What would you say to The Queen if you were invited to her place for tea? Would you sit sipping Earl Grey or a G&T and would her corgis join in on the party?
The members of The Royal Family aren’t the most emotively revealing bunch and for most of us, the possibility of tea with Her Majesty is as likely as cartwheeling on the moon. Fortunately for us mere mortals, we can delve deeper into the inner workings of The Monarchy, via the big screen.
The new British Film, ‘The Queen’ is a revealing portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II and the turmoil of the Royal Family in the days following Princess Diana’s death. At the time, Tony Blair was the newly elected Prime Minister and found himself challenged with the task of connecting the increasingly private Royal Family with the grieving British public. Sound too political for your liking? It’s not… if there’s on thing that director Stephen Frears knows how to do, it’s to tell a good story. Interviews with the man behind films such as ‘Dangerous Liasons’, ‘The Grifters’ and ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ are notoriously difficult. So, it was with a fair degree of nervousness that I approached the interview with Frears and Dame Helen Mirren who plays the role of Queen Elizabeth II.
As I entered the Savoy Hotel room for a private chat with Helen and Stephen I suppressed a gasp. There’s something about Helen Mirren; she moves with a grace and steady confidence that commands respect. I doubt there’s a woman in the world (other than The Queen herself) whose presence alone is so moving.
Close up, Stephen has piercing blue eyes beneath an experienced lined face and in contrast to the press conference held earlier, he seemed to open up more in the more intimate surroundings of a comfy hotel room. Rather than his trademark blunt answers, he displayed a sharp wit and a sly sense of humour. Dressed casually and slumped in his seat he was a stark contrast to the poised, immaculately dressed Dame at his side. As they sipped tea, we chatted about the Internet, the film and, of course, Helen’s wig.
Before we start, Stephen’s phone rings. As he apologises, Helen laughs and says “This used to happen on the set and it was always Judi Dench!”
It seems as though the two are in a jolly mood. My Frears induced fear levels drop by a millimetre. Talk soon turns to the film and the process of taking on such heavy and emotive subject matter. Most people remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard of Diana’s death nine years ago but Helen is adamant that she doesn’t. The film however, focuses on the behaviour of The Royal Family following her death and the way in which the Prime Minister and The Royals dealt with the aftermath. Stephen is quick to point out that the master behind the portrayal of the events is the writer Peter Morgan. “The film that we made is very, very close to the draft of the script – obviously there were adjustments and additions and things taken away but the essential tone and balance of the story was much the same. It was a fantastic script – absolutely wonderful.”
“As I understand, and this is only stuff I’ve heard in the last few days – I think Peter started off writing about the death of Diana and then realised that it wasn’t terribly interesting. The more interesting this was what he ended up writing about. So really, the credit all should go to Peter. Actually, the more you think about it – it’s such an eccentric point of view – it’s such an original idea and that’s an incredible achievement.”
And the idea itself? “The truth is, it all really came from this bloke Andy Harries who was the head of drama at Granada and who I directed ‘The Deal’ with. He came to me and said “What about a film about Blair and Helen to play the Queen?” So, I spoke to Helen and after about 5 seconds thought it was a good idea… I read the script, met Helen and then said “yeah, great! Easy”
But, it’s not quite so simple as coming up with an original idea and a cracking cast. Especially when the lead characters are the living, breathing members of The Royal Family. There’s no secret that this was a brave and downright cheeky project. Helen in particular found the subject matter daunting. “I was terrified at the thought of doing a film about the Monarchy and The Queen and of the dangers and turbulent waters that one might stray into.”
Stephen however, merely saw the challenge of telling another great story. With a sly smile he says, “I didn’t really think a lot – it just seemed quite interesting. Of course you say, “am I allowed to make this?” and they said, “Well there’s no law that says that you can’t”. I could always see that the idea of making it was cheeky and controversial but what Peter wrote wasn’t controversial – nothing was being sensationalised and there was nothing I didn’t believe. It was, in principal, very believable.”
The research process was extensive and the film uses a great deal of real footage. As many facts as possible were used and in scenes such as Tony Blair’s first meeting with The Queen as newly elected Prime Minister, a certain sense of speculation and imagination was needed. As Helen simply put it “You educate yourself and then you take an educated guess.”
The film received a fantastic response at the recent Venice Film Festival and is obviously relevant to a British audience; but will it appeal to international viewers? Helen assures us it will; “We won the Venice film festival award… but the most important thing for me was that we received the best film of the festival for the international film critics. That means the Japanese, the Australians, the Germans, the French, the Koreans, whoever – so it has this extraordinary universal appeal. No question. I think it’s very interesting – and it’s always the way… if a British (or French or Italian) film has the courage to be local and individualistic to its own culture and true to it’s own world then that’s the type of film that has universal appeal. There was a real sense of that international appeal in Venice. It wasn’t a question of, “Oh, only the Brits will get this” – far from it.”
Stephen elaborates… “People say to me “oh, you’ve made a monarchist film” whilst others say, “I hear you’ve insulted The Queen”. The reactions have been generous to the film but it’s as though people see what they want to see in it. That’s quite new to me. I don’t remember another film producing that reaction. In the end it’s a human story.”
Helen agrees. “It’s true, you don’t’ have to be a monarchist – none of us in the making of this film are rabid monarchists. It’s just saying we think that this was the truth of the situation”.
Stephen continues… “If there was any whiff of bigotry you could basically tell if something was unfair or slightly cheap then those were the bits that came out. It’s such a fine line because there are so many aspects about the institution that we criticise.”
The cast selected to play such prominent figures also includes James Cromwell (Prince Phillip), Sylvia Syms (The Queen Mother, Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair), Roger Allam (Sir Robin Janvrin) and Tim McMullan (Stephen Lamport). All extremely convincing in their roles, but we had to ask Helen what make-up is needed to transform oneself into The Queen.
“I like my make-up to be really fast and I think the process probably took twenty-five minutes. I had a wonderful wig person who was very, very careful. He was just obsessed and you need someone obsessive about wigs because you absolutely must not see them on the screen. But apart from that the make-up took no time at all.”
When asked is she has any similarities with The Queen, Stephen jumps in with a laugh. “She says “off with their head!”
Helen however, sets the record straight. “No, not at all but I found it very comfortable in there. I absolutely loved it and I when I did the costume fitting I cried. I thought, “I can’t wear those horrible ugly shoes and those horrible tweed skirt. I can’t wear that horrible stuff and be this dowdy person – I don’t want to go there”.
“When I did and got myself in there I found that I absolutely loved it. The tweed is not her armour – it’s what she’s comfortable in. She has no vanity and I think that was a very relaxing place to be – in a person who has absolutely no physical vanity whatsoever. Just what’s appropriate – that’s all that matters. We did a bit of shooting later on and I couldn’t wait to get back in!”
Stephen can’t resist one last shot. “It’s always the frocks that get them in the end.”
With that, we thank our lucky stars that we’ve caught them on a good day. With such a powerful film release at their hands, who can blame them for being cheerful? There’s no denying it, the King and Queen of Britain’s film industry are in town and they didn’t earn their titles through a fortunate gene pool. Dame Helen Mirren and Stephen Frears have risen to the top through exquisite acting and directing.
Whether you’re a Dame or The Queen herself; the view must be spectacular from up there.