Queen Elizabeth II is dead and ‘the Palace’ is working assiduously to shore up her legacy and the institution of Monarchy. Polls show they are winning the hearts and minds in a propaganda war, with the mass media complicit in its hyperbolic, adulatory, blanket coverage. Debates about the Monarchy are cancelled, demonstrators in the UK moved on by police, politicians universally agreeing it is not the time to question what the Monarchy represents. ‘Tomorrow is another day’ as Scarlett O’Hara famously said. Meanwhile the Queen’s persona is emerging as heroic and mythical.
I met her for an hour when she visited the production of the Australian children’s television’s comedy series Round the Twist, during her tour in March 2000. Positive sentiment for the Queen was on the wane. The Monarchy was still recovering from its slump in popularity following the tragic death of Princess Diana. In Australia we had a few months before been through a referendum for a Republic and feelings were high and divided.
The Government had proposed an itinerary to the Palace for the royal visit, much of which had been rejected, particularly the grand events. The Queen’s expressed wish was to visit small, successful businesses and community groups representing popular causes. So, the organisation I headed, the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, scored a visit. We had the credentials.
This was during the ACTF’s heyday. By 2000 I had overseen the production of over 160 hours and $85 million worth of top-quality children’s television drama programs notable for their innovation, excellence, and high production values. Employing over seven thousand personnel on its productions, the Foundation had developed writers, directors, producers, and performers as a talent base for the children’s television industry. Australian children’s programming was recognised internationally as equal to the best in the world. The ACTF had exported its programs into more than a hundred countries and won more than sixty national and international awards. As well we had previously hosted Barbara Bush when the US President visited Australia. That visit had been a lot of fun for the First Lady, and all involved.
Representatives from the Victorian Government covering protocol, along with Scotland Yard and the Australian Federal Police, came to check out the studio venue and go through the plan for the Queen’s visit before final approval was given. They were enthusiastic when I proposed that the Queen should walk around the location looking at the sets, meeting the young cast, the director and crew. This idea would evolve into something like an episode of Round the Twist, with unexpected turnings.
The Queen would be greeted by Janet Holmes à Court (chairman of the board), Dame Margaret Guilfoyle (deputy chair of the board), the proprietor of Crawford’s Studio, Bruce Gordon, and me. It was made clear that the representatives ‘preferred’ that I lead the Queen around the studio, not Janet. My guess was they did not want the press, all forty of them, (who were to be corralled at the centre side of the studio) given the opportunity to photograph Janet and the Queen together while the republican debate was still in the minds of Australians. Janet had been an outspoken, leading campaigner for the Republic.
The Queen drove up in her Rolls-Royce, looking splendid in a bright yellow and white dotted suit and hat; Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, by coincidence, was dressed in the exact same colour. The four of us stepped up to greet her Majesty. The Queen moved directly to Dame Margaret and said, ‘We have met before’. Although Janet had met the Queen before she was given no such acknowledgement.
The scheduled hour-long tour began. I ushered the Queen towards the set where the director was to call ‘Action’ on a brief scene. With the Queen in position, nothing happened. I waited, the crew waited, the actors waited. The director had frozen with fear. The Queen broke the silence saying, ‘What are we looking at here?’ There was then general confusion, and we were all introducing one another.
Ebonnie Masini, Rian McLean, and Mathew Waters, who played Pete, Linda, and Bronson, were presented and they led the Queen on a tour of their bedroom sets. The kids chatted on, very brightly and informally, and the Queen relaxed. The next stop on the tour was to meet the model maker who stood with a display of his works for the production. He was a great talker, normally, and we had assigned three minutes for this encounter. The designer said ‘Hello’ to the Queen, indicated his models and ran out of words in ten seconds. Her Majesty didn’t help. She glanced at the models, said nothing, was expressionless and looked to move on.
I started to panic. It looked like I was going to have the Queen round this studio in ten minutes. What to do? Then Bronson rushed up to me beside the Queen and said, ‘I want to introduce her to my tutor’. He was among the spectators who were not part of the plan. The Queen made no sign of agreement or disagreement. But I agreed and ten-year old Bronson took over. He chattered on, the Queen met the tutor, and indeed was more comfortable interacting with Bronson, Pete, and Linda than anyone else.
The Queen looked tired as undoubtedly, she was. I thought she was like a figure from Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks: not animated, nor interested. Yet in every photograph she looks engaged. She knows exactly where to place herself, and how to look, so the hordes of photographers, behind their barricades, get their best shots. She was a polished performer.
When Mathew/Bronson finally ran out of things to say and we had completed the circuit, I presented the Queen with a set of Round the Twist tapes which she told me she would watch with her grandchildren. If she did so, I would like to have seen her reaction to episodes like The Big Burp and The Whirling Derfish. The series in fact rated highly in the UK, so maybe she watched, and her famous sense of humour, which was absent that day, could be unleashed.
We walked together to her Rolls-Royce to say goodbye. Dame Margaret and I stepped back to allow the car to move away, and Janet decided to strike up a public, personal conversation. The Queen stood politely as Janet asked after her horse trainer- a mutual friend. As we had stepped outside the studio, the tethered media did not get their picture of the Queen and the Republican aspirant.
Another job done for the Monarchy, the Queen slipped into the Rolls, pulled a rug over her knees, lifted her hand in her familiar wave and was driven off. My six-year-old grandson, standing at the entrance to the studio, was convinced she waved to him.