In the late 1930s, the world was in turmoil, old orders were at risk of being overturned and Britain’s monarchy was still reeling from the abdication of Edward VIII. Fearful of the future, the unpopular George VI set in train the phenomenon that would keep his clan in business – just about – for another century: a newsreel photographer was hired to shadow the new king and his family, including his daughter and heir, Elizabeth. The royals were to be put on display.
So reports Elizabeth: A Life Through the Lens, a slight, swift film that canters through 10 decades in an hour and seems, on the surface, to be a genuflecting biography full of nice photos. But within it is an occasionally fascinating analysis of how and why those pictures were created, illustrating a fundamental truth about the Elizabethan era: it was one long marketing campaign, trying to square the circle of making the British people love their queen without ever getting to know her.
The first conscious effort to manage citizens’ view of Elizabeth came in wartime, when the privations suffered by ordinary folk prompted a move away from the rich prettiness of her earlier photoshoots. Fancy dresses were out. Muted tweeds and sturdy wool were in. Then, in 1947, on her 21st birthday, the princess delivered an address that was mainly heard at the time on radio but is seen here on film. “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service … but I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone.”
The speech, co-written by a Times journalist, was a brilliantly effective piece of propaganda: it reimagined royal life as “service” or “duty”, creating the illusion not only of heroic sacrifice and hard-working excellence, but of an endeavour shared. Like brand-loyal consumers who feel a sense of investment in a product despite owning no stake in the company, or religious believers who think impure thoughts may be punished, royalist Brits were persuaded that they bore a responsibility to vocally support the crown.
How much the monarchy’s subjects should be allowed to actually taste the Kool-Aid was, however, a difficult question. Having ascended to the throne and married Philip – we are shown how carefully marshalled photojournalism remodelled an unfamiliar Greek interloper as an earthy, manly, steadying influence, just like good English husbands – the young Elizabeth II embarked on a world tour in the early 1960s, stepping out of the motorcade and focusing on the walkabout. By the end of her reign, millions of people felt directly connected to her because they’d met her, or at least been waved at from 20 yards away. Elizabeth herself had a good line on this: “I have to be seen to be believed.”
But, as The Thick of It taught us, much of the business of spin consists of undoing the unintended effects of the previous PR stunt. When the endless footage of foreign visits led to the public getting the impression that Elizabeth was a neglectful mother because she was constantly off attending the openings of municipal buildings in Ceylon or Bermuda, photographs were commissioned of her family at home, doing ordinary, relatable things such as picnicking on vast lawns or leaning on castle walls in matching kilts.
That dilemma became a crisis after the BBC broadcast Royal Family, a documentary two years in the making that showed Elizabeth and co’s everyday, domestic lives. It was extremely popular on its first airing in 1969, but was later taken out of circulation by the palace because it was lifting the veil too high: it was too close to allowing punters to possess their own informed view of what the Windsors were like, which would mean they could no longer be told. Then, as a new kind of tabloid press arrived in the 1980s, someone else was shaping that narrative. A Life through the Lens doesn’t really know what to do with the image-saturated modern phase of ruthlessly papped royalty, so it skips over it. But it does show us a great shot of Elizabeth on a meet-and-greet somewhere in Wapping. Hovering vampirically behind her is a thirsty Rupert Murdoch.
At the film’s close, the royal historians and correspondents who have served as talking heads snap back into respectful tribute mode. Elizabeth is described with heart-clutching reverence as “This woman. This extraordinary woman”, but is also then referred to by two consecutive contributors as “an enigma”. The last portraits of her are dutifully overanalysed, the experts joining in with the pretence of believing they reveal something of Elizabeth’s character. Although there were fraught moments along the way, the effort to make us interact with the icon rather than the person was a success: by George, the old king was right.
Elizabeth: A Life Through the Lens is on Channel 4 and on More4