The Queen, as she is imagined – from punk rock to mystery novels

In the spring of 2012, portrait painter Ralph Heimans stood on the Cosmati pavement of Westminster Abbey awaiting the subject of his latest commission, Queen Elizabeth II. When she approached, he said, it was an extraordinary moment.


What do you want to know

  • Over the past 70 years, authors, filmmakers, playwrights, songwriters and painters have responded to the Queen as a symbol and a human being.
  • Works about the Queen often commented on the heights of her position or attempted to unravel the inner life of a woman who rarely spoke in public and avoided personal revelation.
  • The dual quality of majesty and mystery would find her imagined in settings ranging from the sobriety of royal art to the rage of punk music to the varied characterizations of film and television.
  • The Queen herself hasn’t commented on works about her or always seems on top of cultural trends, but she felt her place in the world

“She was wearing her state robe, with four footmen holding her, and as she walked down the long hall it was a very theatrical entrance,” Heimans said shortly after learning the Queen had died on Thursday. at 96 years old.

After spending an hour with the Queen ‘discussing the fine points’, he came away with ‘a sense of her thinking, almost a sense of shyness, an introspective quality’. In his oil painting, which hangs in Westminster, he drew her as a solitary, even brooding figure, her eyes downcast, with the vastness of Westminster behind her like so many weights of the past – and the present.

“I wanted to show her in that private moment, with some seriousness about her,” he says.

Over the past 70 years, authors, filmmakers, playwrights, songwriters and painters have reacted to the Queen as a symbol and a human being, whether commenting on the heights of her position or attempting to unravel the inner life of a woman who rarely spoke in public and avoided personal revelations. The dual quality of majesty and mystery found her imagined in settings ranging from the sobriety of royal art to the rage of punk music to the varied characterizations of film and television.

“I think because she was a constant presence that didn’t say much, it allowed people to project themselves onto her in different ways,” says Elizabeth Holmes, whose “HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style” has was released in 2020.” Also, you can make people look like the queen very easily. You can take that as a starting point and run.

In film, the Queen has been fictionalized in everything from the Oscar-winning portrayal of Helen Mirren in ‘The Queen’ to the wacky movies ‘Naked Gun’ and the dark ‘Spencer,’ starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana and Stella Gonet. in the role of Elizabeth. But she was dramatized most fully in the Emmy-winning Netflix series ‘The Crown’, which follows her life from the start of her reign until recent times – and whose production was suspended on Friday after her death.

When played by Claire Foy as a young and glamorous monarch, she is seen as finding her way through her new life, trying to maintain a happy relationship with her husband, Prince Philip. while approaching his royal duties with the sobriety of someone older. Olivia Colman takes over as Elizabeth ages and becomes more mature, prickly and flawed, initially failing to travel to the scene of a devastating mining tragedy in Wales and comfort the townspeople, and showing herself unsympathetic to Diana’s problems with her son, Prince Charles.

“I blunt. The queen isn’t supposed to,” Colman told Vanity Fair in 2018. “She has to be a rock to everyone and was trained not to (emote).

The Queen herself hasn’t commented on works about her or always seems on top of cultural trends: Greeting Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page at a palace reception in 2005, she seemed unsure who he was and what instrument he played. But she felt her place in the world and had enough sense to appear with Daniel Craig, as James Bond, for a video of the 2012 Olympics, and enough good humor to allow herself to be photographed as parachuting from a helicopter with him (the former was really her, the latter a stuntman).

Fiction writers liked to take the queen on unusual adventures. In Emma Tennant’s “The Queen’s Autobiography”, the monarch flees to Saint Lucia in the Caribbean. SJ Bennett worked from the premise “What if the Queen Solves Crimes?” by writing the detective novels “The Windsor Knot” and “A Three Dog Problem”.

“She had such a unique perspective on the world. She was always looking out when everyone was looking at her, so she must see a lot of things that we don’t see,’ Bennett, the daughter of a military veteran who had met the Queen, told The Associated Press.

“It was his character that fascinated me, not his position as a symbol,” she added. “She was intelligent, often underestimated because she was not traditionally educated, and endlessly curious about people. In the books, I see her eagerly gazing out of the windows of Buckingham Palace while being painted for a portrait, to see what was happening on the outside, because that’s what she really did. She had a very wry sense of humor and a huge instinct to have fun, but also an instinct almost supernatural for diplomacy and a world-class sense of duty.

Musicians paid tribute to her, condemned her and invoked her name for a giggle.

For punk and New Wave artists, she was a monument to be knocked down. The Smiths’ ‘The Queen Is Dead’ pokes fun at the Royal Family and the ruling succession: “I say, Charles, don’t you ever fancy/appearing on the cover of the Daily Mail/dressed in the wedding veil of your mother?” The Sex Pistols helped define the punk movement in 1976 with “God Save the Queen”, in which Johnny Rotten (now Lydon) declares “No future” as he scolding some of the most scathing and nihilistic lyrics ever in topped the UK charts:

God Save the Queen

The fascist regime

They made you a moron

A potential H-bomb

God Save the Queen

She’s not a human…

The songwriters also responded with affection. Duke Ellington met her in the late 1950s and found her “so inspiring” that he soon collaborated with Billy Strayhorn on the pensive “The Queen’s Suite”, for which he arranged a single gold pressing just for her. In the late 1960s, Paul McCartney rushed to the 23-second acoustic “Her Majesty,” with its cheeky chorus, “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl/But she doesn’t have big to say,” and the Beatles adopted it. to the end of “Abbey Road”.

As he explained in ‘Paul McCartney: The Lyrics,’ released in 2021, he wrote the song in part because the Queen really hasn’t made many public statements, beyond her annual Christmas speech. and the opening of Parliament. McCartney would meet the Queen several times, as a Beatle and a solo performer, and even play the song for her. But, he reiterated in his book, “She didn’t have much to say.”

Diana J. Carleton