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Rare Video Portrait of the Queen

Edward Mirzoeff's `Elizabeth R' is an affectionate look at the elusive monarch

By Linda JoffeeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 10, 1992



LONDON

ONE evening awhile back, British electric and water companies experienced an alarming surge in demand. It was the biggest in memory, they say, requiring the instant commandeering of emergency reserves. The reason?

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The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) TV documentary, "Elizabeth R" had just ended, sending tens of millions of Britons scurrying to make a cup of tea and take a bathroom break. "I know it sounds funny," chuckles BBC spokesman Ian Duncan, "but it's a pretty accurate indicator of the enormous appeal of the program here."

The utility red-alert did not lie. According to subsequent viewing figures, "Elizabeth R," which celebrates the Queen's 40th anniversary on the throne, reaped the largest audience for a documentary in the history of British television.

Moreover, the recently released video of the program has become the fastest selling video here to date. Billed as "the most intimate" look at a British monarch ever, the 110-minute documentary has also been bought by more than 30 countries, with staggered air dates throughout this anniversary year.

Veteran filmmaker Edward Mirzoeff, who made the program, is still reeling from the overwhelming attention the show received. Talking with him in his west London BBC office, Mr. Mirzoeff says he remembers well the visit to Buckingham Palace that began it all.

Initially, he wasn't nervous. With some dozen producer hopefuls put forward by the BBC for palace approval, there seemed little chance of being chosen. Besides, having never been an ardent "monarchist," the prospect of meeting Her Majesty did not intimidate him unduly. It was only after the umpteenth palace official had reassured him "there's absolutely nothing to worry about" that Mirzoeff began to get, as he dryly puts it, "a scintilla of doubt."

Still, he got the job. And, 12 months and hundreds of filming hours later - filming that entailed unprecedented access to the Queen - Mirzoeff came away with a product he adamantly insists is not a public-relations exercise. "We [the production team] were very, very anxious indeed not to be sycophantic," he replies, when the question is put to him. "And we worked a huge amount in order to remove every moment we thought could possibly be [construed as] subservient."

As serendipity should have it, "Elizabeth R," a highly affectionate portrait, has coincided with what many pundits are saying is the worst crisis the royal family has experienced since Edward VIII abdicated, in 1936, to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Yet the Queen herself remains remarkably untarnished.

AFTER a year of observing her at close quarters, Mirzoeff is convinced this is, in large part, because she is not only someone with a "huge unbelievable sense of responsibility," but also a "fascinatingly complex" person who mixes royalty with the human side in a piquant way.

Her approach to tackling the job means that she is never off duty. "There isn't a moment where she can say, `Well, that's it. I can stop being queen now and start having fun.' "

Eminent 19th-century English commentator Walter Bagehot once wrote, the "magic of monarchy" would be seriously threatened if "light [were] let in on it"; no one apparently understands this better than Queen Elizabeth II. Participating, therefore, in such a behind-the-scenes documentary was, so it seems, not an easy thing to reconcile herself to.

"My impression was that she needed to be convinced it was a good idea," says Mirzoeff. Perhaps even more momentous, the filmmaker managed - after six months of talks with palace officials - to get her to do voice-over commentary to complement the footage.