V: Television's contested histories' expands upon the relationship between television and the British monarchy which, as Erin Bell and Ann Gray point out, has not always been a happy relationship but 'the Windsors have acknowledged the necessary evil of allowing the cameras in to record less formal aspects of their life and work' [291]. Basil Glynn's chapter on The Tudors (2007-2010) then explores how a fictional reinvention of historical fact, infusing a bygone era with a modern sensibility, ‘has come at some cost to the reputation of contemporary international historical dramas’ [319].

The final section, 'Part VI: Monarchy in contemporary anglophone cinema', brings together three chapters in which the contemporary status of the monarchy is analysed in relation to the ways in which screen representations interrelate concepts of continuity and change. Andrew Higson thus draws attention to the ongoing renegotiation of the medieval concept of the monarch's two bodies as being an integral component of the paradoxical relationship between tradition and continuity, as well as having an important role in modernising the institution. Mandy Merck's chapter on The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006) emphasises how this melodrama helped to heal some of the wounds in the partially severed relationship between the monarch and the public following Princess Diana's death. Merck uses a quotation from the film critic David Thompson to make the point that this film provided ‘the most sophisticated public relations boost HRH has had in 20 years' [364]. The final essay in the collection returns to The King's Speech, this time by approaching it as melodrama. As such, Nicola Rehling makes the important point that ‘the primary function of the film’s melodramatic address […] is to foreclose overt political critique' [398]. One is also left with a strong sense of how fictional representations of the monarchy in this film, and others made in the melodramatic mode, help to support the institution by making the members of the institution seem a bit like us, a delusion which maintains and naturalises inequality.

Overall this collection brings together a range of well-researched and well-written essays which explore in great detail the various ways in which photography and film have been used to represent the British monarchy. One cannot help coming to the conclusion that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's early attraction to the new photographic medium was a prescient move on their part on behalf of the monarchy as an institution.


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