Queens of the small screen

Helen Mirren won an Oscar as Elizabeth II and now five more actresses are to play her on television. Is it time to re-bottle the monarch's mystique? By Gerard Gilbert

The very first actor to play our Queen on film was an American cross-dresser. Steven Walden was a member of a San Francisco transvestite theatre troupe, the Cockettes, who, in 1971, made Tricia's Wedding – a spoof of the White House wedding of Tricia Nixon, the eldest daughter of the then American president, Richard Nixon. In this cult sexploiter, Eartha Kitt puts LSD in the punch bowl, the guests tear their clothes off, and the rest can be left to the imagination.

It's unlikely that any member of the Royal Family ever got to hear of Tricia's Wedding – although, by some accounts, a few former household servants might not have been averse to a private screening. But what's shocking now is not that Her Majesty was played by a drag queen, but that this global icon had been on the throne for 20 years before anybody even attempted to portray her. Perhaps it was her very iconic status – the head on the postage stamp – that deterred filmmakers. Or maybe it was just that they were living in an age of greater deference. Either way, another two decades would pass before a serious attempt was made to portray the sovereign in a three-dimensional manner.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s the role was left to impersonators and lookalikes – and in particular to Jeannette Charles, a dead ringer of similar age to the Queen who has appeared in countless TV sitcoms and film comedies – from Eric Idle's Rutland Weekend Television and Spike Milligan's Q series to Austin Powers, Naked Gun and National Lampoon movies. Her most recent appearance in the role was in this year's Big Brother – when the Brazilian contestant Rodrigo was fooled into believing he was meeting the real Queen.

The royal children changed everything, of course – and the arc of Charles and Diana's relationship can be followed from the gushy 1982 American mini-series The Royal Romance of Charles & Diana (with durable Hollywood royalty, the shape of Olivia de Havilland, playing the Queen) to 1992's Charles & Diana: Unhappily Ever After. As you would expect from such gossipy fluff, no real attempt was made to explore the psyche of the monarch herself, although around this time a new kind of portrayal of the Queen was impressing West End theatre-goers. Prunella Scales, in Alan Bennett's A Question of Attribution, may have delivered only a deft cameo, but it marked a sea-change in the way that the monarch could be portrayed. This one actually rang true.

A Question of Attribution, in which Scales's monarch subjects James Fox's Anthony Blunt, the traitorous curator of the Queen's pictures, to an ambivalent cross-examination, was filmed by John Schlesinger for the BBC in 1992. The actress's priceless miniature of a performance was not to be topped for 14 years, not until Helen Mirren gave us her full-blooded, multi-dimensional portrayal in Stephen Frears's movie, The Queen.

Peter Morgan's screenplay told the story of the momentous week in the late summer of 1997 when Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car crash in Paris and the Royal Family nearly sleepwalked into disaster as it refused to budge from Balmoral.

At the time of the film, Mirren told me that she "was more nervous about this role than almost any other. There is so much more intimate detail about her, but she's so private and always has been. I didn't want mere impersonation".

Mirren asked the advice of Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in the film. He told her to work closely with a dialect coach. In the same spirit, she decided to gather the actors who were playing her family – James Cromwell (Prince Philip), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles) and Sylvia Syms (the Queen Mother) – at her house in Wapping, "so that we got used to the sound of each other's voices as a family and it wouldn't feel like being with a whole group of strangers talking in funny voices".

The luxury of such preparation has not been afforded to the five actresses about to bring their interpretations of the reigning monarch to Channel 4. The confusingly titled The Queen (couldn't they have come up with something different?), screening on consecutive nights from Sunday, is made up of five docudramas, each concerning pivotal moments in Elizabeth II's long reign.

Emilia Fox opens the series with a look at the first scandal experienced by the fledgling monarch, when it was revealed, in 1952, that her sister, Margaret, had fallen in love with an older, divorced royal employee, Group Captain Peter Townsend. The second film – arguably the most interesting, for being the least familiar – stars Samantha Bond and is set in the strike-ridden early 1970s, when the royal family's popularity was its lowest ebb and the Queen was running out of money. The third film, with Susan Jameson wearing the royal head-scarf, is set in the run-up to the 1986 Commonwealth Games and looks at the sovereign's uneasy relationship with Margaret Thatcher.

The penultimate film, with Barbara Flynn, takes place during the Queen's annus horribilis, 1992, while the final film has Diana Quick's monarch coming to terms with Prince Charles's determination to marry Camilla Parker Bowles. For Quick, the series' speedy production didn't pose a problem, since she had recently being playing the Queen on stage in A Question of Attribution – although, she says: "Earlier in my career I had resisted playing real people who are well documented because you end up becoming a sort of poor man's Rory Bremner."

It's a sentiment shared by the other actresses in the series. "You're trying to make her a three-dimensional person – which I've absolutely no doubt that the Queen is... it's just we've never seen that side of her," says Bond. "You end up trying to do an impression", says Jameson, of attempting to capture the Queen's voice and mannerisms, while Fox reveals that: "I practised trying to sound like the Queen and I sounded like I was doing a bad attempt at being in Brief Encounter."

Fox says she followed Mirren's advice, "which was to try and capture an essence of her rather than do an exact imitation", although it probably helps if your essence is naturally regal. Or, as The New Yorker noted of Mirren: "Probably no other actress can let you know as fast and economically as she can that she's playing a distinguished and important woman."

Rosemary Leach, Imelda Staunton, Juliet Aubrey and even the former Rolling Stones muse Anita Pallenberg have taken on the role in recent years, while Elizabeth Richard, who plays the Queen in the latest Roland Emmerich apocalypse blockbuster, 2012, is surely challenging Jeannette Charles for the record of having played HMQ the most times.

But are there now too many Queens out there – each playing a slightly different note but all essentially employing nothing more than educated guesswork? Is filling this royal cypher in danger of becoming a test of thespian mettle for a certain type of actress of a certain age? They do things differently in Japan, of course. Portraying the imperial family in a drama (a comedy would be out of the question) is still taboo. When the revered Russian director Alexander Sokurov made his 2005 film, The Sun, a dramatisation of the fateful meeting between the defeated Emperor Hirohito and a conquering American, General Douglas MacArthur, it was almost impossible to find a Japanese distributor. The search for a Japanese actor willing to play Hirohito was apparently even harder.

Thankfully, we don't see the House of Windsor as living gods. But the more the Queen retains her mystique, the more dramatists are going to want to pick at it, like an unhealed scab. Perhaps Her Majesty should just replace Katie Price on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! and be done with it.

'The Queen' starts on Channel 4 on Sunday 29 November


Helen Mirren in 'The Queen' (2006)
The most intimate portrait yet of our famously opaque sovereign , a monarch at bay as her own fame is eclipsed by the celebrity of her suddenly deceased daughter-in-law.

Prunella Scales in 'A Question of Attribution' (1992)
Little more than thumbnail sketch, really, but beautifully done, as the actress who was Sybil Fawlty plays another she who must be obeyed.

Imelda Staunton in 'Cambridge Spies' (2003)
Imelda Staunton's Queen also had to deal with reds under the bed in the BBC's take on the Burgess-Maclean-Philby-Blunt espionage circle, the scandal that involved Blunt's position as Keeper of the Queen's Pictures. Not quite as convincing as Scales, but a decent performance.

Jeanette Charles in 'Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad!' (1988)
The multiple Queen impersonator makes her big screen debut, as Leslie Nielsen's Frank Drebin foils a royal assassination.

Anita Pallenberg in 'Mister Lonely' (2007)
Playing a Queen impersonator, to be precise, but for sheer novelty value the erstwhile Rolling Stones muse (left) deserves a spot on the list for her efforts in this film by Harmony Korine.