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"The Queen" - John C. Kirk

May. 28th, 2007

10:25 pm - "The Queen"

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Last weekend I watched The Queen, which I thought was very good. I don't think it would have benefitted from the big screen (at a cinema), but it's worth watching on TV.

In case you're not familiar with the basic premise, this is a dramatisation of the events surrounding the death of Diana (Princess of Wales) in 1997; more specifically, it looks at the way that the royal family reacted to her death, and how this was was perceived by the general public. I think it's very well acted, particularly by James Cromwell (playing Prince Philip): I've seen him in various roles, and each one is quite different, so even though I saw his name in the credits I didn't actually recognise him until I read the cast list at the end.

The whole point of the film is to speculate about private conversations "behind the scenes", so I don't know how accurate this speculation is, but it all seems plausible to me as a way that it could have happened. I think that Blair and the Queen both came across as sympathetic: they were decent people, trying to handle a difficult situation as best they could.

(Paul O'Brien wrote a review of this film last year, which I'd also recommend.)

I remember where I was when I heard the news; I'd just moved house, and I was chatting to a friend on the phone while I unpacked, and he asked me whether I'd heard the news about Diana. My immediate reaction was: "Oh no, what's she done now?" (Bear in mind that this was after a long period of her being featured prominently in the tabloids.) I felt slightly embarrassed when I heard that she was dead, but it didn't really bother me much either, and I found all of the mass hysteria rather disturbing. (This is related to my recent post about school maps in computer games, where I think that people are completely over-reacting.)

There was something interesting I read at the time, regarding the cards and flowers that people left outside Buckingham Palace. Lots of the cards had messages which were addressed to Diana (e.g. "We miss you!"); this was unusual, because normally people would send cards to the relatives instead, expressing sympathy for their loss. Nowadays, it seems more common to address the dead directly, but I think this was where the trend started.

One of the controversial issues was that Buckingham Palace didn't fly the flag at half-mast. The official reason for this is that the flag has a specific meaning: it's a standard which signifies that the Queen is in residence, so if she's away then it isn't flown at all. I'm not an expert on royal etiquette, but that sounds plausible to me, so I think it's reasonable for them to continue that tradition. (In the film, they say that the flag wasn't flown at half-mast when King George VI died, for exactly the same reason.) However, this decision was unpopular with the general public, who felt that the royal family weren't showing the appropriate amount of remorse.

Turning to speculation (i.e. the fictional dialogue from the film), there was one particular quote from the Queen which impressed me:

"I doubt there is anyone who knows the British people more than I do, Mr Blair, or who has a greater faith in their wisdom and judgement. And I believe they will any moment reject this ... this mood which is being stirred up by the press, in favour of a period of restrained grief and sober, private, mourning. That's the way we do things in this country: quietly, with dignity. That what the rest of the world has always admired us for."


Sadly, this isn't really an accurate view of England nowadays; exercising self-restraint isn't a very popular choice. This is where Tony Blair comes in, since (according to the film) he advised the royal family on how to project their public image. Initially he's irritated by this, saying that he has to save them from themselves, and that he has better things to do with his time. However, I did like his line later on, when he said that "I think there's something ... ugly about the way everyone's started to bully her."

The obvious conclusion to draw from all this is that British society has changed in the last 50 years, and the Queen's views are now out of date. The BBC have recently been discussing the 1950s on their website (contrasting that decade to the present day), which I found interesting.

This is a theme which has also been explored elsewhere. For instance, I read the ambulance blog Random Acts of Reality, and one common theme is that people call ambulances for trivial reasons. (Ditto for NeeNaw, written by a 999 dispatcher.) I don't have a specific citation to hand, but I recall someone saying that this is a generational issue: elderly people who lived through the Blitz tend to say "Oh well, we musn't complain", so they're reluctant to call an ambulance for fairly serious issues, whereas younger people tend to feel that they're entitled to an ambulance if anything minor goes wrong (rather than calling a taxi).

Turning to fiction, I've come across a few recent examples of this contrast. In the Torchwood episode "Out of time", three people travel through time from 1953 to 2006, and they have some difficulty in adjusting. For instance, one of the women from 1953 meets a man in a nightclub and goes off with him, just intending to have "a bit of a cuddle", and she's shocked to hear that he'd be expecting to have sex with her. Someone then shows her a magazine with articles about sex tips, and her immediate reaction is that it's disgusting, since she's not used to the subject being discussed so openly. Given my general reaction to Torchwood as a series ("There must be lots of sex! All the time! That's what makes this a series for grown-ups!"), I'm inclined to think that the 1953 attitude has a lot going for it.

Marvel comics have recently had a big "event" called Civil War. I'm intending to cover that in more detail in a future post, but the relevant point here is that Captain America was frozen in the 1940s (then thawed out in the modern world), so his value system comes from a pre-war society. In one comic, a reporter is interviewing him:

Reporter: "Let me ask you something, sir: do you know what MySpace is?"
Captain America: "I'm not sure I understand the relevance of that question, Sally --"
Reporter: "No, you just don't understand the question, sir. I'm trying to illustrate a point here, so bear with me. Do you know who won the last World Series, or who was the last American Idol? When was the last time you actually attended a Nascar race? When was the last time you watched The Simpsons or logged onto YouTube to watch a stupid video?"
Captain America remains silent.
Reporter: "Exactly. Never. You hold America up as some shining beacon of perfection but you know next to nothing about it."
(Civil War: Frontline #11)


I'd say that Cap and the Queen have quite a lot in common here.

Looking at the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, I think that the way the British navy handled themselves against the zombie pirates is a good example of high moral standards: they showed courage in adversity, followed by restraint and mercy in victory.

Ultimately, my own experience is going to be skewed, since I wasn't alive in the 1940s and 1950s, so I only have second hand evidence from a more limited number of sources; I also don't have to experience the bad points of those decades (such as food rationing). Still, while there may never have been a golden age, I like the idea of the values that these people aspire to, and so I'll try to live up to them in the present day.

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From:totherme
Date:May 29th, 2007 11:08 am (UTC)
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I also don't have to experience the bad points of those decades (such as food rationing).

...or sexism, or racism, or homophobia, or the institutionalised bullying that was commonplace in all the better schools, or the various injustices of the class system, etc. One consequence of being expected to stay silent through adversity is that a lot of really horrible stuff goes undetected.

while there may never have been a golden age, I like the idea of the values that these people aspire to

I like several of those values too - I hope that's apparent in the way I live. I think it's important to take the bits we like from the past, but not kid ourselves about the bits we don't like - they can sneak back if we're not at least a little bit careful. Like Austin Powers said: "Right now we've got freedom and responsibility... It's a very groovy time :)"
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From:johnckirk
Date:May 29th, 2007 12:04 pm (UTC)
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Yes, those are fair points. If I'd been alive back then, the problems you mention wouldn't necessarily have affected me directly, but that doesn't mean I'm endorsing them.

Have you seen the film Pleasantville? The basic idea is that it starts out with a 1950s sitcom where everything is happy, then digs a bit deeper to show what's being hidden (e.g. domestic violence).
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From:johnckirk
Date:July 5th, 2007 05:41 pm (UTC)
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As a delayed response to this, there's a funny Shortpacked strip about Captain America applying 1940s morality to the present day:
http://shortpacked.com/d/20070312.html

(I thought this was in "Wha-huh?!", which is why I showed you that on Sunday.)
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