The Queen at home
Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Queen at home

There’s far more to the Queen than her very public persona. In this remarkable portrait, Thomas Blaikie celebrates the wit and charisma that characterises Her Majesty behind the scenes…

Written by Thomas Blaikie

Welcome to the peace of my own home,’ said the Queen in her 1957 Christmas broadcast, the first to be televised. In fact, it was not only peaceful but freezing cold, thanks to the holes the technicians had drilled in the walls for their cables. You may not have noticed, such is Her Majesty’s subtle way of changing while appearing not to, but the Queen has welcomed us into her home and offered glimpses behind the scenes far more frequently than you might think. And these glimpses reveal a great deal about her remarkable character.

Back in 1952, there was an insuperable press blackout on personal revelations of any kind. Since then, however, things have changed a great deal. The Monarch has even appeared in a television documentary for the 2002 Golden Jubilee wielding a vast tumbler of gin and Dubonnet. For years it had been religiously maintained that the Queen never touched a drop, so this really was an explosive moment, even though almost no one noted it.

The Sovereign has also ‘starred’ in at least two major TV documentaries about herself, and, in a 1992 documentary, was even spied joshing with Edward Heath. These days, her grandchildren are permitted to chat away calmly on TV about what ‘Granny’ says to them on the phone.

So with all this access to Her Majesty, why is it we continue to believe we don’t really know anything about her? Why does she remain such a mystery?

Private glimpses of the Queen, unlike those of her sister, Princess Margaret, never reveal any malice or bad temper. In fact, those servants who have written tell-tale books are at a loss for anything negative to say about her. Instead, they can’t help but reveal her considerable charm and humour.

Prince Charles’s ex-valet, Stephen Barry (his efforts only ever published in America), says that when the Queen was told how much beer firemen had drunk after a fire practice at Sandringham (beer being traditional after the drill), she flashed, ‘I wonder how much they’d drink if there was a real fire.’

On another occasion, she went into a shop in ordinary clothes. The shopkeeper said, ‘Excuse me, you look awfully like the Queen.’

Enjoying lunch at Her Majesty’s log cabin with Lady Margaret Rhodes – a gin and Dubonnet perched on the sideEnjoying lunch at Her Majesty’s log cabin with Lady Margaret Rhodes – a gin and Dubonnet perched on the side

‘How very reassuring,’ the Queen replied.

In fact, there are countless examples of the Queen’s wit and charm. In the course of my royal researches, for example, I was lucky enough to be only the second writer allowed to see the 20-odd letters the Queen wrote to the dress designer Hardy Amies over a period of almost 40 years from 1963.

And what do they say? Well, they are certainly rather astonishing. They reveal that the Queen made appointments for her fittings herself, and that she even asked Amies to be sure to show the Purchase Tax separately on his bills, as it was the only way she could get the accounts department (or Privy Purse as it is called at Buckingham Palace) to believe that they had been paid.

In the 1970s, Bobo MacDonald, her dresser since childhood, had an accident and was off work for six months. Her letters revealed that she would now have to plan outfits herself. In another letter, she apologises profusely to Amies for being some months late in answering. Amies’s letter, she confessed, had sunk to the bottom of a pile and been overlooked.

Twice the Queen mentions Christmas and she makes it sound like anyone else’s, specifying that an age range from 99 to six months is the correct recipe for the perfect Christmas.

Over the years, Amies gave the Queen a collection of ludicrous-sounding toy animals for Christmas, including a kangaroo with a tiara and bouquet, which Her Majesty assembled as a menagerie on a piano – to the delight of her young children and confusion and annoyance of her real animals.

This is all friendly, normal-sounding stuff, almost bewilderingly so. Her humour is there, too. In Brazil, for example, she told Amies that it had been too hot to wear his fur and brocade creation, joking that she’d have been better off in a bathing suit.

We’ve also heard about Her Majesty’s charmingly thrifty ways, but in these letters they leap from the page: ‘Thank you for your enormous bill, which will take a little time to pay.’

Another letter asks for just two dresses for a visit to Mexico, saying she will also reuse last year’s wardrobe. And in yet another, it’s no new dresses at all, but ‘if you should happen upon some lovely stuff, don’t forget me’.

Jolly, humorous, even self-deprecating (she writes about some other dress designers getting into a close huddle and making fun of her hats), the Queen’s letters are utterly charming. But this isn’t quite the whole story.

There’s a certain overlying stateliness to the whole correspondence – the orderly, well-crafted sentences, handwritten in a strange old-fashioned script without mistakes or crossings-out. The letters, as artefacts, are excellently made. Her Majesty is, after all, a monarch, too, and she never forgets it.

What must Amies have felt, for example, when he read, concerning the bill for a pink brocade dress, that the cost was astonishing and he was to be quite clear she couldn’t have dresses that expensive again?

The Queen at homeThe Queen with her cousin, The Honourable Lady Margaret Rhodes, at Balmoral

On another occasion, not detailed in the letters, in the Cayman Islands for a State visit, Her Majesty regaled a reception for the press: ‘Thank goodness we’ve got Britannia this time. Last time we had to stay in a guest house.’ She referred, in fact, to a beyond five-star hotel.

More touchingly, she recently attended an evening 80th birthday party in a block of flats. Despite repeated manoeuvres to tempt her to the buffet table (mainly so that the ravenous guests could tuck in once she had), she held back and finally declared, ‘I’d love to stay for supper but I’ve got to get back to my boxes [containing official government papers].’

And so there we have it: on one hand the Queen is as stately and professional as her role requires her to be, while on the other, she is utterly charming, personable and witty. It is this dichotomy, perhaps, that makes her such a remarkable monarch.

Photographs: © Margaret Rhodes, The Final Curtsey by Margaret Rhodes (umbria press, £17.99)

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