A sad day for many readers. Buckingham Palace has announced that the Queen has died, bringing to an end the second Elizabethan era. Queen Elizabeth II was the longest-lived and longest-reigning British monarch, and much of her life was captured on screen. As she was often known to say: “I have to be seen to be believed.”
Here are some of her first appearances on film, from the silent era. This is a newsreel report of her christening in 1926:
And here she is taking a drive with her mother, when she was still known affectionately as Princess Betty, as well as ‘The Fourth Lady in the Land’:
During the second world war, Princess Elizabeth frequently appeared on newsreels with or without her family. Here she is shown making a visit to an ATS camp, in uniform.
This is one of the most famous clips of the Queen as a Princess, on her 21st birthday in Cape Town, announcing that she will devote her life to the service of the Commonwealth:
The royal wedding of Elizabeth and Philip in 1947 was recorded for a short film – according to press reports, Technicolor cameras were borrowed from the sets of The Red Shoes and Saraband for Dead Lovers to capture the occasion in colour. But only the black-and-white footage has ever been shown.
However, her coronation as Queen, in 1953, was a TV landmark. As she prepared to take her oath in Westminster Abbey, the nation responded by planning street parties but also by buying televisions to capture the pageantry of the occasion. It was the first time that TV cameras had been allowed to cover a royal coronation and an average of 17 people congregated around each set for the BBC’s black-and-white broadcast. Here is the colour footage (apparently there were also 3D cameras in the Abbey):
Four years later, Her Majesty made her first appearance on live TV, addressing Canada on Thanksgiving Day, and the same year, she became the first British monarch to deliver the Royal Christmas Message on TV as well as radio. Of course, these addresses can now be streamed online as well.
The Queen’s appearance on TV was largely restricted to formal events including Royal Weddings or the state opening of parliament, apart from extraordinary broadcasts such as her Coronavirus address to the nation last April. Though we have now seen the Queen on Zoom, via a video call appearance with health officials in which she spoke about the vaccine rollout. She was less comfortable with more intimate filming. She approved the 1969 documentary The Royal Family, but subsequently banned it after broadcast saying it had “cheapened” the institution. She looked more fondly on a 1992 BBC documentary produced to coincide with her Ruby Jubilee, but broadcasters have reason to be wary, still. In 2007, fly-on-the-wall documentary Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work was shown on BBC One, but the broadcaster was forced to apologise after a misleading trailer. Unlike other members of the Royal Family, the Queen never agreed to a TV interview.
The Queen understood the power of her own appearance on screen as boost to public morale. She even agreed to share the screen with one of her most famous employees, James Bond, for the London 2012 Olympics:
Unfortunately, the Queen was not able to attend many of the events celebrating her Platinum Jubilee this year, due to her failing health. She did, however, film this charming sketch with another British icon, Paddington Bear, to mark the occasion:
Queen Elizabeth II, 21 April 1926 – 8 September 2022