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A Crowning Achievement

Like so many Slightly Foxed readers, I was hooked by Netflix’s first series of The Crown. The lavish production, rumoured to have cost £100 million, the understated acting, the meticulous detail and the cut-glass accents – all gave each episode a sense of stunning authenticity. Claire Foy, in the role of the Queen, was immaculate and as compelling as anyone can be driving a Land Rover in twinset and pearls, and the series as a whole introduced us to a world of privilege and glamour at the very heart of the British establishment which is usually shrouded in secrecy. But how accurate was it really?

One of the best guides to unscrambling fact from fiction is Ben Pimlott’s biography The Queen (1996). Though published twenty years ago, this is still the defining historical account of Elizabeth II’s first seventy years. The Queen was a strange subject for Pimlott to pick. Back in the 1990s the monarchy was not a topic considered worthy of serious academic study, let alone by a left-leaning contemporary historian such as Pimlott. A Labour activist and Birkbeck Professor of Politics who lived in Islington, he was the author of well-received lives of Hugh Dalton and Harold Wilson. Writing about the monarchy might well have been career-ending.

Nor was the biography easy to research. The Queen is one of the most famous and most photographed women in the world, but she gives no interviews, her archive is closed, and she is surrounded by a ring of silence. Pimlott recorded some interviews with people close to her, but in 1996 few insiders were willing to talk. One solution to the lack of hard evidence would have been to publish all the gossip and be damned, as Kitty Kelley had done with her book The Royals. Pimlott, however, would never have dreamed of writing such a book. Instead he wrote a historical biography: a book which, as Elizabeth Longford observed, was ‘an outstanding biography for a historian to have written, and an equally outstanding history to be written by a biographer’.

I first came across Pimlott’s biography last year, when I was looking for a decent book about the Queen. After a year of rough handling on tubes, trains and aeroplanes, my second-hand paperback copy is now broken-backed and its pages are marked and falling out.

From the beginning I was entranced. Pimlott’s story doesn’t start, as royal biographies usually do, with a chapter of potted genealogy. It opens with an account of the General Strike, describing the Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks rushing to the bedside of the Duchess of York at 2 a.m. to attend the birth of a possible heir to the throne at a crucial point in negotiations with the unions. Rather than dig around for details on breastfeeding or midwives, Pimlott places the birth of Princess Elizabeth firmly in its historical context.

Pimlott was concerned as much with the British public’s obsession with royalty as he was with the monarch herself. The book is ‘about the Queen in people’s heads, as well as at Buckingham Palace’, and the section on the Queen’s childhood is a good example of this. The standard source of information on this period is The Little Princesses, the book written by the royal governess Marion Crawford (Crawfie) in 1950. It’s a sympathetic account, though it caused a storm when it was published for violating the royal code of secrecy. Pimlott’s reading of Crawfie is acute. He identifies two contradictory myths about the young Princess Elizabeth. On the one hand, she was seen as the essence of normality – as Lilibet with her horses and her dogs, living an ‘ordinary’ life with her family at No. 145 Piccadilly. But she was also regarded as an exceptional child, blessed with prophylactic powers to ‘cure’ the ailing George V, her ‘Grandpa England’. Lilibet’s relationship with her gruff, short-tempered grandfather, leading him on all fours by his beard, seemed to symbolize the transition from age to youth in the royal succession.

In terms of timescale one cannot really compare Pimlott’s zero-to-seventy biography with the first series of The Crown, which spans a time frame of less than a decade – from Elizabeth’s marriage in 1947 to the beginnings of the Suez crisis in 1956. But The Crown is punctuated by flashbacks to scenes from the Abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 and from Elizabeth’s childhood, growing up in the shadow of the Abdication as Heiress Presumptive. The effect is to make the point which Pimlott clearly articulates – namely, that the Abdication ‘broke the spell’ of monarchy and made the personal life of the sovereign a constitutional issue. It was the task of George VI to restore faith in the monarch’s dedication to duty, and this dutiful, cipher model of monarchy was the one that Elizabeth learned from her father and that she was determined to carry on.

When royals transgressed, they were fair game for the media. Hence the importance of Princess Margaret. The Crown dwells at length on Margaret’s doomed romance with the divorced Peter Townsend. Today, it seems a storm in a royal teacup. But back then it mattered because, as Pimlott explains, it broke the unwritten rule that the royals mustn’t allow personal gratification to take precedence over duty, thus tarnishing the institution of monarchy. Although the Duke of Windsor is given a greater role in The Crown than he actually played at the time, he is there to make the same point: warped, petulant and frustrated, he is a cautionary tale about the danger of giving up duty for love. Princess Margaret’s threatened marriage was the first problem over which the Queen was required to exercise her independent judgement, and in the series she is careful not to take sides and manages to remain outside the argument. Here too The Crown is accurate.

A central theme of Pimlott’s book is the changing relationship between the monarchy and the media. Influenced perhaps by his wife, the media historian Jean Seaton, Pimlott wrote perceptively about the shifting balance of power between the monarchy and the BBC. In the early 1950s, the BBC grovelled before the monarchy and obeyed Palace instructions not to photograph the Queen. By the 1960s, as the monarchy lost its glamour and began to look dull and tweedy, the royals needed the BBC more than it needed them. Prince Philip invited the cameras in to follow the family for a year, and the 1969 film Royal Family showed the royals as ordinary people. In the most famous scene the Queen and her family are filmed cooking a barbecue by a loch. The film received ecstatic notices. Too late did the Palace realize that they had let the genie out of the bottle. As Pimlott put it, ‘If royal “privacy” was no longer sacrosanct, why should its exposure be strictly on royalty’s own terms?’

The Coronation, as Pimlott observes, was a transforming moment in the creation of a media monarchy. Both Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who was a modernizer, opposed the idea of admitting the BBC cameras at first, but then Elizabeth changed her mind. The ceremony was watched by 27 million viewers, and it created an expectation of BBC coverage of all royal events.

The Coronation is the sort of subject where film can perhaps convey more than the written word. Episode 5 of The Crown begins with a flashback from Elizabeth’s childhood, in this instance invented, when her father George VI, rehearsing his role, asks his 10-year-old daughter to play the part of the Archbishop at his Coronation and pretend to anoint him with holy oil. The anointing is the motif encapsulating the religion and mystery of monarchy. The television cameras were banned from that part of the service in which the Queen dons a plain white dress, the Garter knights put a canopy over her head and the Archbishop anoints her. The exclusion of the cameras is made plain by showing archive footage – with a commentary by the Duke of Windsor, watching it in Paris. But the irony, and cleverness, of the episode is that we, the viewers, are shown the anointing and taken right to the heart of the secret mystery of monarchy.

Given the intimacy of scenes such as this, it is startling to read in Pimlott that at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign the Lord Chamberlain’s Office forbade representation on stage or screen of any British sovereign from Queen Victoria onwards. Not until 1968 were the rules scrapped. Making a film about a living monarch would have been unimaginable before that date.

When it comes to politics, as opposed to ceremony, Pimlott’s historical heft gives him an authority which The Crown cannot match. On the Queen’s relations with her prime ministers he is definitive. The resignation of Macmillan in 1963 was a turning-point. The Queen, who was pregnant with Prince Edward, visited the sick Macmillan in his hospital bed in what Pimlott describes as ‘the most remarkable audience in modern monarchical history’. She allowed herself to be duped by Macmillan into agreeing to his choice of successor – thus bringing to an end forever the monarch’s discretionary power over the mid-term appointment of a prime minister.

The jury is still out on the Queen’s relations with Margaret Thatcher. On the basis of his interviews with politicians, Pimlott makes a convincing case that the two women loathed each other. The Thatcherites ‘identified the Court with the old-style noblesse oblige paternalism and social deference, which it was their mission to sweep away’. The Queen on the other hand found Thatcher’s excessively deep curtseys coupled with her increasingly grand manner hard to bear. She got on far better with Harold Wilson.

Pimlott takes the story up to 1996. When the paperback edition was published the following year, he observed: ‘Already the atmosphere has changed from that of the flat, anti-deference, politically-expedient mid-1990s, and perceptions of the Monarchy are shifting as well.’ Rather than add a new chapter, he preferred to leave the book as it was – an interpretation written at a particular moment in the reign. Ironically perhaps, it was his book on the Queen rather than his lives of Labour politicians that made him a public intellectual and constitutional authority.

Pimlott died of leukaemia aged 58 in 2004. Is his book obsolete? Since the 1990s, more palace insiders have been prepared to talk frankly, and the wealth of interview material that makes Sally Bedell Smith’s 2012 biography of Elizabeth the Queen so valuable was not available to Pimlott. The decades since Diana’s death have seen a palace revolution, and the emergence of a more informal, human style of monarchy. The code of secrecy has begun to fade, and the Queen herself has learned to reveal more emotion than hitherto. But as a historical interpretation, showing the centrality of the monarchy as a benign and civilizing force in British life, Pimlott’s book cannot be bettered.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 57 © Jane Ridley 2018

About the contributor

Jane Ridley is writing a biography of the Queen’s grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary.

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