Four of Britain’s finest actors – Prunella Scales, Dame Helen Mirren, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman – have risen to the challenge of portraying Queen Elizabeth II.
To mark the Platinum Jubilee weekend, we take a look back at how they approached the role and what they have said about playing Her Majesty.
This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
In 1991, Prunella Scales became one of the first actors to portray Queen Elizabeth II on screen, when Alan Bennett adapted his National Theatre play A Question of Attribution for BBC One. Writing in Radio Times, the playwright said: “Even nowadays when Her Majesty makes a regular appearance on Spitting Image [ITV’s satirical puppet show], it still seems quite bold to depict her in the flesh. I can’t imagine anyone giving a more convincing portrayal than Prunella Scales.”
Interviewed for RT by Andrew Duncan in 1995, Scales recalled: “It was such a joy playing her at the National. It was the first time a reigning monarch had been portrayed on stage, and when I came on – I had a very good wig and costume – there was a frisson, which was absolutely physical. It was, ‘How cheeky.’ I had a sweet letter from her private detective or someone, who said he had to stop himself from standing up. The most wonderful compliment.”
She admitted: “I didn’t enjoy doing it on television. It became perfectly obvious in close-up that this wasn’t HMQ herself. It was P Scales in a wig, and that’s not so much fun.”
Dame Helen Mirren
Appointed a Dame in 2003, Helen Mirren has portrayed the monarch several times. Interviewed for RT in 2013 by Francine Stock, she revealed: “I was really, really nervous doing The Queen [the 2006 film]. And then I suddenly thought, ‘She’s very generous about portraitists.’ Unlike Elizabeth I, whom I’d played just beforehand, who was very controlling about her image, the Queen is incredibly free and allows any artist to do what they want, and never criticises or tries to control it. I thought, ‘I’m like a painter doing a portrait. It’s my understanding of the Queen,’ so that liberated me.”
Mirren went on to play the Queen in Peter Morgan’s stage play The Audience. In 2015, she told Andrew Duncan: “They love the Queen on Broadway as much as they did in London. But it’s the Queen they’re applauding for an incredible 60-year achievement, not me.” She admitted she was a “queenist” if not a monarchist, and said of the Royal Family, “I’ve chilled a lot and respect them enormously.”
- To celebrate the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, Radio Times is releasing a 116-page commemorative edition, featuring covers, articles and illustrations from our archive – buy Radio Times: Her Majesty The Queen for £9.99 at Radio Times Shop.
Fresh from playing Anne Boleyn in BBC Two’s Wolf Hall, Claire Foy was cast as the young Elizabeth in Netflix’s The Crown. Interviewed for RT by Kirsty Lang in 2016, she said: “There is no first-hand account of what the Queen was saying or thinking, so my job as an actor is to interpret her circumstances. To think of a young girl who didn’t want all that attention, who just wanted to be a good wife and mother and live in the country with lots of horses. Suddenly she loses her father and gets the biggest responsibility in the world. In the first two episodes before she becomes Queen, I could be a lot freer with my emotions, but as the series goes on, she develops an armour to cope. She has to be a sphinx, which must be so hard.”
Interviewed by Zoe Williams in 2017, The Crown’s creator Peter Morgan revealed: “I came at it as completely anti-monarchist and I’ve turned around utterly. I’m a royalist now. There’s something about the soul of a country that is somehow connected to a head of state. People believe in the Queen at a time when it’s so hard to find people that you really believe in. Her achievement is undeniable, particularly when you think what effect exposure and visibility can have on people. It’s breathtaking, really.”
Taking over the role of the Queen for seasons 3 and 4 of The Crown, Olivia Colman told RT’s Emma Cox in 2019: “I think I was doing an impression of Claire Foy for the first couple of weeks’ filming – definitely channelling her – but then I just started to do what the script says and I’ve fallen in love with the Queen. We’re used to people being a little unclassy and she’s the opposite of that. She’s extraordinary. I hadn’t spent much time thinking about it before, but now I love her.
“I’m one of those rare left-wing monarchists – very conflicted. Many countries don’t have one continuum and I’m pleased that we do. I like the fact that some extremes couldn’t happen because she’s there. She’s an extraordinary woman, never faulted – there are not many people who could have done that for an entire lifetime with humility.”
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Colman described the Queen as “the ultimate feminist. She’s the breadwinner. She’s the one on our coins and bank notes. Prince Philip has to walk behind her. She fixed cars in the Second World War. She’s no shrinking violet.”
Want to watch coverage of the special anniversary on TV? Here is the Platinum Jubilee BBC schedule of shows and programming up until Monday 6th June.
If you're after something to watch tonight, you can check out our TV Guide.