The dividing line between performance and public life has become so blurred of late that it is often difficult to keep track of what is serious, and what is a spoof.
When, a few weeks ago, the sovereign was presented with a Bafta award, it was generally assumed that this ingratiating gesture by the film industry had more to do with self-promotion than any recognition of the Queen’s work. It was a sort of in-joke in which the Queen rather sportingly played her part.
Yet this week, when Her Majesty’s busiest imitator received yet another award for playing the part, it was the real Queen who was given the credit. She would be thrilled by this prize, said Dame Helen Mirren in her acceptance speech. In fact, the Queen deserved the award, having given “the most consistent and committed performance of the 20th century, and probably the 21st as well.”
Actors like to be modest when they are receiving awards – it is the role expected of them on these occasions – but here Dame Helen has touched on a truth that is as strange as it is obvious. An 87-year-old woman has earned the loyalty, even the adoration, of millions by playing a part, never once allowing the pressures of life or normal human frailty to impinge on her performance.
Whatever one’s view of the monarchy, it is an extraordinary achievement. Other members of her family may have stepped out of role by having opinions, making dodgy jokes, or (a fatal mistake) playing to the audience. She has not deviated once from the part – dignified, reassuringly dreary – which her subjects wish her to play.
The result has been that, like all great actresses, she has allowed others to project on to her their own versions of what they would like her to be. To the great army of commentators and “palace-watchers” who depend on her for their careers, she has a powerful, unseen influence on the way the country is governed. To the press, she is an emblem of the traditional virtues of duty and fortitude. To Prime Ministers (at least when they are being interviewed about her), she is an oracle of quiet political wisdom and knowledge. To good liberal writers like Alan Bennett and Peter Morgan, she has values and a sense of humour not unlike their own.
In Holland, where the monarch rather sensibly abdicates after a few decades, it has been reported that senior actors have been asked to give new members of the Royal Family acting lessons. Here, there will be no need for that: the lead role is being played by a natural.
All this poses problems for the future. The part the Queen has played, that of a woman who keeps her opinions to herself and quietly exerts influence without any unseemly show of ego, is simply an enlarged version of that played by many women of her class and generation. It will not be available to her successor.
Somehow it is difficult to imagine 20 years from now, a great theatrical knight – Sir Benedict Cumberbatch perhaps – receiving multiple awards for his affectionate yet respectful performances as the much-loved monarch King Charles III. While the Queen has always seemed comfortable playing her allotted part, her oldest son has tried various roles – action man, wit, playboy prince, celebrity, intellectual, gentleman farmer – but none has quite fitted his elusive talents. The one part he would dread to play, that of a solid, reliable chap who can be depended upon to turn up, shake hands and keep his mouth shut, is the one which awaits him.
As the recent past has shown, loyalty to the Royal Family is not unconditional. If the lead players are not behaving in the manner expected by their audience, it can turn into something very like hostility. Future versions of the British monarchy are likely to be rather less serene and reassuring than that being provided by the good Dame Helen on the West End stage.
Drugs for a better life? No thanks
For those who are finding that they are just a little stupider than they would like to be in their daily lives, there is good news from America. A little white pill called Provigil (modafinil) can, it is claimed, provide those who take it regularly with cognitive boost to the tune of an extra 20 points on their IQ. “It helps me be a better businessman and husband,” says David Asprey, a leading motivational speaker from (where else?) California.
Reducing the need for sleep, the pill, known as “Viagra for the brain”, enhances energy, clarity of thought and general “life performance”. It is particularly popular on Wall Street.
Is that a distant alarm bell I hear? In 2008, when the bankers, bug-eyed on greed and cocaine, led us all into the valley of recession, they were almost certainly talking nonsense about their exceptional clarity of thought and above-average life performance. One side-effect of this “smart drug” is that, coming off it, users return to what they call “an unclean reality”. Now that sounds distinctly familiar.