“So how many brothers did George VI actually have?”
“Well, there’s Edward the Abdicator and there’s the other one mentioned in the film—John, the one we never used to hear about, who had epilepsy and died young. And then there’s a couple of dukes, Kent, the one who died in the air crash, and the other one—Norfolk?”
“You mean Gloucester,” my wife said, and so I did. Norfolk is the Catholic duke who lives in Arundel; he has nothing to do with it. “But George VI had a sister, too. A total of five brothers and a sister is what I remember.”
“No, I think Marina married Kent.” She looked towards the ceiling like a spiritualist. “I’m getting the name the Hon Angus Ogilvy here. Whoever he was or is, he’s mixed up in this somewhere.”*
My grandmother used to speak this way too, able to recall the Windsor family tree from memory, with the same, if not more, precision than she could deploy when remembering her own. The layers of memory only reinforce the soap opera, with the backstory fleshing out the characters currently on screen. So people look at William’s wariness of the press and conclude it must be the legacy of his mother’s short life and violent death. They note that though the Queen is eighty-five, her mother lived to 101 and speculate that she will rule for a good while yet. Charles should shake off any delusions he may have about the Queen stepping down for him—given her presumed view of the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, as a trauma for the Firm, she will do no such thing. And so on. Ordinary Britons, not just “royal experts” on television, will trade such observations in everyday conversation.
Further help for the monarchy comes from an unexpected shift in the British zeitgeist. In Tony Blair’s 1990s, Cool Britannia fashion demanded classless accents and demotic style; to be posh was to be square and out-of-touch. Yet now Britain is ruled by a prime minister, David Cameron, who is a former pupil of the country’s most privileged school, Eton College, and who is surrounded by several more Old Etonians—including the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Real estate and cookery shows on television are fronted by people with double-barreled surnames and cut-glass accents, both of which would once have been modified or hidden by those seeking national fame. Country clothing, including quilted jackets in the drab shades favored by the monarch herself, is experiencing brisk sales, even among younger, urban types. And all this after a century in which the upper class was said to be in decline. The explanation, according to the scholar Simon Head, lies in the effectiveness of an elite group, supercharged by vast fortunes accrued in the City of London, in shaking off what he calls, quoting Shelley, “the sneer of cold command,” the old aristo hauteur that once so irritated their fellow Britons. Cameron is the exemplar, wearing his breeding lightly.
The clearest index of the current approval enjoyed, despite everything, by the royal family is the critical and commercial success of The King’s Speech. Together with the upcoming wedding and next year’s diamond jubilee of the Queen’s reign—a feat matched only by Queen Victoria—it is taken as proof that the monarchy is on a roll. The film offers not just evidence of the Windsors’ popularity, but also perhaps the best explanation for it.
The young Princess Elizabeth appears only briefly in the film, alongside her sister Margaret, as the daughter of the stammering King—but that cameo should not be underestimated. It is a reminder of the current Queen’s sheer longevity in British life. There she is on the palace balcony with her father, already a public figure in events that took place nearly seventy years ago and that have acquired for most Britons the patina of ancient history. An easy way to produce gasps from British schoolchildren is to tell them that the Queen has met each week with the serving prime minister, over the years twelve in all—and the first of these was Winston Churchill.
This fact alone ensures that Elizabeth exercises an enduring grip on the British imagination. She is one of the few constants in a landscape much of which has changed beyond recognition since 1945. Plenty of buildings have not been around as long. She is something the British elderly and their grandchildren have in common: for almost all their lives, she has been the head of state. (It helps that, as even most republicans will admit, she has not, in all that time, put a constitutional foot wrong. Unlike her second son, she has never attracted even a whiff of scandal; unlike her first son, she knows that, as the embodiment of what Bagehot called the “dignified” part of Britain’s unwritten constitution, her job is to keep her views firmly to herself.)
But the power of young Elizabeth’s brief scenes in The King’s Speech is not solely chronological. It is not only that she was around a long time ago; it is that she was around then, during what Churchill predicted would be known thereafter as Britain’s finest hour. She is the last living connection to an episode—the island race standing up to Hitler—that has become the foundation story, almost the creation myth, of modern Britain.
Pupils in UK schools now study the Third Reich more intensely than they learn about the Tudors. History before 1939, with all its imperial complications, is glimpsed only vaguely. Britain alone, Churchill, 1940, the Blitz—this is the tale of unalloyed heroism that the country likes to tell and retell to itself. And as long as Elizabeth sits on the throne, Britons remain tied to those events directly.
This is the bedrock on which the current monarchy stands. While the Queen lives, no republican will be able to shake it. After she is gone, she will leave a gap that her son, her grandson, and his new wife—no matter how charming—will have to struggle to fill.
* See Ian Jack, "Lionel Logue and the King," Guardian, January 15, 2011. ↩
See Ian Jack, "Lionel Logue and the King," Guardian, January 15, 2011. ↩