Magazine article The Spectator

The Best Film Ever Made about the Windsors

Magazine article The Spectator

The Best Film Ever Made about the Windsors

Article excerpt

Patrick Jephson, Diana's former equerry and private secretary, says that 'The Queen' is a brilliant evocation of the days after the Princess's death

Nearly 20 years ago, as a nervous new-boy equerry to the Princess of Wales, I was in charge of organising her attendance at the royal charity premiere of a film called Dangerous Liaisons. I had never heard of Stephen Frears, the director, and I don't remember how low he bowed when the Princess offered him her hand.

I wish I could. His latest film is The Queen, a story of the struggle between the forces of tradition and modernisation that was precipitated by Diana's death. Such weighty issues dominate the screen for more than 100 minutes.

But at various points in the plot an equerry - as I was then, a naval lieutenant-commander - pops up to deliver his party piece, a lecture on bowing and curtsying. A horrid thought struck me. My God, perhaps that was Mr Frears's unconscious memory of me.

Eighteen years on, unlike Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen won't get a royal premiere. It probably won't be selected for a Balmoral cinema night either. But that shouldn't put you off going to see it. It might just be the best and most important film ever made about the Windsors.

Any attempt to portray the week Diana died will touch a nerve. Just the memory can send stiff-upper-lip traditionalists and hearton-your-sleeve emoters jumping into the familiar trenches they dug for themselves during Diana's ill-starred career as our future queen. Having graduated from equerry to Diana's private secretary, I found myself somewhere in the middle trying to reconcile both camps. And jolly uncomfortable it often was. So a film that plunges us straight back into that battleground of conflicting emotions was bound to offend at least half of me . . . wasn't it?

There's a certain pleasure in the anticipation of being deeply offended. All pre-release publicity about the film has been so adulatory that I was chafing to find fault with all those self-appointed royal experts. I read the tributes from the Venice Film Festival. So what if Helen Mirren in a wig almost looks like the Queen? And Farmer Hoggett - sorry, James Cromwell - does a very good Duke of Edinburgh. And Michael Sheen's grinning Tony Blair displays more ivory than a Steinway. But just you wait, I thought. I was of the preceding decade. I was quite sure that five minutes into the film I'd be tut-tutting triumphantly that the phone procedure is all wrong and the royal aeroplane's seats aren't anything like that shade of blue. And why isn't Prince Charles wearing a sporran with that kilt?

Imagine my disappointment when I found that The Queen started well and just got better.

Pity my monarchist reflexes when they failed to cringe. Sympathise with my Diana loyalties which refused to bridle. Feel my pain as the sheer quality of the film-making snuffed out all my attempts at nit-picking. Even the sporran issue lost its power to enrage. I staggered out of the screening room like a man mugged - robbed of every pre-prepared whinge, gripe and insider's know-it-all smirk.

In particular, it's hard to see how Peter Morgan's script could be improved. It will put a smile on your face and a lump in your throat.

It will give you a digestible lesson in basic constitutional history and won't ever have you reaching for the sick bag. It certainly lives up to its claim to have been 'forensically' researched.

Not, please note, that this is a documentary.

The forensic research is limited by what the people who really know were prepared to say to the people who were being paid to find out. …

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