The monarchy reigns as pop icons, through times good and bad

Since the time of the Stuarts, the first kings of the United Kingdom who ruled from 1603 to 1714, the monarchy has displayed a mastery over popular culture



By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sat 24 Sep 2022, 12:22 AM

Not a step out of rhythm, not a hair out of place. Millions of people across the globe were riveted to the television as the exquisite choreography of royal pageantry unfolded for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral earlier this week. It is something of a cliché to say that no one quite does pomp and pageantry like the British, but like most clichés, there is much truth in it. Emotions for the departed monarch mixed with awe at the day-long display of precision of movement, colour and dignity, as the cortege progressed from the Palace of Westminster to Westminster Abbey and then on to Windsor Castle. It was a moment of collective memory, many recalling the late monarch’s words, deeds and dress sense over seven decades of her reign — her evolving dress sense, in particular, has been a masterclass in royal image-making.

The day’s display reminded me of Walter Bagehot, editor of The Economist from 1860 to 1877, who memorably divided Britain’s constitution into two branches: the monarchy representing the ‘dignified’ branch, tasked with symbolising the state through pomp and pageantry; and the ‘efficient’ branch, referring to parliament, the cabinet and the civil service, responsible for running the country by passing laws and providing public services. If the ‘dignified’ branch is seen to govern through poetry and the ‘efficient’ branch through prose, the day reflected the former at its best; even some critical historians and diehard republicans conceded to the power of its magic.

Fashion writers have long written gushing pieces about the Queen’s dress sense, ranging from the attire worn in rural settings, to foreign tours, to formal occasions; at times sporting bold colours in keeping with the occasion and audience. Her hairstyle, handbag, brooches, scarves blended with her image. Among other major changes, her reign saw the emergence and decline of many fashion trends; in fact, she sparked some of them. In 2018, she made her first appearance at London Fashion Week, wearing an ice blue suit, and presented the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design to designer Richard Quinn. Her presence in various dress styles and colour is all too visible: on stamps, on television, books, films, radio, sports events — and lately across social media. It was during her reign that the British monarchy occupied a centrestage in the cultural imagination. Abroad, she was perhaps the most known and instantly recognisable individual anywhere, symbolising one of the frontline aspects of Britain’s soft power, even finding representation in popular cultures elsewhere (for example, in the Bollywood comedy Housefull (2010), a Queen-lookalike speaks Marathi and says ‘Jai Maharashtra’).

The monarchy’s presence in popular culture has been up and down over the centuries; some exploiting evolving new media technology and others keeping a low profile. The Stuarts were soon off the block when the 17th century witnessed an explosion in popular culture with the invention of print. As literacy rates and technology improved, print became increasingly cheap. Broadsides sold for as little as one penny and short pamphlets did not cost much more. Historical accounts show that delftware made images of the Stuart monarchs ubiquitous across the nation and ballads about the Stuarts were sung at taverns and on the streets. By the end of the century, newspapers circulated widely and affordably, and triggered debate about current affairs in coffeehouses and tea salons. Some of the Stuart monarchs printed their own tracts and pamphlets to counter radical propaganda. James I and Charles II staged lavish royal entries into the city of London, with triumphal arches, complex speeches, and free wine. Each Stuart monarch commissioned medals for their coronations, which were distributed freely among the crowds and circulated widely.

But the Stuarts and subsequent British monarchs did not stand up too well on the scale of popular culture compared to other European monarchies, notably the French kings or the Habsburg emperors. It was only in the early 20th century that the British monarchy modernised, along with the development of new technology, such as radio and television, and set new standards: for the first time, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 was televised, setting the stage for a monarchy that was more visible to the public at all times, good and bad. She sat for hundreds of official portraits and photographs in full regalia since the time of her coronation, making her the most visual monarch in British history. She has inspired creative impulses of generations of artists, from Andy Warhol to Lucian Freud, while Danny Boyle added to her brand during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, persuading her to perform a brilliant cameo with Daniel Craig as ‘James Bond’.

Many aspects and royal rituals are supposed to originate in history and tradition, but Eric Hobsbawm, the legendary historian, has set out how the traditions are, in fact, invented: “Nothing appears more ancient, and linked to an immemorial past, than the pageantry which surrounds British monarchy in its public ceremonial manifestations… (In) its modern form it is the product of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. ‘Traditions’ which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented… The term ‘invented tradition’ is used in a broad, but not imprecise sense. It includes both ‘traditions’ actually invented, constructed and formally instituted and those emerging in a less easily traceable manner within a brief and dateable period — a matter of a few years perhaps — and establishing themselves with great rapidity. The royal Christmas broadcast in Britain (instituted in 1932) is an example of the first; the appearance and development of the practices associated with the Cup Final in British Association Football, of the second”.

Over seven decades of her reign, Queen Elizabeth was reflected and represented in various forms and media, but not always in laudatory terms, as fundamental changes took place around her in politics, social norms, conflict as well as international relations. Presenting a picture of stability, continuity and authority with poise and grace, she inspired a myriad of creative works, including ‘Her Majesty’ by The Beatles, which was one of the first songs to mention her in not exactly respectable tones. The 26-second song written by Paul McCartney was included as a hidden track in the album Abbey Road (1969). McCartney, who confessed in 2015 that he had a schoolboy crush on Queen Elizabeth, said when the song was released: “I can never tell, like, how tunes come out. I just wrote it as a joke, you know”. He performed the song at Buckingham Palace Gardens in 2002 during the Queen’s Golden Jubilee concert.

Around the time the song was released, the monarchy’s formal intervention in popular culture didn’t go too well. A controversial decision was made in 1969, when the queen is said to have given in to pressure from her husband Prince Philip and her former private secretary William Heseltine, to modernise the monarchy by inviting cameras into royal residences and present the young royals to the world as ‘ordinary’ individuals, who would later take on royal duties. That year, a documentary titled The Royal Family was released featuring footage of members barbecuing, having tea, and spending time together.

But the film backfired in epic fashion, described as a fiasco, with critics decrying the royals’ privilege and out-of-touch sensibility, so much that the Queen reportedly banned the documentary after its initial airing. As the columnist Simon Jenkins noted in The Guardian: “No other European royal family took Britain’s monarchical route to A-list celebrity. This path was not only unnecessary, it was high-risk… A racing certainty was that as each heavily publicised child stepped forward into adulthood, the searchlights would come on and the public glare descend. A photograph, a gossip, a nudge, kiss or cuddle is now instant front-page news…(The) policy was to harness the potency of celebrity to enhance the constitutional status of monarchy. The policy was a bad mistake”.

The Queen, who shared stardust with many Hollywood and other celebrities, was a newborn when she got her first book dedication in A. A. Milne’s Teddy Bear and Other Songs, featuring Winnie the Pooh, in 1926. In 1929, aged three, she was on the cover of Newsweek, introduced to the world as a cherub-faced ‘Princess Lilybet’. In the 1980s, one of the most-watched shows of political satire and black comedy, Spitting Image, featured the Queen and other members of the royal family as puppet creatures. The show featured other figures too, such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Bill Gates, but its irreverence towards the royals, particularly the Queen, marked a change of cultural attitude towards the monarchy. In the mid-1980s, American artist Andy Warhol, a leading figure in the pop art movement, produced his Reigning Queens print series. Four of the pieces featured the Queen as a two-dimensional symbol that Warhol overlaid with his signature colour blocks. In 2012, the Queen purchased the four portraits for her Royal Collection and displayed them during an exhibition at Windsor Castle.

Glamour and fashion have been the monarchy’s key cultural elements during her reign, closely followed and at times bettered by members of the royal family, such as Princess Diana, who sparked her own trends that complemented the overall appeal of the monarchy. In recent decades, the royal family has been the subject of intrusive attention, particularly by the tabloid press, but experts in brand and image-making believe that revelations of family dysfunction are also part of a rolling soap opera that does not really undermine the monarchy, but explain its enduring appeal. The increasing interest in the royal family is reflected in the success of films such as The Queen (2006). The Crown (4 seasons, beginning in 2016), in particular, continues to feed insatiable interest, depicting the life of members of the royal family as a soap opera.

As Robert Lacey, expert on royalty, tells BBC: “There’s no doubt that The Crown has changed our perceptions of the monarchy. It’s made it into a sort of entertainment, which it wasn’t before, but I think it’s also allowed people to appreciate both the challenges and the benefits of being in the Royal Family. The monarchy is a tremendously important part of British identity for good and ill and I think The Crown makes people think about that. The strength of the Queen is that the constitutional monarchy is ultimately supposed to stand for the power of the people in that even the grandest of prime ministers must answer to the people. The Queen’s great skill is to embody that well and The Crown in turn conveys that challenge really skillfully”. The monarchy’s grip on the cultural imagination is clearly unlikely to loosen anytime soon.

Tapping into the attraction of the monarchy’s brand, a distinct genre of ‘royal tourism’ has also emerged in recent decades: international tourists flocking to visit residences and places associated with the royal family, the most known being Buckingham Palace. The pomp, pageantry and ceremonial performances associated with royalty provide exceptional and unique events for tourist attention and heritage brand management. The coronation of King Charles III next year is expected to be a global tourism event.

English Heritage, a leading charity organisation, manages several places associated with the monarchy and encourages visitors to enjoy them. For example, it says about Apethorpe Palace in Northamptonshire: “Stately Apethorpe Palace, owned by Elizabeth I, then favourite Royal residence for James I and Charles I, has one of the country’s most complete Jacobean interiors”. Osborne House in Isle of Wight, for years the home of Queen Victoria, is a major draw for tourists. A link with monarchy is also good business, even if the link may be controversial. In 2014, it was reported that Prince Andrew had given his seal of approval for a London pub, ‘The Duke of York’, to include his picture on its sign. The landlady of the pub was quoted as saying, “…It is something I think Londoners will love but will of course be a pull for tourists too”.


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