Terence Blacker: Elizabethans we would rather forget about

The first Elizabethans had Shakespeare, we had Harold Pinter; they had Sir Walter Raleigh, we have Fred Goodwin; they had Francis Drake, we have Simon Cowell

Terence Blacker
Monday 21 May 2012 19:55

In a game attempt to whip up a spirit of nostalgia and patriotism across the country in time for the Queen's Jubilee, the BBC has drawn a list of 60 famous people who have "defined a reign". Its august panel of judges, which includes Bamber Gascoigne and Sir Max Hastings, has come up with a glittering roll-call of what they call "new Elizabethans".

Billy Connolly is there, and so is David Trimble. Babs Windsor made the cut, along with Alex Salmond and Lord Sainsbury. According to the chair of selectors, Lord Hall, the list shows that "the epoch of Queen Elizabeth II is even more exciting and interesting than that of her namesake, Elizabeth I". Time will tell whether this boast is justified. The first Elizabethans had Shakespeare, we had Harold Pinter; they had Sir Walter Raleigh, we have Fred Goodwin; they had Francis Drake, we have Simon Cowell. It is a tough call. All the same, it seems fairly obvious that a certain amount of self-kidding is going on here. The problem is that it is rather difficult to make the past 60 years seem heroic. Looking back, it is difficult to ignore new Elizabethans who have defined the age, but in an altogether less comforting way.

1952-62 Unfairly characterised either as the dull and grey backwash of the war, or joyless precursor of the great party of the next decade, this period produced several new Elizabethans whom we would prefer to forget. There were unfunny comics (Tommy Trinder, Harry Worth). Continuity announcers, notably Katie Boyle, were unconvincingly posh. The charts were dominated by bland white versions of songs created by better black singers and groups; Pat Boone, a slick and grinning American, was particularly adept at this musical pilfering.

In the end though, the age-defining new Elizabethan of the 1950s would have to be the Persil mum who appeared in TV ads, standing at a sink. "What is a mum?" asked a gentle, male commentary.

1962-72. In this golden age for Elizabethans that history should forget, the music industry was particularly productive. There was the endlessly annoying Dave Clark Five, and the nigglingly derivative Donovan. In the media, Malcolm Muggeridge, once a good journalist, became a crashing bore on the subject of permissiveness. In the end, though, the nomination must go to the guru to the stars, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Like Rupert Murdoch in the BBC's list, he is something of an honorary Elizabethan, but his brain-softening influence on the pop world, his hair and his silly giggle all suggested a fake unworldliness which summed up the Sixties.

1972-82 What Tom Wolfe described as "the Me decade" could supply the complete list of undesirable Elizabethans on its own. Gary Glitter, with his silly clothes, platform-soled shoes and hideous voice was a ghastly national presence even before his descent into shame. There was a bouncy Tory peer called Lord Hailsham who regularly made a fool of himself. The nomination, though, must go to Michael Parkinson whose introduction of a blokeish yet simpering form of fame-worship heralded the age of celebrity.

1982-92. It was not so much an age of greed as one of snobbery. A revived fascination in the Royal Family was ignited, and still glows. Very near the top of the list of Elizabethans we could happily forget must be Prince Andrew, closely followed by his ex-wife Fergie. Then there were political hangers-on, enjoying the smack of firm Thatcherite government. The nomination from the Eighties, though, must go to the Old Harrovian chump Mark Thatcher, whose combination of dimness and dodginess epitomised the age.

1992-2002. Now the competition for places is hotting up. Sir Richard Branson, smiling modestly as he hogs any available limelight, is a strong contender, and surely there's space for Esther Rantzen. The Pet Shop Boys deserve a place on any list of dispensable Elizabethans. But the authentic voice of the late Nineties – bossy, nannyish and patronising – must claim pride of place. Of the many New Labour nominees, Harriet Harman and Geoff Hoon have the race between them.

2002-12. It has been a time when the world became as awestruck by the famous as Michael Parkinson had once been. There is no limit to the list of regrettable Elizabethans from recent years: George Galloway, Carol Vorderman, Jeremy Clarkson, Ray Wilkins, Alan Carr, Frankie Boyle. Baroness Warsi is making a late challenge. One figure, in the end, demands to be recognised before all others.

Katie Price, whose brand name is Jordan, embodies such a perfect combination of exhibitionism, marketing savvy and lack of any obvious talent that she represents the Elizabethan age more precisely than anyone on the BBC's list.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments