TV Review

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The Independent Culture
The Queen's 70th birthday presented broadcasters with an embarrassing conundrum. How on earth could they deliver a retrospective celebration of the monarch which wouldn't, willy-nilly, turn into an obituary for the monarchy? The tributes humbly proffered by the BBC and ITV couldn't have been more different in the way they skirted this awkward question of etiquette. Only one thing united them (but for the Queen herself) and that was Lady Pamela Hicks, identically dressed and telling an identical anecdote - one that carried a chilly shudder of premonition. When Princess Elizabeth returned from Kenya after the sudden death of her father she looked out of the aircraft window to see not her own familiar car but the immense black royal limousines to which she was now entitled: "Oh," she said, "they've sent the hearses." Her private life was dead and she was returning for its splendid funeral.

For the BBC this came late in Princess to Queen (BBC1) and was the cue for a breathtaking leap of evasion. A caption reading "44 years later" delivered you directly to the programme's coda, a vision of the Queen today, gracious and smiling. It was a kind of royal helicopter flight, airlifting you over the unsightly sprawl of the intervening years, those derelict marriages and ugly constitutional doubts. There was something decidedly odd about Ludovic Kennedy's summing up too, a sense of a gabbled concession to reality even as he was edging out the door bowing. It seemed neither whole-hearted nor candid, for example, to conclude that the Queen still has "a scintilla of the mystique of monarchy, without which, many believe, it cannot survive". Only a scintilla? That hardly weighs much against all the republican muttering she's had to endure. And the Queen can't have been greatly cheered by the equally double-edged compliment that followed: "So long as the crown rests on her head it will rest secure - after that, who knows?" Happy Birthday Ma'am, but no returns.

It might have been better if they had been more audacious about their retreat into nostalgia because the preceding 50 odd minutes was both courteous and thoughtful - a picture of early happiness which aroused affection without denying the changes that were to come. In its account of duty avoided (the Abdication) and then painfully taken up (King George VI, mastering his stammer) it delivered a far more graceful compliment to the Queen's continuing sense of obligation. In its account of an unblemished public loyalty, it raised some proper questions about what has recently gone missing. Watching the huge crowds in the Mall, sharing a genuine national communion, even the most republican viewer might have wondered where those powerful emotions flow now. Have they simply evaporated, or are they dammed somewhere, waiting for a more turbulent release?

Where the BBC's strategy could be described as "For God's sake mention the war", ITN's Happy Birthday Ma'am devoted only a minute or so to the early years, before embarking on a hasty trawl through the more light- hearted entries in the royal film library. This was the equivalent of a cheap plastic Union Jack, from its chirpy tabloid title to the celebrity loyal toasts. Trevor McDonald began with the recent problems of the monarchy and then pretended that the Queen constituted a solution, offering up conventional bromides with unreflective confidence. "She continues to occupy a unique position in our lives," he concluded, after which they banged on a bit of "Zadok the Priest" and got back to the business of selling advertising.

A far more ambitious reflection on British heritage began on BBC2 with the opening episode of A History of British Art, Andrew Graham-Dixon's six-part reading of the "untrustworthy autobiography" of the nation offered by its visual art. I'll return to the series when I have space to do it justice but this first programme, about the deep vein of iconoclasm within the national character, suggested that it will be compulsory viewing.