I’m a big fan of Radio 2. The presenters (including my daughter Claudia Winkleman), the mood and the music get me through the day whether I’m writing or whizzing about in my jalopy.
Wouldn’t it be fascinating, I thought, to know what music the Queen has enjoyed over the past 90 years. For in this, as in so many other things, Her Majesty has been brilliantly inscrutable. We have seen the Queen in glittering tiara at the annual Royal Variety Performance, a theatrical event packed full of brilliant music. All over the world, and especially in her beloved Commonwealth, she has attended thousands of concerts as part of her royal duties – many including orchestras, choirs and all kinds of musical expertise.
But which music does the Queen actually enjoy? It turns out that her taste is mainstream, no airs and graces: the soundtrack of the Queen’s life is very much like our own.
Her relatives and friends reveal that the Queen not only has a lovely voice but also enjoys a rousing sing-song. She has enjoyed singing since she performed in pantomimes at Windsor during the war. Her parents, King George Vl and the late Queen Mother, loved singing and passed it on. The Duke of Edinburgh and the rest of the family join in. “We did a lot of singing at Kensington Palace,” says her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Anson. “Nobody thought it was odd after dinner if we put on a record and all sang Doing the Lambeth Walk, so music has always been part of her life.
“The Queen loves the theatre and musicals like Showboat, Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun. These were the tunes that remained in one’s head and were very danceable to. The Queen is a fantastic dancer. She’s got great rhythm.” In fact, at an early age the Queen learnt to dance the waltz, the slow waltz, the foxtrot and the quickstep, not to mention the samba. “If you watch her at Trooping the Colour,” continues Lady Anson, “you will see that she’s tapping her toes. So military music means a lot to her, she’s extremely knowledgeable about military music and loves massed bands, especially pipe bands.”
But she isn’t stuck in the past. Her musical tastes take us from nursery rhymes in French, and emotional 1940s ballads that kept the nation’s hopes up during the war, to the present, with a song written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gary Barlow.
There are also some amazing stories of how the Queen (then Princess Elizabeth) and her sister, Princess Margaret, sang unaccompanied to the Westminster Abbey choirmaster so that the Queen’s favourite psalm could be played the way she liked it at her wedding.
There were also some big surprises. I had no inkling that the one singing star the Queen is word perfect on is none other than the ukulele king George Formby. The story of her fondness for his music says so much about her. It seems she received a letter from the George Formby Society asking her to be its president. Her correspondence secretary noted: “I don’t honestly think, if you don’t mind me saying so, this is appropriate; you’re the head of the armed forces, the head of the Church of England, I don’t think you can be president of the George Formby Appreciation Society.”
To which the Queen replied, “Well, I do see that, but you see I love George Formby.”
“Really?” responded the secretary. “Oh yes. I know all his songs and I can sing them.” When you hear our Radio 2 programme you will look at Her Majesty in a new light – as someone who carries the same tunes in her heart as do many of her loyal subjects.
Our Queen: 90 Musical Years premieres Sunday 7pm on Radio 2.