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‘What does Your Majesty like?’

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock-climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer.

The first time I visited London, a friend took me on a guided tour of sorts, taking in all the sights with a particular emphasis on Buckingham Palace. We stood outside the gates with the throng of tourists and my friend drew my attention to the flag on top of the building. “That means the Queen is in residence”, she said. At the time I expressed a great reluctance even to stand outside Buckingham Palace. I am a lapsed Irish nationalist, but every now and then I feel a flush of wounded racial pride. When I found myself looking up at that flag and all the pomp and ceremony of the guard patrols, the ornateness of the palace itself, I felt a surprising degree of sympathy for the royals. It all seemed so insular and removed from the life of modern London.

Over the course of my own lifetime their status as national symbols has become ever more precarious. How much worse must the decay of that esteem for the institution seem to the Queen herself, remembering how important her family’s refusal to leave London was regarded during the Blitz?

This perception of the increasing irrelevance of the role of the British Monarch is treated of in Alan Bennett‘s comic novel. The push and pull between the public and private lives of the Queen herself becomes rich material for a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the potential future importance of the Royal Family in British affairs.

It is also a book about how the love of reading can change one’s life.

Her Royal Highness has come to discover an interest in reading late in life. A fortuitous meeting with a member of her kitchen staff at a mobile library introduces her to a new kind of activity – reading for pleasure. The Queen’s life is dominated by her sense of duty, one which has isolated her from her own privileged existence. She has been to so many places, met so many great minds and leaders – and yet conversation has been limited to polite chit-chat, her experiences stage-managed for public consumption.

Norman the former kitchen staff becomes her ‘amanuensis’, a guide to a wider world of letters. Amusingly she chooses the works of Nancy Mitford as her introduction to literature – after all, she knew the family – and from there often finds herself reading the words of authors she has met, even knighted, but sadly had nothing to say to. Norman encourages her interests and quickly comes to be seen as a nuisance by the staff at the palace, especially Sir Kevin who has taken on the role of making HRH more appealing to the general public. The Queen’s new interest has inspired her to inquire more into the lives of the people she meets, a topic of conversation they are often unprepared for. Even the Prime Minister of France finds himself nonplussed when she asks his opinion on Jean Genet. Obviously the books – and Norman – will have to go.

Fans of the recent Oscar smash The King’s Speech will find much to enjoy here, although Bennett has bigger fish to fry. As I have mentioned above, one of the fascinating threads in this novel is how the Queen’s new found interest causes her to question much of the tired and moribund traditions controlling her life. The cynicism of government ministers towards this newly invigorated Queen drives the plot to a fascinating climax. With some unexpected help from Marcel Proust.

Of course, Bennett’s optimism of how this scenario of a suddenly engaged Monarch would play out must contend with the actual behaviour of the current heir to the throne, who thinks nothing of using his position to interfere with government policies on issues that interest him.

Witty, humane and even somewhat radical in a genteel sort of way, which is only fitting.

In the past fifteen years, I have watched British film attempting to assert its Britishness, but I have found that the terrain it maps out seems wholly foreign to my own experience. Largely this felt like someone else’s cinema, or rather a cinema functioning almost exclusively as PR for the notion of that New Modern Britain every successive government has offered up and failed to deliver.

The best job I ever had was as a volunteer with the Jameson Dublin Film Festival in 2003. In exchange for a measly three hours handing out tickets, I could go see as many festival screenings as I wished and rub shoulders with the invited cinema personalities. I met Javier Bardem! I got into a fight with Jim Sheridan‘s wife (less proud of that one). It’s as close as I am ever likely to come to the ‘film industry’.

And yet looking back it was a surprisingly hollow experience. I have been to film festivals since and they are all quite similar in their fascination with celebrity and the glossing over of any genuinely startling work of film into single word reviews exchanged over a cocktail. ‘Controversial’. ‘Disturbing’. ‘Perverse’. There is a sense that the naieve aim of film festivals – the promotion of film as an artform – has been lost in favour of celebrity gossip and flashy marketing.

Every now and then I am reminded of the true value of film criticism, of the pleasures it can offer and the engagement with the medium it encourages. Enter Carl Neville.

This book contains a series of linked essays describing the rising star of the British Film Industry in concert with the populism of Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia‘. Neville identifies how the films of Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle combined to elide the recent memory of Thatcherism. Realism in cinema is eschewed by the popular box office hits of the period and the new gloss of paint given to government by Blair‘s success in defeating the ToriesĀ  allows for an aspirational tone to enter political discourse – that of course was not acted upon. Neville also treats of the rise of ‘New Laddism‘, as both a reaction to the ‘New Man‘, of the 1980’s and an endorsement of consumer culture.

All of this, Neville argues, is encapsulated in 90’s cinema and onwards. In Four Weddings and a Funeral he finds an attempt to turn back the clock on Thatcherite Britain to the bucolic era of Waugh, whereas Trainspotting obscures the realities of drug addiction and a crime-ridden underclass by fixating on the notion of ‘choice‘. This nominally Scottish film is revealed to be a voyeuristic skin designed for middle-class England. Its magic realism and irony does not serve to deepen its themes as a work of cinema, but to raise a laugh and replace the awareness of the realities of heroin-addiction and social depravity with a hyper-kinetic cartoon:

The opposition between a non-judgmental imaginative rendering and a patronizing realism assumes that in some way McDonald, Boyle and Hodge are more on the side of the underclass by representing them as attractive, even enviable, rather than suffering and pitiable.

It’s a startling critique of a film that has transcended its initial controversy to become one of the best-known recent films in British history. The films of Danny Boyle in particular are focused on throughout this book, with the author calling attention to how the use of vicarious fantasy avoids any encounters with harsh realism. Another example given for this process is the evolution of the football hooligan sub-genre, from Philip Davis’ I.D., with its disturbing account of an undercover cop embracing the weekend violence of hooliganism, to Frodo Baggins enjoying a thoroughly middle-class misadventure in Lexi Alexander’s Green Street.

Fantasy has replaced any concern with the realities of life in modern Britain. It is not all doom though. Nevillie is particularly appreciative of films like Adam & Paul and Morvern Callar (that rare thing, a masterpiece in its every iteration – the soundtrack is an absolute delight). Sexy Beast compares the misery of London’s criminal underworld to sunny Spain, where Ray Winstone‘s Gal can finally build a life for himself. But it is The Queen which offers Neville the opportunity to return to the boogieman of this piece, Tony Blair, media literate, hysterical, with a canny ability to replace ideology with emotionalism.

This book gave me a welcome slap in the face. Impassioned argumentation and impressively cineliterate.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

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