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,
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