Walking the Dogs, Sky Arts, Thursday
The Queen and I, ITV, Monday
The Market: Smithfield, BBC2, Thursday
There's no avoiding the Queen right now, and as a gentle play reminded us, she can't escape either
Sunday 03 June 2012
Perhaps, before we start, you'd like a moment to express your admiration for our Queen? With the Jubilee-tastic scheduling, it feels as if television was invented for the sole purpose of allowing anyone and everyone to sing the praises of Her Majesty, Ma'am, Mummy (depending on who happens to be holding the eulogising stick). All perfectly in order, given the occasion, but the strictly celebratory rarely makes compelling viewing, which is why anything not involving a panoply of royal correspondents has been most welcome – even if still on a royal theme.
Walking the Dogs, part of Sky Arts' Playhouse Presents series, was a more oblique offering, a fictional reimagining of the encounter between the Queen and Michael Fagan, the man who broke in to Buckingham Palace in 1982 and may or may not have sat on her four-poster shooting the breeze until help arrived.
Emma Thompson took the role of our monarch, perhaps mindful of the peculiar reverence that automatically comes an actor's way these days when they put in a half-decent portrayal of a royal (Kate Winslet's Extras advice that "you're guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental" perhaps needs updating).
Her interpretation wasn't literal – the accent a little less cut glass and, in a cotton nightie rather than twin set and Barbour, the iconography reduced – but Thompson captured that singular steeliness without froideur that defines our perception of the Queen. Her exchange with Eddie Marsan's Fagan – here a decent, everyman type pushed to the brink by marital breakdown – was convincing, though the tension was dulled by the fact that we know everything ended tamely enough, blunting Marsan's shifts between meek and menacing.
Overall, there were few wildly original ideas in play and the script at times over-egged the parallels between an ordinary bloke trying to hold it all together and the duty-bound monarch, but then it didn't pretend to be a grand philosophical exchange and its gentle humour was endearing ("You'd never be able to just take off without being recognised, what with the stamps," Fagan observes). What it did very well though was pinpoint why it's easier for many of us to identify with the Queen than with, say, an equities trader from Goldman Sachs. Whatever you think about monarchy in the abstract, nobody could deny that life must be deeply restrictive for a modern royal.
The first episode of ITV's sweet two-parter, The Queen and I, a history told through home videos and amateur snaps of HM, took a similarly refreshing sideways approach. On one hand it was a portrait of the changing face of the UK during the Sixties and Seventies, taking in royal visits to new towns and children's homes. On the other, it was a neat demonstration of how such public occasions are rich sites of collective memory, as interviewees revisited moments such as the purchase of a new toilet seat in case their visitor needed the loo, with palpable relish.
Interestingly, those who had got up close were united in their adjectives – "beautiful" was an unexpected favourite, and everyone stressed that she had "no airs and graces". Which suggests that it wasn't Princess Diana who invented glamour and charm in the royal sphere.
In a break from the Jubilee, we headed deep into the City for The Market: Inside Smithfield, the second of what's proving to be a fascinating mini-series exploring London's food markets, this time focusing on the meat trade. It's hard not to feel nostalgic about this bastion of tangible exchange holding out in the physical centre of the capital's nebulous financial sector. The theatrics of the Christmas Eve auction or the initiation rituals (lots of pig's blood) seem to reach back to the market's medieval origins. While the dubious rhetoric regarding "ethnics" and women would be better consigned to a distant past, it was hard to discern real prejudice, since the brutally competitive spirit of the place seemed to demand that everyone got a hard time. Next up is fruit and veg at Spitalfields – a better telly week for vegetarians as well as republicans.
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