Queen Elizabeth II was the first monarch of the modern media age.
It was a distinction that must have come with a lot of baggage for the British ruler, who died Thursday, Sept. 8, at age 96. Many biographies have painted a portrait of a woman who took the responsibility of her royal role with the utmost seriousness, but was at times aggrieved by the invasion into her private life and expectations that she provide the public with access to her inner feelings.
Still, coming from the royal traditions of restraint, discretion and duty, Elizabeth seemed to reduce the baggage of being both ruler and one of the world’s biggest celebrities to the size of the handbag she constantly carried, performing in the role without complaint while weathering any number of storms.
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Elizabeth became the heir presumptive to the British throne at age 10 when her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson, sparking one of the first major international royal scandals. Media evolved rapidly in her lifetime, and as the decades of her reign wore on, interest in the monarch and royal family grew more intense and probing.
By the 1980s and ’90s, royal news was practically its own industry as the Windsors became near constant subjects in British tabloid media. Through it all, the queen carried on with her carefully managed public image, revealing little about her interior life beyond a known love of horses and corgis, and her faith.
Perhaps that’s why, more than two centuries after we booted the monarchy from our own shores, many Americans have continued to be fascinated by the queen. In a contemporary culture of personal disclosure and fame for the sake of fame, what could be more enticing than a reluctant star?
Numerous portrayals over the years have sought to show that the spotlight was not always a fit for the woman who wore the crown. Helen Mirren’s turn as “The Queen” in 2006 won her a best actress Oscar showing how the ruler navigated the days in August 1997 after the death of Princess Diana. The film’s central conflict: Should the queen make a televised address about the former daughter-in-law many viewed as throwing the family further into media turmoil?
Claire Foy and Olivia Colman have won Emmys for their portrayals of Elizabeth on the Netflix series “The Crown,” which has taken a decades-long overview of her life. Foy played the young queen (ages 21-38) on seasons one and two, as she assumed the throne and began her media journey. When Elizabeth was crowned after the death of her father, King George VI, in 1952, television was just beginning to take hold on the culture. Her coronation at Westminster Abbey the next year was the first to be televised, an event dramatized on the series. It was the beginning of a complicated, 70-year relationship the queen would have with the medium.
While her husband, the late Prince Philip, was primed to use television as a way of softening the monarchy’s image and making the royal family more publicly accessible — The Windsors! They’re just like us! — Elizabeth was more reluctant to pull back the curtain. If anything, that hesitancy at sharing the inner details of her life only made interest more intense.
Colman played Elizabeth from ages 38 to 50 in seasons three and four of “The Crown.” One of the central events of season three is the filming and reaction to the 1969 BBC documentary “The Royal Family.” Directed by Richard Cawston and commissioned by the queen to commemorate now-King Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales, it was a project Prince Philip enthusiastically endorsed.
While seen now by some as a canny move to demystify the centuries-old institution and reframe the Windsors as a modern family, at the time some criticized the project for showing too much of their private lives. Viewed on YouTube today, the film feels remarkably unguarded in its access to the royals, a reality show before the term existed, and one that helped reduce the emotional distance between the queen and the public.
The original broadcast of “The Royal Family” in the United Kingdom drew an estimated 30 million viewers; an estimated 350 million watched after the special was sold internationally. After a 1977 broadcast to celebrate her silver jubilee, the queen restricted rebroadcast of the documentary, perhaps showing her own uneasiness with the results.
After the scandal-prone ’80s and ’90s, the queen eventually seemed to get more comfortable with some aspects of the royal performance.
In 2012, she filmed a segment for the London Olympics with Daniel Craig as superspy James Bond where she and the agent “parachute” (really the work of a double) into the opening ceremony. With her grandson Prince Harry and wife Meghan Markle’s public separation from the family and her son Prince Andrew’s legal troubles threatening to overshadow her platinum jubilee in June, she gamely filmed a video for the celebration showing her taking tea with beloved British children’s book character Paddington Bear. It was an unexpected final television moment for the queen.
With her death, one can only imagine the scores of new documentaries, biopics and other projects that will soon try to show us more of the real Elizabeth. In the near term, Imelda Staunton will be taking over as the queen in season five of “The Crown” in November. While many of these projects have captured moments in the monarch’s life and even helped illuminate some of what motivated her sense of family and duty, it will be the performance Elizabeth herself gave for 70 years that will be her ultimate media legacy.