A Right Royal Knockout
The time has come to talk of cabbages and kings, kind hearts and coronets, blue bloods and virgin queens. The movies have always been in love with royalty, a fascination with our social superiors that used to be almost entirely deferential and is obviously rooted deep in the feudal culture most of us are descended from, but which is now just as likely to involve salacious scuttlebutt and scandal.
They used to describe movie stars as "Hollywood Royalty", and now, in our new Elizabethan Age they're all part of the same celebrity soap opera. Even if we still fantasize about their decadent lifestyles and marvel at the palaces, parades and pageantry, we don't look up to these people anymore - at best we relate to them; we share their pain.
Understandably so: the Reformation and the Restoration are probably the most dramatic and significant periods in English history, at least since 1066 and all that (an event our filmmakers have chosen to ignore), although it's surprising that the Plantagenets and The War Of The Roses haven't inspired more movies beyond the inevitable Shakespeare adaptations.
Richard I, the Lionheart, gets a good press largely through the continuing popularity of Robin Hood - who was against taxes but a loyal monarchist. Peter O'Toole was twice nominated for an Academy Award for playing Henry II, in Becket, and The Lion in Winter. Patrick McGoohan portrayed Richard I as an effete caricatured villain in Mel Gibson's Braveheart, whereas Derek Jarman cast Steve Waddington as the tragic Edward II. Olivier, Sir Ian McKellen and Al Pacino have all explored the Machievellian perfidy of Richard III.
Nevertheless, these kings are just bit-players compared to the starring roles Hollywood and Wardour Street have bestowed on Charles II and Henry VIII. It's probably no coincidence that these are among our most hedonistic sovereigns!
The ruler who dispelled Puritanism, Charles II didn't get much of a look in until the 1980s (George Sanders played him twice in the 1940s), but since then he's cut a glamorous figure: John Malkovich (The Libertine), Rupert Everett (Stage Beauty), Nathaniel Parker (The Private Life of Samuel Pepys), Rufus Sewell (Charles II), Sam Neill (Restoration) and Michael York (The Lady And The Highwayman) have all done the honours.
A similar makeover seems to be taking effect on Henry VIII. In the past, our image of England's most married monarch was informed by Hans Holbein's portraits: a stout, bearded redhead with a bull neck, a man of large appetites, determination, natural authority (and gout).
This was the Henry that Charles Laughton won an Oscar for in 1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII, a gregarious bully with a twinkle in his eye. Keith Michell played a far more complex variation on the same in the 1970 BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, transforming over the years into something of a monster.
Robert Shaw (A Man for All Seasons) and Richard Burton (Anne of a Thousand Days) played Henry in middle-age with some subtlety and nuance. Now he's getting younger and more virile than ever, courtesy of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in The Tudors and Eric Bana in The Other Boleyn Girl, but at the same time he's losing ground to the women in his life. Bana is third down the bill and might almost be described as the love interest - it would be easy to come away from the film without appreciating the significance of his break from Rome, for example (in any case, this seems to have been Natalie Portman's idea).
Henry - so obsessed with securing a male heir - would have been dismayed to learn that England's kings have been eclipsed by its queens over the last few centuries, starting with his own daughter.
Victoria has probably had more screen credits than any other monarch, but with few exceptions (Anna Neagle in Sixty Glorious Years remains one of the most commercially successful British films ever, if you adjust for inflation) she's been relegated to cameo parts, bestowing her patronage on everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Phileas Fogg. She flirted with Billy Connolly in Mrs Brown (in the person of Judi Dench) and was impersonated by Peter Sellers in The Great McGonagall. Later this year we'll get a rare glimpse of her in younger days, with Emily Blunt as "Young Victoria".
Victoria may have reigned for longer, but there's no question that, at this juncture in the twenty first century and for much of the last 40 years at least, the Queen of Queens is Elizabeth I.
What's our fascination? In part it may be linked to the myth of The Virgin Queen, but I suspect Elizabeth R resonates here because at a time in which our own Empire has dwindled to nothing, she is a figurehead for England free from foreign interference, withstanding the Armada and making inroads into the Americas.
More than that, she's a woman. Over the last century the role of women in our society has transformed completely, and Elizabeth is one of the most powerful female icons we could look to. It's obvious, looking at Cate Blanchett's first outing in the role, that she was channeling something of Margaret Thatcher into it.
Whether our own Elizabeth Windsor - "The Queen" - will prove to have such an enduring hold on our cinematic dream life I rather doubt. But you can bet that within another ten years or so we'll be seeing a fully-fledged Diana movie. And it won't be the last either.
Top Ten English Monarchs on Screen:
1. Elizabeth I
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth ), Helen Mirren (Elizabeth I ), Glenda Jackson (Elizabeth R ), Flora Robson (The Sea Hawk; Fire Over England ), Bette Davis (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; The Virgin Queen ), Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love ), Miranda Richardson (Blackadder ), Quentin Crisp ( Orlando), Jean Simmons (Young Bess ).
2. Henry VIII
Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII ), Robert Shaw (A Man for All Seasons ), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors ), Keith Michell (The Six Wives of Henry VIII ), Richard Burton (Anne of a Thousand Days ), Charlton Heston (The Prince and the Pauper )
3. Charles II
John Malkovich (The Libertine ), Rupert Everett (Stage Beauty ), Nathaniel Parker (The Private Life of Samuel Pepys ), Rufus Sewell (Charles II ), Sam Neill (Restoration ), Michael York (The Lady and the Highwayman ), George Sanders (Forever Amber )
Judi Dench (Mrs Brown ), Peter Sellers (The Great McGonagall ), Anna Neagle (Sixty Glorious Years ), Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria )
5. Richard III
Ian McKellen, Laurence Olivier, Al Pacino
6. Henry V
Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier
7. Henry II
Peter O Toole (The Lion in Winter, Beckett )
8. Charles I
9. George III
Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness Of King George )
10. Elizabeth II
Helen Mirren (The Queen )
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