The Elizabethan Age of pop culture, from Sex Pistols and "The Crown" to Paddington and beyond

The ubiquity of Queen Elizabeth II is a product of her inscrutability, making her the perfect artistic inspiration

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 9, 2022 7:00PM (EDT)

The crowd watching a film of Queen Elizabeth II having tea with Paddington Bear on a big screen during the Platinum Party at the Palace staged in front of Buckingham Palace, London on Saturday June 4, 2022. (Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)
The crowd watching a film of Queen Elizabeth II having tea with Paddington Bear on a big screen during the Platinum Party at the Palace staged in front of Buckingham Palace, London on Saturday June 4, 2022. (Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)

Queen Elizabeth II's seven-decade reign made her Britain's longest-serving monarch, fulfilling her duties until she died on Thursday, Sept. 8, at the age of 96. Over a life that stretched across most of a century the world transformed around Elizabeth even as the institution she represented stubbornly clung to tradition.

Some of this is by design — and no doubt at the insistence of The Firm, the organization that runs the royal household and maintains its interactions with the public. Most is the result of Elizabeth's insistence on maintaining the corona of privacy expected of her station. The less we knew about who the queen was as an individual, the easier it was to maintain the ideological portrait of the crown's integrity and constancy.

Queen Elizabeth II grew up in tandem with TV, becoming the first British monarch to allow full coverage of her coronation ceremony in its entirety. Her reign coincided with the monstrous expansion of tabloid culture, the explosion of celebrity influence, and the ostentatious consumerism of 1980s and 1990s, along with the commercialization of counterculture in music, fashion and in the art world.

Each stratum treats access or the lack of it as a type of currency, making the untouchable, indecipherable Queen fame's equivalent of El Dorado. Getting to know her was the rarest of privileges; knowing what she really thought about anything happening in the world was nigh impossible.

Sir Paul McCartney said it best in "Her Majesty," the 23-second hidden ditty that closed The Beatles' 1969 classic "Abbey Road."

"Her majesty's a pretty nice girl, but she doesn't have a lot to say," he croons to the strains of his acoustic guitar. "Her majesty's a pretty nice girl, but she changes from day to day . . ."

The essence of gentility and service, Elizabeth was equal parts public figure and living mystery. She was real and mortal, and most of us never knew what she thought about anything beyond what experts told us. And who can say whether they were right? She rarely did.

But her relative unreadability also made her a blank canvas that readily accepted any message that suited the situation. This made her a brilliant comedy co-star and the heart of TV and film dramas endeavoring to explore her humanity . . . or underscore her lack of it.

From her starring role as the subject of one of rock's most famous album covers to her cameo as Paddington Bear's fanciest companion at high tea, here are five ways we viewed Queen Elizabeth II through popular culture.

A majestic comic foil
ImagThe Naked GunActor Leslie Nielsen sits in an electric bumper car during the 1988 Santa Monica, California, filming of the comedy movie "The Naked Gun." (George Rose/Getty Images)e_placeholder
Slapstick and its cousin, parody, each require a straight man to work. And few public figures or institutions match the queen and the royal family when it comes to rigidity. Indeed, that is the monarchy's brand.
Hence, as the world's most famous and consistently popular royal Elizabeth became one of the most popular characters in film and TV, especially when the aim was to stick a finger in the eyes of propriety. Elizabeth's requirement to appear unfailingly polite and absolutely unflappable made her a flawless comic foil; where snobby aristocrat figures are more common in entertainment than found pennies, she's a figure who is required to remain pleasant and patient regardless of whatever absurdity breaks out in her presence.
Of course, she rarely appeared as herself save for a few unique circumstances placing her in control of the punchlines. There was never a reason to ask her — not that she'd entertain the invitation anyway — since a couple of women made a career out of specializing in doubling for Elizabeth, the most famous being Jeannette Charles. The British actor stumbled into her status as the go-to double for Elizabeth, appearing as the queen in "National Lampoon's European Vacation," "Austin Powers in Goldmember" and other movies.
Charles' most famous appearance has to be in 1988's "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" which gifted us with the unforgettable scene of Leslie Nielsen's bungling lieutenant Frank Drebin throwing himself on top of the queen to protect her from a misconstrued threat, ending in a compromising position for both of them.
But that's the equivalent of the kid glove treatment compared to what Ma'am is subjected to in Sacha Baron Cohen's "Ali G: Indahouse," where his character does horrifying things to her hand with his mouth. Scott Thompson's impersonation of the queen in "Kids in the Hall" exemplifies the affectionate approach most comedians adopt, capitalizing on her unyielding decorum as he waltzes through monologues that portray her as being laughably disconnected from reality.
An inspiration for rock n' roll rebellion . . . or reverence
Image_plThe Sex PistolsThe Sex Pistols, London, UK, 10th March 1979. (Bill Rowntree/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)aceholder
In direct opposition to The Beatles' cheeky ode was the Sex Pistols' defining 1977 anthem "God Save the Queen," the second single off their only album, "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols."
Released at the same time as Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, the single's lyrics contain little reverence for the queen or the monarchy. "God save the Queen/ 'Cause tourists are money," Johnny Lydon wails in the second verse, "And our figurehead/ Is not what she seems."
The song reached No. 1 in the UK in 1977 despite (or more like, because of) being banned by the BBC, and though the lyrics screamed out the working class' frustrations at the growing divide between the wealthy and poor — "No future, no future, no future for you!" blares its indictment of an outro, a repeat of the song's original title  — the band and song's primary intent was to shock the public. Until then, no popular song had dared to be so openly disrespectful of Elizabeth or the monarchy. But it would not be the last.

The Smiths' 1986 hit "The Queen Is Dead" lets its title shoulder most of the ire, styling Morrissey's disdain for the monarchy in sullen lyrics that close by repeating, "Life is very long when you're lonely."  The Stone Roses flip that concept with 1989's politely titled "Elizabeth, My Dear," with lyrics explicitly stating the singer's desire to topple the monarchy:


Tear me apart and boil my bones
I'll not rest 'til she's lost her throne
My aim is true, my message is clear
It's curtains for you, Elizabeth my dear

Not every pop star was or is anti-Windsor, proven by the outpouring of condolences from rock stars in Britain and the U.S. in light of the queen's death, which also resulted in the Mercury prize's award ceremony being delayed. (It was already underway on Thursday night when organizers halted the affair.) Songs released prior to the Sex Pistols' aural assault, and since, sprinkle doting references to Elizabeth in an assortment of lyrics. Even the late and legendary BB King pictures himself in conversation with Elizabeth, leaning out of Rolls Royce and admitting to him that "sometimes it's so hard to pull things together" in his song, "Better Not Look Down."
If the pop music world liked the queen, or at least respected the office, the feeling was somewhat mutual . . . at least when it comes to Wham! According to a memoir entry from  band's late ex-manager Bryan Morrison,the queen allegedly requested an audience with George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley in 1985 when the band was at the apex of its popularity.
Michael would later return the sentiment by showing a cartoon version of queen grooving alongside him in the video for his 2004 single "Shoot the Dog," one of many videos that imagine a secret after-hours version of Elizabeth that liked to get on down and party, same as the rest of us.
Keeping Calm and Carrying On: Dignity, commercialized
ImKeep Calm and Carry OnPostcards featuring the World War II British slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On" are seen outside a newsagent in London, on 24 June, 2016. (LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images)age_placeholder
As popular as the Sex Pistols' anti-monarchist single was, Jamie Reid's cover design for "God Save the Queen" became synonymous for the punk rock revolution and teenage rebellion. You've seen it somewhere, and it probably wasn't on one of the record's sleeves.
Reid's collage features a black and white copy of a Cecil Beaton photograph with a band of paper torn away where Elizabeth lips and eyes should appear, replaced by cut-outs of letters in various fonts spelling out the song's title and the band's name.

Alternate versions of the image exist, the most famous being one where Reid replaced the irises and pupils of Elizabeth's eyes with swastikas and gave her a nose piercing with a safety pin.
The latter version sells merch for a reason, is what we're saying, which is why it appears on any surface one can think of. Originally it was considered disrespectful and rude. Now it's a chic design detail that convey kitsch or a mild ironic edge to those buying it.
Only Andy Warhol's colorful brash portrait from his 1985 "Reigning Queens" series comes close to being as commercially recognizable, which is fitting. Warhol's work reflected a lifelong obsession with fame, excess and hierarchical division, traits connected to the Windsors. In both cases, the implied grace in the queen's "impenetrable mask," to quote the Tate, makes the image classic, not the other way around.

Warhol featured three other monarchs in his series, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland, none of whom are as instantly recognizable as the woman who symbolized queendom for most of the post-World War II West.

This is so much the case in terms of the queen's association with the phrase "Keep Calm and Carry On" that is doesn't matter that the phrase pre-dates her reign, originating as a morale-boosting slogan that the British government circulated on posters starting in 1939. When the slogan was resurrected in the swell of Anglomania surrounding Prince William's wedding to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, all vestiges of wartime resolve were replaced by rosy tones and grace, making it suitable adornment for teapots, trays and wall hangings.
These images and designs inspired by them make the queen's brand synonymous with cool, in a sense, but also the trappings of queenly household chic attainable by the hoi polloi. Elizabeth may never have been everyone's cuppa; her former daughter-in-law Diana Spencer still owns that vaunted status. But even in her old age the queen's regal profile, shadow and crown typify a way of life Britons and Americans buy into, whether as a concept or an item of decor.
Humanizing the mystery beneath the crown
Image_placeThe CrownClaire Foy in "The Crown" (Alex Bailey/Netflix)holder

The queen rarely revealed her emotions, owing to the inscrutability and dignity required of her station. But she was a human with the same aches as the rest of us, something she reminded the public, when she gave a speech admitting to the emotional difficulty living through 1992, the year she famously described as the family's "annus horribilis." Three of her four children's marriages crumbled that year, which was topped off by a fire tearing through Windsor Castle.


Aside from that rare instance of speaking her pain aloud, Elizabeth hid her troubles, along with that of Britain, behind that facade keeping calm and carrying on. For Peter Morgan and other writers endeavoring to tenderly close the distance between the glacial royal and the vulnerable human, this presented an opportunity to write a personality for the queen based on what we, or they, either hope or assume about her behavior when the eyes of the world aren't on her.


Morgan manifests this through three actors in "The Crown," with Claire Foy playing Elizabeth as the young queen, Olivia Colman taking over in the third season to portray her in middle age and Imelda Staunton taking over the role for the series' final two seasons. Before "The Crown," however, Dame Helen Mirren established what would become the streaming series' core tension in "The Queen," set in the wake of Diana's death. By giving us a version of Elizabeth struggling to balance the longstanding expectation to stifle her emotions with her public's demand to share in their sorrow, Mirren plays out what is presumably the punishing emotional duality of the royals' existence: being a symbol to millions while existing as a full person.

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If we think we know something about what it is to be Queen Elizabeth II, it's probably due to these works, even though her personality has been dramatized by many more works, whether with the maternal softness "Downton Abbey" star Penelope Wilton lent her in the live-action version of "The BFG" or the matriarchal spikiness Stella Gonet assigned to her in 2021's "Spencer." Every emotional note these actors and writers played through their portrayals is guesswork, for the most part. To those who adore Elizabeth, however, they contribute to a fuller picture of who they hope she is, or want her to be.

The quintessential Brit
Image_placeholdeQueen Elizabeth II having tea with Paddington BearThe crowd watching a film of Queen Elizabeth II having tea with Paddington Bear on a big screen during the Platinum Party at the Palace staged in front of Buckingham Palace, London on Saturday June 4, 2022. (Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)r
No artist or artwork can match the real thing, which is why Elizabeth's scripted entrance to the opening ceremonies 2012 Summer Olympics in London, escorted by Daniel Craig in James Bond mode, went viral. The queen is rumored to have insisted on a speaking role; it amounted to greeting 007 with the classic, "Good evening, Mr. Bond," and that was enough. From there, director Danny Boyle takes the queen and the MI6's most famous agent to a helicopter, flying them to London Stadium, where they appeared to parachute to the ground together. (A double stepped in for that stunt.)
Ten years later, and a few months before she died, the queen shared tea with Paddington Bear, confessing to him that she kept a marmalade sandwich in her purse for emergencies. And as drummers pounded out the signature riff to Queen's "We Will Rock You," Elizabeth and everyone's favorite teddy tap keep time by tapping their teaspoons against their cups.
All the footage of impersonators and actors who have rendered their versions of her over the year may not leave as much of an impression as these short stunts, bits that prove the queen had a sense of humor about the way the world sees her and a desire to have some say in the matter. She also took her father's Christmas radio addresses to the newer medium of television, making her appearance a yuletide tradition across the globe. In many remembrances, journalists have credited Elizabeth for modernizing the monarchy, eliciting scoffs from audience members aware of how intensely monitored, shaped and manipulated the monarchy's image is.
The social media era only sharpens the cynicism directed toward the royal family and Elizabeth herself, evident in the typhoon of grave dancing that whirled up shortly after her death was announced. And it's easy to surmise that the queen ignored that as much as she was reputed to have ignored most of the ways she was depicted, whether irreverently or respectfully.  
With Craig as James Bond, her formality is a put on. Across from Paddington, she radiates a joy that's almost childlike while remaining regal. Whether she's inserting an element of truth into a life defined by performance, or simply adding a playful grin to the long-established mask can be debated. Either way, with these brief and storied windows into her personality, Elizabeth had a say in creating how she's seen and remembered: She was queen to the last, perhaps Britain's last great monarch. But it may have been important for her to confirm Sir Paul suspicions that under that hard jeweled surface, she was pretty nice.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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