The Mother of the Nation
Only those locked deep down in the dungeons of the remotest castles in the land could to be unaware that this month sees the one hundredth birthday of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. As a prelude to the festivities planned, Channel Four showed a documentary on 10 July called The Real Queen Mother. The programme title alone was an interesting one as it rather implied that the old dear that has been occupying our television screens and the front pages of the tabloids for years is an impostor. Unfortunately, this was not the case and the commemorative tea-towel makers and mug purveyors can breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Whatever else could be said about it, it would be unfair to suggest that this programme was a hagiography of the Queen Mother, merely detailing her various charitable acts and her courageous long-term battle against errant trout bones. The programme clearly attempted to steer a course between portrait and exposé, and for the most part reasonably successfully. Some revealing snippets certainly emerged though by and large they were just that—snippets. Throughout there was a sense that the programme’s makers were soft-peddling on the more interesting lines of enquiry open to them lest they go too far in an exposé of someone who is, in some senses at least, an extremely private person.
The programme was effectively constructed and conducted on the type of terrain occupied by the Queen Mother herself. By way of example, her relationship with her husband was never mentioned in ordinary, everyday terms, or indeed as a relationship at all, it was always referred to as a “romance”, even though the programme’s makers were able to demonstrate that this “romance” was a lot more earthy and complicated than the fairy-tale myth the Queen Mother has propagated from day one. Similarly, though the programme was able to outline the vindictive and mean-spirited streak which has been a pronounced part of the Queen Mother’s character all her adult life, it was always referred to euphemistically. The Queen Mother can never be labelled “vindictive”, apparently, even by Channel Four—although that is what she is—so instead she was described as “determined” and “steely” in the manner of second rate job interviewees who insist on turning their “negatives” into “positives” at every available opportunity.
Bring on the Hun
If the programme performed one important service it was in its enunciation of the Queen Mother’s deeply held convictions and prejudices to an audience who, by and large, may have been unaware of them. There was reference to her adoring support for those two most popular Prime Ministers of the twentieth century, Neville Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher; to her ingrained racism and belief that dark-skinned colonials are unable to run their own affairs without the benevolent, guiding hand of the white man; to her conviction that immigration should have been halted years ago, and many other prejudices besides. She is, apparently, still unable to refer to German people without calling them “the Hun”.
The one other fascinating thing to come out of the programme was the prominent place the Queen Mother holds in the history of spin-doctoring (and this without having conducted a single press interview since 1923). It is difficult to see how any potential candidates for the BNP like the Queen Mum could ever hope to achieve her consistently high poll ratings. Peter Mandelson certainly has nothing on her, from her use of newsreel during the war when she posed amongst the rubble of Buck House’s back garden just like she’d emerged from a two-up-two-down in Stepney (when actually she spent every night during the Blitz out of London at Windsor Castle), to her invention of the royal walkabout replete with gloves for glad-handing and the ever-present patronising grimace. And like all good spin-doctors and manipulators throughout history she bears grudges, builds up jealousies and pursues vendettas like there is no tomorrow, from Mrs Wallis Simpson to Lady Diana Spencer.
The Queen Mother always seeks to temper her hauteur and obvious distance from the masses with a deliberate cultivation of the image that underneath all the pomp and ceremony she is “just one of us”. This myth was exploded by a couple of interviewees who had been close to her for years and who remarked on the fact that her extravagance and lavish lifestyle is greater than that of any other royal (and that in itself is saying something). It was a pity that this wasn’t brought out more than it was—it would no doubt have been very illuminating to see what it takes to keep Her Royal Highness pampered day in day out while the rest of us eke our time away eating MacCrap and chips.
It some respects then, Channel Four pulled its punches when compiling this documentary, which is a shame, because the more the truth about one of the ruling class’s biggest fairy-tales emerges, the easier it will be for the really useful people in society to cast aside their adoration for leaders and bamboozlers of all sorts wherever they may be found—whether in parliament, in palaces, or in the case of the Queen Mother for much of the time, running up the world’s biggest overdraft at the races.
Sometime ago a reader wrote in to the Guardian’s “Notes and Queries” column to ask who Riley was and what was so good about the life they lived. The only answer must surely be that Riley is a metaphor—a metaphor applicable like no other to the woman who was born Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at a disputed location in August 1900 and whose life as the world’s most successful parasite has been an unparalleled inspiration to the ruling class and their sycophants ever since.