Queen Elizabeth looks with ‘hope and optimism’ to Platinum Jubilee that comes amid uncertainty, family strife | CBC News

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There is no playbook for how to mark 70 years as monarch.

Add in a pandemic, family strife and other uncertainties, and it’s hard to gauge just how the unprecedented Platinum Jubilee will unfold for Queen Elizabeth.

“I think it will be, on the whole, a subdued celebration,” John Fraser, author of The Secret of the Crown: Canada’s Affair with Royalty, said in an interview.

“The whole business is compounded not just by the [coronavirus pandemic], but by the fact that the Queen’s been hit with a kind of triple whammy. 

“She’s lost her husband [Prince Philip]. She’s got a grandson [Prince Harry] that’s bolted and she’s got a son [Prince Andrew] who has demeaned his position. Those are all coming at the onset of her Jubilee.”

Sunday is seven decades to the day — Feb. 6, 1952 — that Princess Elizabeth became Queen.

“It is a day that, even after 70 years, I still remember as much for the death of my father, King George VI, as for the start of my reign,” she said in a message Saturday to mark her accession.

Queen Elizabeth, right, and her husband, Prince Philip, centre with back to camera, are greeted on their arrival at London Airport on Feb. 7, 1952. The royal couple cut short their official trip to Kenya and returned home following her father’s death the day before. (The Associated Press)

Elizabeth learned of her father’s death while on a trip in Kenya. Since then, she has been steadfast in her devotion to the role, doing what she has seen as her unwavering duty as a constitutional monarch, even as the world around her has changed dramatically.

She repeated that commitment in the message Saturday that looked both back on the past seven decades and ahead with “a sense of hope and optimism” for her Jubilee year. 

“As we mark this anniversary, it gives me pleasure to renew to you the pledge I gave in 1947 that my life will always be devoted to your service,” she said in the message signed “Your servant, Elizabeth R.” 

Jubilees offer a chance to mark a monarch’s milestones, but there is no set formula for how they will unfold. In ways, they have also been influenced by society at the time.

“We often see Jubilees as being these opportunities to stop and reflect, and of course, there’s a very strong emphasis with Jubilee celebrations for local communities to come together and celebrate,” Toronto-based royal author and historian Carolyn Harris said in an interview.

Queen Elizabeth meets with guests during the reception at Sandringham House on Saturday. (Joe Giddens/The Associated Press)

Elizabeth emphasized her hope that the Jubilee will offer that chance to come together, while also acknowledging the troubled times of the last while.

“As I look forward to continuing to serve you with all my heart, I hope this Jubilee will bring together families and friends, neighbours and communities — after some difficult times for so many of us — in order to enjoy the celebrations and to reflect on the positive developments in our day-to-day lives that have so happily coincided with my reign.”

The first Jubilee, which was widely observed both in the United Kingdom and around the world, marked five decades for King George III, although celebrations got started in the 49th year of his reign (1809) in part because of concerns about his health, Harris said.

Later in the 19th century, Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees celebrated her role as grandmother of Europe — so many of her children had married European royalty — and also as head of the British Empire.

Queen Elizabeth has marked various Jubilees, starting with her silver anniversary in 1977. 

Queen Elizabeth smiles as a spectator takes a photograph of her on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 16, 1977, during her Silver Jubilee visit to Canada. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

“Her 40th anniversary of her accession to the throne didn’t receive as much attention as that was also the annus horribilis, with the breakdown of the marriages of three of her four children,” said Harris.

In Elizabeth’s case, said Harris, it’s interesting to see that in the lead-up to her Silver and Golden Jubilees, the media expressed concern about whether the public would come out to honour her. 

“There had been difficulties within the Royal Family in the 1990s and difficult economic conditions in Britain” in the 1970s, she said.  

“But for both the Silver and Golden Jubilees … the public acclaim far exceeded the expectations expressed by the press and there was confidence going into the Diamond Jubilee [in 2012] that there would be a great deal of public acclaim.”

As her Platinum Jubilee is marked, it offers a chance to reflect on what has changed — and what has remained the same — for Elizabeth and the monarchy over the past 70 years.

Queen Elizabeth smiles after being presented with a feather by Chief R. Donald Maracle of the Bay of Quinte Mohawks at the Festival of Ontario in Toronto on Oct. 9, 2002, during her Golden Jubilee visit to Canada. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

“What’s stayed the same,” said Fraser, is “she’s a model constitutional monarch, and set the model.

“What’s changed is the world around her. The changes that she has seen are extraordinary. There isn’t the same deference to anything.”

In her statement Saturday, Elizabeth acknowledged that changing world, while also giving a nod to the future.

“These last seven decades have seen extraordinary progress socially, technologically and culturally that have benefited us all; and I am confident that the future will offer similar opportunities to us and especially to the younger generations in the United Kingdom and throughout the Commonwealth.” 

One of the things that distinguishes Elizabeth, Fraser said, is her forbearance, something that’s been on display during visits to Canada.

“She has done everything we’ve asked her to do. And she has gone through some tough periods when she’s been booed and backs turned on her in Quebec.”

One of the “quite evocative” moments, said Fraser, came during the years of turmoil that preceded the 1995 Quebec referendum. 

“She said she wasn’t a fair-weather friend, that she was glad to be in the country during a time of trouble,” said Fraser.

“There was no mandate to avoid trouble in becoming the sovereign of Canada, so to me that speaks to her genius, her quiet genius, in how to sail through all of the constitutional and emotional and political storms that have surrounded 70 years in Canada alone.”

Queen Elizabeth looks at a fan as she views a display of memorabilia in the Oak Room at Windsor Castle in England on Friday. The fan was presented to Queen Victoria to mark her Golden Jubilee in 1887. (Steve Parsons/Getty Images)

In her message, the Queen also reflected “on the goodwill shown to me by people of all nationalities, faiths and ages in this country and around the world over these years,” and offered “thanks to you all for your support.” 

The message had a marked personal tone, too, as she turned her attention to those closest to her, saying she is “fortunate to have had the steadfast and loving support of my family.”

“I was blessed that in Prince Philip I had a partner willing to carry out the role of consort and unselfishly make the sacrifices that go with it.”

Ten years ago, the Queen’s children and grandchildren travelled around the world to mark her Diamond Jubilee, but there has been no indication so far of any royal visits, and it’s hard to say, given the pandemic, to what extent members of the Royal Family may do international trips this year.

“In 2022, there’s going to be real interest in what happens going forward, as there has been a hiatus in big Commonwealth tours with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Harris.

“While there is a great groundswell of popular affection for the Queen and interest in this record-breaking milestone …  there are these unpredictable factors that may affect the celebrations.”

Queen Elizabeth is joined by one of her dogs in the Oak Room at Windsor Castle on Friday. (Steve Parsons/The Associated Press)

Showing another perspective

Before Toronto playwright Marcia Johnson watched The Crown‘s version of that fateful trip Princess Elizabeth took to Kenya in early 1952, she had high hopes for what the Netflix drama would do with that episode of royal history.

“I could see they were filming in Africa … and I just thought: ‘Oh, they’re going to pay more attention to … the colonial effects in Africa. I thought this is a new day.'”

It wasn’t.

In the performance of the play Serving Elizabeth at the Stratford Festival in Ontario in 2021, Arlene Duncan, left, played Mercy, a cook hired to cater for the 1952 royal visit to Kenya in 1952 by Princess Elizabeth, played by Sara Topham, right. (David Hou/Stratford Festival)

“The Black people … they were securely in the background and I just thought it was a missed opportunity,” Johnson said in an interview.

She wanted to address that missed opportunity herself, and as luck would have it, Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ont., was looking for playwrights who wanted to write about the effects of colonialism.

She said she “pitched an idea to them very quickly and they accepted me.”

Toronto playwright Marcia Johnson says she wanted ‘to show another perspective’ with her play Serving Elizabeth. (Joanna Haughton)

That idea became her play Serving Elizabeth, which tells the story of Mercy, a staunch anti-monarchist who is hired to cater for that 1952 visit by Elizabeth to Kenya. Alongside that part of the plot, there is another story unfurling, this one in a pre-Brexit England of 2015, where a Canadian who was born in Kenya has a job as an intern for a TV drama about the Royal Family.

“I just wanted to give voice to the people,” Johnson said.

“Every Black person in that episode [of The Crown] was just so deferential and adoring of [Elizabeth]. But meanwhile … the Mau Mau uprising was bubbling away and a lot of people feared for Elizabeth and Philip going to Kenya at that time … because not everyone loved her and what she represented.

“I just thought if I were to let the Black people speak, I wanted to show another perspective.”

That Johnson would be inspired by an episode of The Crown — itself the product of the mind of creator Peter Morgan — is in keeping with a long-standing artistic tradition.

“A huge amount of art, and creativity, and productivity and cultural offerings is the response of one writer to the work of other writers,” Robert Morrison, British Academy global professor at Bath Spa University, said in an interview. 

Virgilia Griffith, left, as Faith and Duncan as Mercy in Serving Elizabeth at the Stratford Festival in 2021. (David Hou/Stratford Festival)

Morrison wasn’t familiar with Johnson’s play, but considers it a “fantastic idea.” And he sees it as an example of how art can reflect and be influenced by the cultural ideas of the time in which it is created.

“Art doesn’t get produced in a vacuum. It gets produced in a kind of cultural vortex,” he said.

“There’s all kinds of things that art does and can do [on the] personal, private, domestic level … but art, to me, should also have a very vibrant social role, and a play, like the one that we’re discussing, [it] seems to me that’s how you advance the world.”

For Johnson, it was important that her play include the two eras: Kenya in 1952 and the U.K. in 2015.

“I wanted to show that the past and present aren’t as far apart as we think … that there are things we could have learned from the past.” 

Johnson also “wanted to show how important it is for artists to use their power” because people — even though they might not admit it — are learning history from movies and plays and books. 

WATCH | Why The Crown ran into criticism in Season 4:

The Crown faces criticism for its take on ’80s royal history

Season 4 of The Crown has proven popular with viewers, but because it is based on relatively recent history it’s facing more criticism for distorting real-life events. 2:16

“It’s up to us, as we have that power to say: ‘Well, OK, I’m going to include the voices of marginalized people, the underrepresented people and tell the story.'”

Johnson, who was born in Jamaica, acknowledges her own complicated view of the monarchy.

“As a little girl, I loved fairy tales, so when I found out that there were real live queens and princesses, I found it all very romantic. I didn’t look at things in a political way at all. I didn’t think of any connection to my own history in Jamaica,” she said.

“I can still look at the monarchy and say: I understand that they are people. I understand that they were born into something. I don’t have anger toward them as individuals, but as far as the institution goes, I really do think something has to change.”

Serving Elizabeth has been produced on four stages, including at the Stratford Festival in Ontario last year. It will have its U.S. debut with the Peterborough Players in Peterborough, N.H., in July.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip inspect the guard of honour at the Kenya Regiment Headquarters on Feb. 3, 1952. (Chris Ware/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Staunch monarchists have told Johnson they love it, she said. So have staunch anti-monarchists.

“My favourite comment,” she said, and she’s heard it more than once, is: “I never thought of it that way.”

Rather enigmatically, Johnson, who has been writing plays since 1995, promises “there’s more to come.”

“Not maybe specifically about the Royal Family, but my dedication to my work now is to just show that we were there, to give voice to people who get overlooked in the big storytelling,” she said.

“I’m just going to keep on doing that, and I’m going to keep on loving it when people say, ‘I never thought of it that way.'”

Another signal Camilla will be called Queen

Queen Elizabeth, left, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, arrive on the second day of the annual Royal Ascot horse-race meeting in Ascot, England, on June 19, 2019. (Alastair Grant/The Associated Press)

As much as Queen Elizabeth’s Accession Day message was a reflection on her reign, she also used it to send a significant signal about the next one.

“When, in the fullness of time, my son Charles becomes king,” she said, “I know you will give him and his wife Camilla the same support that you have given me; and it is my sincere wish that, when that time comes, Camilla will be known as Queen Consort as she continues her own loyal service.”

Whether Camilla will be called Queen has been a point of some contention and sensitivity. Before they married, it had been announced that Camilla would be known as Princess Consort, a move that may have been something of an exercise in public relations. 

But observers have noted how she has gradually gained more acceptance from a public that held little warmth for her before her marriage to Charles, remembering her ongoing involvement with him during his ultimately doomed marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales.

Charles and Camilla were “touched and honoured” by the Queen’s gesture, British media reported a Clarence House spokesperson as saying.

Royally quotable

“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” 

Princess Elizabeth, on her 21st birthday, April 21, 1947.

Royal reads

  1. Prince Andrew denies being a close friend of convicted sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell in a legal response to the woman who is suing him in the U.S. for sexual assault. Andrew’s lawyers also say he wants to go before a jury to contest the lawsuit launched by Virginia Giuffre. [BBC]

  2. Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, say they are concerned about COVID-19 misinformation on Spotify, but remain committed to continuing their work with the music streaming service. [The Guardian]

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