TV review

Not amused

The Times

December 3, 2009

It’s time the Queen stopped playing hard-to-get and gave an interview. Dish about Diana (we agreed on what a drip Charles was), dish about Philip (the slitty eyes thing makes me want to throw my cornflakes at him), dish about her children (I’ve begged Anne to at least experiment with a new hairstyle), about what she really thought of Thatcher (we actually got on really well; she mixed a mean Cosmo), and about what she thinks of the many screen imaginings there have been of her (I would never get my Land Rover stuck in a stream and become symbolically obsessed with a stag). If she finally spoke, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to put up with so many reheated slops of hearsay.

Of course she won’t dish. Brand Enigma has served her pretty well while her children and grandchildren have their sex lives sprayed over the papers. So the slops keep coming. After Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning turn, you have to wonder what anyone could possibly bring to the role, but all week Channel 4 has been highlighting key moments in the Queen’s reign through a mix of drama (five different actresses playing her at these moments) and documentary. Last night’s starred Barbara Flynn as the Queen in 1992, her “annus horribilis”, in which the Duchess of York’s toe-sucking was merely the first low point in a year that eventually careered off the tracks with screaming tabloid headlines about Charles and Diana’s marriage and the Windsor Castle fire.

The problem was that we’d heard it before, we’ve even heard the anatomy of how it all happened before, and so this episode of The Queen was beached between inconsequentiality and mild curiosity, though more than redeemed by Flynn’s performance as HRH herself. The most fascinating thing about this week of dramas has been watching the Queen both change, yet remain the same (the steeliness, the grit, the hint of emotional depth underneath the ramrod demeanour). All the actresses have inhabited her skilfully and distinctively, despite the format which doesn’t allow for a vast amount of dramatic invention.

Last night the fascinating relationship was between the Queen and Diana, a duel between tradition and modernity. Prince Charles couldn’t figure out why Diana hogged the headlines, while he could do nothing right. As the revelations from Andrew Morton’s book seeped out (her unhappiness, bulimia, multiple suicide attempts, Charles’s infidelity with Camilla Parker Bowles), the Queen wondered coldly what fresh hell Diana was about to put the Firm through. She politely strong- armed Diana into going on a state trip to Korea with Charles, but the real victory was Diana’s; she had got the Queen to intervene, revealing her own power. Once in Korea she and Charles looked coiled with mutual loathing and desperately unhappy. Tapes were leaked to the papers of Diana revealing her own sadness, and, more explosively, of Charles’s desire to be Camilla’s Tampax. No-one shouted, “Ewwww, TMI” because the “I” kept surpassing itself.

But with an exercise like The Queen you need to make a decision; use the talking heads sparingly and let the drama rip, or keep it as a documentary and forget the drama. Each undermines the other in the Channel 4 attempt. If you’re going to imagine scenes, imagine the Queen’s torment over Windsor, imagine how she came to reveal more of herself than expected in the “annus horribilis” speech, imagine Philip’s counsel. Instead, the key confrontations — Diana v the Queen, Charles telling his mother that at least Diana showed affection to the kids (implying that she hadn’t towards him) — remained tantalisingly under-realised.

Do we really have to speak about Big Top? OK. Big Top is a sitcom about a failing circus, inexplicably starring the wooden, joke-killing Amanda Holden as the scatty, though apparently strong-willed, owner. There’s a trapeze artist madly in love with her, Ruth Madoc as a dog-handler, and other rather good actors (Sophie Thompson, John Thomson) flailing with a lame script. Patrick Baladi as a health and safety advisor was ejected at the end of episode one after failing to persuade Holden of the merits of a life of mortgage trackers and convention. Lucky him. Poor us.

The Man Behind the Masquerade asked “what happened next?” to Kit Williams, the man behind the seventies treasure-hunt publishing sensation, Masquerade, which had laid clues to the burial site of a golden hare. Williams (below) had carried on painting his pervy pictures of nubile young women and after saying how much he hated publicity and attention had courted it by doing this programme, a Radio 4 documentary and hosted a show of his work at a London gallery, where also (ta-da!) the long-lost golden hare was revealed to gasps of amazement. Williams wasn’t such a fading flower after all, then. The documentary neglected to ask any difficult questions (specifically about the sexual nature of his work), though did feature lots of naked, jiggling female flesh — all in the name of art, obviously.