It’s not often you get to sit down with the Queen in Buckingham Palace to chat about the Crown Jewels and her Coronation. And when you have the Monarch’s two-and-a-half-pound jewel-encrusted Imperial State Crown in front of you to help guide the conversation, things get that extra bit special.
The BBC has certainly pulled off a pretty impressive coup in its ‘interview’ (more of what it actually is later) with the 91-year-old Monarch for a new programme about her Coronation in 1953 when she was just 27-years-old.
Reflecting on her experiences of that day in June with Alastair Bruce, the royal commentator and one of her ‘heralds’, her memories are delightfully personal and revealing at times. In one section, for example, she says that you cannot look down when wearing the Imperial State Crown because it is so heavy.
“And you can’t look down to read the speech you have to take the speech up because if you did your neck would break, it would fall off,” she says, displaying some of the fabled dry humour she is said to have in spades but without cracking a smile of course. “So there are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise they’re quite important things.”
What is on the face of it a fairly stiff encounter (it’s been edited but they talked for 90 minutes) is enlivened by flashes of insight into Her Majesty’s character which are all too rarely seen. The last time she was on TV reflecting so openly was in the 1992 documentary Elizabeth R – a PR job designed to rescue the Monarchy’s battered reputation and regarded by many as a bit of a puff job in which she waxed lyrical about her duties and responsibilities.
In The Coronation she seems very much more at ease, reflecting at one point on her late father King George VI who wore the same piece of headwear: “Yes, fortunately my father and I have about the same sort of shaped head.”
She also handles the pearls in the Imperial State Crown which are believed to have once belonged to the other Elizabeth – Tudor Queen Elizabeth I.
“They were meant to be Queen Elizabeth’s ear-rings but they are not very happy now, they don’t look very happy now,” she says. “Most pearls like to living creatures and they have been hanging out here for years. It’s rather sad. They don’t look very happy.”
I’m certainly no Royalist but the whole thing struck even my Republican heart as all rather sweet as well as evocative of the awesome institutional history stretching back over 1,000 years that this woman embodies.
Another rather delicious moment which breaks the spell of pomp and pageantry comes when she reveals that the golden coach used to take her to State occasions is a “horrible” thing to ride in.
“It’s not meant for travelling in at all. I mean, it’s only sprung on leather,” she says, bemoaning her snail-like procession “half-way around London”.
All in all, and whether you are a Royalist or not, it is a compelling thing to watch the Queen being ‘interviewed’. We say interviewed because Alastair Bruce said that one of the Palace’s rules was that he wasn’t allowed to ask her any questions – he was only able to make observations and tacitly invite her to respond. For that reason, he describes the encounter as a “conversation” not an “interview”.
But despite this rule, and his slightly cloying deference, it’s clear that he did at one point ask her a question: how long she was in the State coach on the day of her Coronation. But he will probably escape The Tower for that.
And while Bruce does come across a little toadyish, marvelling at his experience like a dutiful courtier, the fact remains that there is still something rather magical about their encounter, seeing the Queen speak in her own words (and, yes, Claire Foy clearly did get the accent right in The Crown), chew the fat a little and, yes, answer at least one question.
Or as Bruce said in a pre-broadcast press conference: “Her talking and tapping the pearl ear-rings worn by Elizabeth I – Elizabeth the Second tapping with her fingers the ear-rings worn by Elizabeth the First – I was absolutely overwhelmed by that. This was the Queen talking about her ancestor. It’s not just somebody talking here. It’s the Queen talking about her ancestor.
“My real surprise was the huge enthusiasm the Queen showed for the Imperial State Crown. I sensed there was a recognition that this was part of her role as Sovereign. I don’t think the Queen is terribly excited about what jewels she’s wearing tomorrow. I think the Queen is not interested in that kind of thing. I think she was very practical [in the way she handled] the Crown Jewels in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. She’s utterly at ease with the symbols.”
The Coronation airs on BBC1 at 8pm on Sunday 14th January