Rare Video Portrait of the Queen

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

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?

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.

"The Queen just doesn't do that sort of thing," he notes, "which is why it took so much [persuasion]. And she was nervous about it. But once she started doing it, she became relaxed, which I think comes across in the program. It was a really significant thing to do, and it made a huge amount of difference."

When, for example, we see Polish President Lech Walesa and his wife being entertained at a Windsor Castle banquet, the elaborate preparations are interesting, although not wholly unexpected. We watch the magnificent 160-foot-long wooden table being polished, the exquisite place settings as they are laid, and two butlers positioning chairs with millimeter precision. But this scene of commonplace royal opulence acquires an entirely new dimension when we hear, for the first time, the Queen's own frank musin gs on such matters.

"If you do put out the best china and glass, it doesn't necessarily make [the situation] overwhelming, if you don't accept it as overwhelming," she observes, with surprising sensitivity to the feelings of more ordinary folks, "because if people are kind to you and make you feel at home, I don't think the outward visible signs are really [important]; it's what goes on inside that matters. But sometimes it is worth explaining [to guests] that we don't actually live like this all the time."

For Britons, who typically only see the Queen mouthing carefully prepared speeches in her legendary straight-faced monotone, to hear her divulging such views on pomp and pageantry, or her children - "this sort of life [is] very much governed by tradition and continuity ... and I think this is what the younger [royal] members find difficult, the regimented side" - with some semblance of spontaneity and lilting expression, proved a revelation.

"She is often accused of being boring," remarks Mirzoeff. "But it has to be remembered that the position she is in is one in which you tend toward blandness. Inevitably her discipline for over 40 years has been to avoid making comments that can be quoted, to avoid making memorable statements; to do so, for various reasons, is never a good thing."

MIRZOEFF, in fact, found the person inside who has been shrouded almost entirely from public view to be far shrewder, wittier, and generally "on top of the job, and not only from years of experience, but in terms of her enthusiasms" for what she does, than he ever imagined. "She has a great sense of fun and enjoyment that I didn't expect," he says, when asked to note her most prominent characteristic. "It's almost girlish - terribly attractive."

A number of examples support this: At the Derby, the Queen is seen watching the famed annual horse race on TV in her private box, then running to the balcony as the horses approach the finish line and crying out with palpable excitement, "That's my horse ... I've won the sweep!" Her takings? Sixteen pounds [$62]. "How lovely," she says, with a genuine thrill. Promptly pocketing her winnings, she lets flash a most cheekily unmonarchial grin.

At another point, she is talking with her secretary about the knighthoods she is about to bestow - a ceremony in which she places a sword first on one shoulder then the other while the subject kneels before her - and, as the secretary chats with her, she spontaneously "practices" on him with her letter-opener.

The program does not take a critical view of the Queen, nor does it portray her quite so "intimately" as the billing suggests. Yet Mirzoeff is adamant that he had a free hand. "Why does one have to be critical?" he counters. "What I was doing was [depicting] the person and the activities as I saw them.... Maybe I have a golden glow. I certainly came away with - more so than I would have ever expected - great admiration. I think we all did."

`Elizabeth R' will air in the US on Nov. 16 on PBS.

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