Review: The Queen and TV just don't understand one another. And this sometimes insultingly simplistic documentary didn't help at all
Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work, BBC1; Boy A, Channel 4
Sunday 02 December 2007
Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work made me think that royalty on the box is never quite going to work. Television doesn't understand the Queen, and the Queen doesn't understand television. They're like neighbours in Babel. TV prizes spontaneity, intimacy, revelation and rows with Hollywood photographers. The Queen prizes decorum, privacy, stoicism and racecourses. In the past, the TV, humble upstart, has deferred to the Queen, but this year it tried to impose its own values on her, inventing a row where there wasn't one. We can safely say that strategy fell pretty flat.
So TV has gone back to its deferential mode - up to a point. The Royal Family at Work still had a few feeble little kickbacks. For example a shot, in the opening montage, of some workmen in hard hats, laughing their heads off. It was implied that they were laughing at the Queen, but I can't imagine what sort of comical manoeuvre she would have to have pulled to get that response. And the commentary for the programme was sometimes insultingly simplistic. "George Bush has given the Queen a white-tie dinner as a thank you for supporting America in the Iraq war." (So if we hadn't, it would have been jeans and trainers, right?) The Annie Leibovitz shoot was described as "a sign of the palace's growing media sophistication" and "the palace's increasing awareness of the importance of PR". This was patronising, superior, TV-centric sneering, and overlooked the fact that royalty invented the whole concept of portraiture and image manipulation in the first place.
That said, the Queen didn't keep her side of the bargain particularly well. She seemed to only tolerate the cameras' presence, at worst glowering at them, at best, flashing them a conspiratorial look or a wry, inaudible aside. In one captivating shot, she peered over a banister and then trilled to camera with great panache: "Stawffit!" What she meant by this exclamation, who can say. It could possibly have been Windsor for "Staff lift", but shorn of context here it was charming, but meaningless.
Ultimately, she just wasn't onscreen enough. An interview would have brought the whole show to life, but there was so little footage of her, in fact, that the programme began to resemble one of those nature documentaries about an elusive but highly prized creature. All the best trophy shots of the Queen were put up front, to tempt you into the programme. Then it deviated, in the absence of its subject (or rather, monarch) into analysis of her habitat, her environment, her routine and even her bedding. Did we really need to watch American housekeepers preparing the sheets (400-cotton count, and washed four times) for her state visit? Or to see the new loo seat they installed for her (never before used)? It all smacked of editorial desperation, I'm afraid. Though one or two cameos from Americans waiting to welcome her were entertaining ("She's 80, and she's still the Queen!" gasped one, whose knowledge of the hereditary principle was clearly wanting), there was far too much fetishisation of the ballet of fuss and preparation that surrounds the Queen, and on the grinding superficiality of the interest everyone takes in her. "She had breakfast and she ate up every bite!" In the end, Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work was as padded as a showgirl's bosom, and just as disappointing.
At the centre of Boy A was a moral dilemma about a boy called Jack. Jack is charming. Jack is slow and unworldly. Jack has been in prison for joyriding. He seems to like his job, in a delivery depot. He is a caring boyfriend, and a loyal friend, if prone to fly off the handle a little.
Then, one day, you discover something about Jack. He wasn't in prison for joyriding. As a boy he was convicted of murdering a young girl, jointly with his friend Philip (we are clearly meant to think of the boys who murdered James Bulger). He was demonised by the press; when you opened a tabloid at the pages headlined "Evil Comes of Age", it was Jack's face that you saw leering out at you. When you find this out, do you shun Jack? Do you dump him as a boyfriend, or sack him as an employee?
You could get this dilemma from a game of Scruples, but Boy A dragged it out much longer. Its suggestion that we can redeem ourselves and start again, if society will let us, was worth making, but the way it was made was often heavy-handed and dull. Jack's rescue of a small girl from a car crash was desperately cliched; his mother's depression flatly handled. The commitment to realism was token - a graphic sex scene had contraception conveniently left out. Despite a great performance from Andrew Garfield in the lead role (his spasmodic, angry nightclub dancing reminiscent of the last scene in Beau Travail), Boy A was only worth a B.
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