Royal glam, again

In 'The King's Speech': Colin Firth plays King George VI. Photo: AP  

With 12 Oscar nominations, the hugely successful film “The King's speech”, starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, is the story of one man's struggle to overcome a speech impediment under the sympathetic guidance of a therapist. The man in question was Prince Albert. He came to the British throne under a unique circumstance on December 12, 1936, and took the name George VI. The circumstance was a scandal — his elder brother, King Edward VIII abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. George VI's reign began at the cusp of a world war, and a modern era in telecommunications: his stammer was all the more terrifying because it was possible that the world could hear it on radio and see it, on newsreel — the predecessor to television news.

Modernity had already co-opted the House of Windsor; the indulgent Prince David (later, Edward VIII) often seemed disinclined towards behaving in a manner befitting the heir to the throne. In Sarah Bradford's biography of George VI, she describes a scene where Prince David got down on his knees and begged like a dog to amuse his lover, Wallis Simpson, while in the company of non-royals, much to the chagrin of his family. As much as it would for the rest of the world, the power of modern technology and media added a dimension to the royal existence that George VI and his predecessors would have found unimaginable: beginning from the microphone at Wembley that first broadcast his stammer, to the paparazzi that idolised Princess Diana during her wedding and was associated with her death 16 years later in a car crash.

The endless run of movies, biographies and articles about the British monarchy, not to mention the current spotlight on Prince Williams' upcoming wedding to Kate Middleton, are part of a worldwide obsession with the British Royals. Not enough that the British themselves are sentimental about their monarchs, who are culturally as indispensable as they are politically dispensable, but a large part of the world, Americans, Australians and Indians, are interested in the details of their lives. No one could ever have enough of Lady Diana's face in the press, and one could hazard a guess that Queen Elizabeth II was almost as easily recognisable to middle and upper class Indians of a certain generation, as Indira Gandhi was. Call it anglophilia or a symptom of the post-colonial condition, but it's there and it is all very entertaining.

Artfully made

In “The King's Speech”, not much is made of the “royal life” — the coronation is avoided completely; instead we see therapist and patient — Lionel Logue and the new king, George VI — in the empty nave of Westminster Abbey, preparing and practising for it. Audiences would be hard-pressed to relate in any other way to modern monarchs, since the pomp and ceremony of today's royals is almost anachronistic. The filmmakers were artful in focusing not on the king, but the man — as understated a regent as only the contained Colin Firth can be, with his clenched jaw and bowler hat. The ordinary dress and carriage of today's royals makes them accessible to the public; their ceremonies, battles and jewels belong to biopics like Sekhar Kapur's “Elizabeth — the Golden Age”. The real question though is that of the Royals and their role today. Walter Bagehot, a Victorian economist and writer, wrote that the modern British monarch had three rights, “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.” He noted that in separating itself from political alignments and executive power, the royal family would be safekeeping the institution itself and preserving its mystery.

But how long can the royal family inspire this sense of mystery and awe in its people? As the bearers of England's grandest historical tradition, their future beyond Elizabeth II is uncharted. The queen, with her refusal to grant interviews and impeccable conduct through the near 60 years of her reign, is very much a monarch. She has remained non-partisan and remote in a royal way. Prince Charles though, already stripped of privacy after his troubled marriage and adulterous affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, admitted in an interview to Vanity Fair that he foresees his future role as monarch differently, because “the situation has changed.” It certainly has; most recently, during the December riots that erupted over a rise in college fees, the armoured Rolls Royce carrying the Prince and his wife was attacked, shocking the nation.

Disciplined and consistent, Queen Elizabeth has secured her place in modern Britain. Her successor has big shoes to fill; how he pulls it off will depend on very careful manoeuvring against a background of economic instability and changing demographics.

The other question that comes up is, can the Britons afford their royals? According to the Keeper of the Privy Purse, Sir Alan Reid, in 2009 the queen cost the British taxpayer a mere 62 pence per person, annually. Since 1992, the Queen has been paying income taxes. The Queen's expenditure is funded by a combination of income received from the state, and her personal wealth. There has always been a movement in Britain in support of dismantling the monarchy and electing its head of state, but polls conducted by the British firm Ipsos MORI between 1993 and 2006 have found that support for a republic has hovered between 18-20%. The majority of Britons still want their queen. As for whether she is needed or not, it is clear, the romance of monarchy is irresistible, and its symbolism essential to the British idea of who they are. And stories, from Shakespeare to Hollywood, about England's kings and queens will go on forever — longer, very possibly, than the institution itself.

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 12:48:03 AM |

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