Sunday, October 17

Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth I embodies a timeless royal dilemma: duty or desire? | Alex von Tunzelmann | Opinion

WWhile much of the world has been captivated by the story of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, fans of historic television have been immersed in an even crueler royal drama from nearly five centuries ago. BBC Four is currently broadcasting Elizabeth R, the BBC historical series on the first Queen Elizabeth. Starring the unforgettable Glenda Jackson, Elizabeth R is celebrating her 50th anniversary. He defined an image of Isabel that still accompanies us today. Watching her now from a distance, her idea from the 1970s to the 1570s leaving its mark on the gender priorities and politics of production, serves as a good reminder of how each generation fits the story with its own requirements.

Elizabeth R was a sequel to the 1970 series The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Both consisted of six “television plays,” each 85 minutes long and created by a different writer and director. With some reservations, such as a silly scene in which Elizabeth almost married Robert Dudley, but they miss each other in church, historians were impressed. “There was nonsense, but much less so than in any novel I can think of about the period and in some supposed works of history,” wrote John Kenyon in the Observer. As for the audience, they loved it. The series was so successful that, barely a week after its completion, the BBC repeated everything.

The history of Tudor royalty has always been irresistible material for film and television, because it is innately rubbish. It’s full of sex, violence, and an elaborate plot. A reliable way to do historical drama is to disguise the soap opera in period costumes: then the audience feels that watching it is virtuous, even educational. Nobody made soap operas like the Tudors.

Since the early days of the screen, filmmakers have known this and created their Elizabeths accordingly. The 1912 French film Les Amours de la Reine Élisabeth, as its title suggests, focused on her love life. It is memorable for its death scene, in which Sarah Bernhardt, as Elizabeth, spends a full two and a half minutes in silence in silence in front of a stack of strategically placed cushions, before stretching her arms and collapsing face down on them. The public of the time was crying, although today you can forgive a snort of laughter when she stands face to face against the upholstery.

In the 1930s and 1940s, when the world moved toward war, a patriotic Elizabeth was required. Flora Robson played Elizabeth twice in Fire Over England (1937) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Robson’s earthy, witty, and surprisingly vulnerable performances stole the show. His role in The Sea Hawk was intended to persuade the United States to join World War II. “When one man’s ruthless ambitions threaten to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the Earth does not belong to one man, but to all men,” says Elizabeth. She is talking about Felipe of Spain, but clearly the audience was supposed to think of Adolf Hitler.

Bette Davis also played Elizabeth twice. In The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), she was quite polite and self-conscious. Sixteen years later, however, she succeeded in The Virgin Queen (1955), playing Elizabeth in a love triangle with Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) and Bess Throckmorton (a young Joan Collins). Davis gave his 1950s fans exactly the postwar Elizabeth they wanted: an older woman, far smarter than everyone around her, who knows that men like Raleigh prefer romance with pretty young girls and is immensely disappointed. with them. All about Eva, but with a glitch. It was the older and bolder Elizabeths of Robson and Davis that stayed in the imagination: not those of Jean Simmons in Young Bess (1953), too witty and too pretty to stand out from the generic crowd of princesses.

When Jackson took on the role in 1971, he took all the good things from Robson and Davis’ performances – the intelligence, the wit, the core of vulnerability – and expanded the role into a lifelong journey of a woman struggling with her duty. and creates its own identity. It was about a new Elizabeth for the 1970s: not only aggrieved by men and cynical about it, but actively furious.

“I haven’t trusted any man since I was eight,” she says, referring to her father’s execution of Catherine Howard. “First there is trust, then passion, then death.” However, the key to Jackson’s performance, and the reason it still works so well today, is that it doesn’t reduce her to a clichéd feminist “girlboss”. This Virgin Queen is sexually driven, with a soft spot for suitors who aren’t good enough for her. Elizabeth’s desire and impeachment continue to interfere with each other, as they did with her father and as they so often do with royalty. Wait a minute, she’s sharp and strategic. The next, she is enraged by an unworthy man who, unsurprisingly, has been shit. This is what today’s television executives would describe as “relatable.”

For many, this was Elizabeth. “From now on, Queen Elizabeth will always be Glenda Jackson in the mind’s eye, but there are worse things than that,” Kenyon wrote. Of course, subsequent generations have continued to reinvent it. In the 1980s, it was Miranda Richardson as the hilarious and spoiled Queenie in Blackadder. In the 1990s, it was Cate Blanchett, playing a much less arrogant queen in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth. Like her Gen X and her millennial audience, Elizabeth de Blanchett finds herself in a world where all power is already taken, and she must fight for her place.

Future generations will undoubtedly create their own Elizabeths. History aside, it is now effectively a royalty-free franchise. Even half a century later, however, Jackson’s totemic yet intimate performance in Elizabeth R still shines through. “You must let the queen rule you in this, not the woman,” the Earl of Sussex tells him when he is considering who to marry. The contradictions between duty and desire still create drama for royalty today.

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