But after a year of health scares for the queen, a year in which she mourned her husband and acknowledged “none of us will live forever,” 96 seems a moment worth marking.
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The Washington Post spoke about her long life with royal biographer Robert Hardman, author of a new book, “Queen of Our Times.” Covering her evolution from a young girl who was never supposed to be queen to a monarch addressing her subjects in a pandemic via Zoom, it’s the first major biography of the queen to come out since the Netflix series “The Crown,” which Hardman says ” gets a lot of things wrong. ”
What follows are lightly edited excerpts from a conversation that touched on the queen’s legacy, her family’s controversies and the US presidents with whom she seemed to get along the best.
Q: The queen is turning 96. In your book, you say she “may have aged… but she has not dated.” What do you mean by that?
A: She’s a constant in our lives. She’s been ever-present, and maybe it’s subliminal. The fact that she’s just there on the coins and stamps, the bank notes pictures, government buildings, even the national anthem at sporting events – it’s about her. And there she is on the TV on Christmas Day, and whenever there’s any sort of national coming together for a happy or sad reason, she’s usually at the heart of it.
She has changed a bit since the pandemic and her recent mobility issues. Maybe it’s just dawning on people now that she’s an old woman, but we didn’t really think of her like that. We think of her as the queen.
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Q: Many Americans may think they have an idea of who the queen is because of Netflix’s “The Crown.” What do the creators of that series get wrong with her on-screen persona?
A: “The Crown” has become almost a settled narrative of the royal story for a large part of the world, though probably slightly less so in Britain, where it’s very divisive.
The fundamental thing they get wrong about her is that she is always beleaguered and put upon and under pressure and rather miserable. Olivia Colman is just a sort of constant grump, garnished with the occasional fury. And that’s just not her. I don’t pretend to know her, but I’ve now followed her around, I’ve been in her presence, I’ve seen her interact with people over a number of years, and she’s much more alert and upbeat. She’s a bit too practical to be a complete optimist, but she’s definitely someone who tries to extract positives from whatever situation she’s in. And she doesn’t scowl.
Her former officials say that even in the 1990s, in those dark periods, she’s always had a smile on. I think that’s partly down to the inner faith that really is significant and often gets overlooked.
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Q: Well, not always a smile. In your book, you talk about how those who work for the royal operation – just over 1,000 people – try to avoid her frosty glare when things go wrong. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote in his memoirs, too, that she might be “matey with you, but don’t try to reciprocate or you get ‘The Look.’ ”
A: Yes, I talked to a very senior courtier who said, “Oh, God, it was awful.” It came after a timing mix-up at a state banquet which had left him and the queen and the guests standing there, waiting for this thing to kick off. And it didn’t. And it was just fatally embarrassing. But he just said, “I really did get the full glare.”
Q: You stress that the queen likes being queen.
A: Yes, she likes being queen. … When you look at “The Crown,” there are times she doesn’t like being the queen – it’s all trial and tribulations. But the queen we are seeing more and more of is someone happy with what she’s doing. For example, with that G-7 summit [in Cornwall, England] last year, the government was very worried that she just buried her husband, she just turned 95. It’s all quite stressful. Let’s leave her alone, and we won’t include her in anything. And the palace sort of peacefully knocked on the door of Number 10 and said, “Excuse me, all these world leaders, the queen wants to be a part of this.” Number 10 had to basically sort of be prodded into it. They didn’t want to trouble her. But she said, I want to do this, we have a US president coming. So Biden gets invited for tea the following day.
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Q: Will the queen ever quit? You write about an ongoing “transition” from the queen to Prince Charles, as well as the avoidance of “regency,” which conjures up images of an incapacitated George III, and “abdication,” which is something her Uncle Edward did.
A: We’ve always said, up until very recently, absolutely no question will she ever quit. I think in recent weeks or months, she does look more vulnerable. And really, it almost looks sort of unkind to expect her to carry on doing these things. But she loves doing it. And I think as long as she loves doing it, and she’s capable of doing it, she will.
One senior private secretary said, “There is no master plan. There is not a sort of wall chart saying, ‘Okay, by 2025, we want Prince Charles doing this and, you know, the queen will hand over this.’ “It’s just being judged on a sort of almost daily basis. … As long as she’s still getting her red boxes, she’s putting her signature on the legislation that comes before her, as long as she’s still talking to the prime minister, there’s no real reason to change anything. It’s just a case of spreading the load.
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Q: Her cousin touched on this, didn’t she?
A: The queen has never discussed it publicly, but her cousin Margaret Rhodes, who wrote a charming memoir that the queen helped her with, has said on more than one occasion that the queen will go on unless she gets Alzheimer’s or has a stroke. If she is mentally impaired, then it’s not even her choice. The regency will effectively kick in.
Q: The queen has met 13 serving presidents. Were there any she got along with particularly well?
I think, with Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr. and Barack Obama, there were clearly signs of friendship that went beyond the dutiful.
You write that Queen Elizabeth II’s reign will always be compared to that of Queen Victoria, the second longest-reigning British monarch. How do the two queens differ?
A: Queen Victoria was very much into celebrating Victoria. You’ve just got to wander around Windsor or through the royal estates, and you’ll find large statues of Victoria looking very imperious, many of which were unveiled while she was alive. … It’s really only in the last few years that things have started to be named after Queen Elizabeth. … She’s an extraordinarily understated figure, but her legacy will be vast.
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Q: In this jubilee year, we’re reflecting on that legacy. How might her reign be remembered?
She is the first queen to come to the throne in full expectation that she is going to shrink the domain. For all previous monarchs, it’s been about consolidating power, expanding the reign, getting bigger, stronger, being Number One Top Dog Nation. And that all came to an end in 1947, when the British Empire formally wound up, when India became independent. So she’s the first monarch who comes to the throne with absolute writing on the wall that your reign is going to be spent handing all this stuff back. The empire is over. And you’ve got to get rid of it in a nice way with a smile and a handshake and try and keep everyone happy. The Commonwealth is the result of that.
Q: What does the queen make of Prince Harry and Meghan’s exit? You write that being a half-in, half-out royal was never going to work for her. At the same time, Harry is clearly a much-loved grandson who convinced his grandmother to make a video for the Invictus Games with the Obamas.
A: I think she’s sad about it, but I don’t think it’s all-consuming. She’s still very fond of Harry. There’s the family stuff and the business stuff, and the business stuff is nonnegotiable. You can’t do this, Harry. I’m sorry. It’s just the way it is. And her officials will tell his officials that, and those conversations will happen at arm’s length. But he’s still devoted to her, and she’s still devoted to him. They still talk. I’m told he talks to her more often than he talks to anyone else in the family. He’s still quite cheeky and can get away with things that others possibly can’t. She’s got a soft spot for him.
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Q: Speaking of soft spots, does she also have one for Prince Andrew, who recently accompanied her to Prince Philip’s memorial service?
Yes, clearly. It was extraordinary watching him arrive and walking her up the aisle. It goes back to her faith. She’s very forgiving. With Andrew, I spoke to a senior person, and he said, she has a big-tent view of life: There’s room for everybody. And I don’t think she’s guilty. [Andrew recently settled a lawsuit brought by Virginia Giuffre, who said she was trafficked as a teenager by convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and forced to have sexual encounters with Andrew.]The queen feels like he’s fallen in with a bad lot, has very bad judgment, he’s made some major mistakes, but he’s still a son and someone who devoted a large part of his life to public service.
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Q: At your recent book launch in London, you spoke about the queen’s soft power and how, when things are dismal in Britain, she’s still an attraction. Can you talk about that?
It’s striking … at times when Britain is diminished, certainly during the ’70s when we’re very much a second-rate sort of sclerotic nation and it’s just a generally dismal period. And, yes, she does play a key role in helping people keep their heads up high. Some might say it’s delusional, but the fact is she’s still a player on the world stage. So when America is celebrating 200 years of independence in 1976, it’s a really big deal when the queen goes over to Philadelphia and she presents the USA with a new Liberty Bell. She’s at the White House, dancing with Gerald Ford. … That’s soft power in action. It’s hard to quantify or put a value on it, but it gives Britain this sort of [unique selling proposition].
Q: What kind of king do you think Charles will make?
He will be a different sort of monarch. Charles is a deep thinker, romantic, sentimentalist. He’s very warm. His staff always say his investitures always take a lot longer than the queen’s, because she’s quite good at having a few words and the handshake and then, right, that’s off you go. Whereas Charles is much more prone to start having conversations and go, “Oh, you’re a sheep farmer. What sort of sheep do you farm? ” It’s just a different approach.
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