BBC and the 'Queen Mum'

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Tue Apr 2 17:29:08 MST 2002

Hypocrisy, hysteria and the BBC

'The BBC couldn't do it. Couldn't fill the airwaves with absurd fantasy, or
pretend viewers were more than mildly interested'

David Aaronovitch

02 April 2002

Three days is a long time to spend in a souvenir shop. In London, on Oxford
Street or Regent Street, you pass stores selling things that no British
person would ever buy: fridge magnets in the shape of the red phone boxes,
guardsmen, pictures of the Queen, souvenirs of a place that we don't
inhabit. The symbols of the real nation - semi-detached houses, school
uniforms, rubbish scattered everywhere and CDs of the manic hum of our
inventive popular culture - wouldn't sell to souvenir-buying visitors.

But for three days now there has been a persistent, painful attempt to flog
us all over-priced memorabilia of a world that doesn't exist any more, if it
ever did. That a former queen should die, aged nearly 102, is worthy of
comment. Such an event could lead us to think about, and cherish a bit more,
all our centenarians, all of whom have a life history that could fill us
with wonder. Had she written a bit, and offered a few interviews, we might
even have been left with some extraordinary historical insights.
Unfortunately she preferred racing and Lord Wyatt of Weeford.

We have been instructed to think of her as a near saint, an Anglican Mother
Teresa, without quite the same distressing fetish for helping the poor. In
the same rolling news gobbet she can be simultaneously described as uniquely
"good" and then have her capacity for hate (this for Wallis Simpson)
recalled. I don't remember an exemption in the "Love Thy Neighbour"
injunction that runs "except for American divorcees". Her undoubted sense of
duty has been elevated to a form of genius. And, according to Iain Duncan
Smith, she was simultaneously the nation's mother, grandmother and
great-grandmother. There are still families like that in the Appalachians.

Ex-prime ministers attest this and that. The dull roar of ponderous machines
fills the air. Occasionally this can be funny. Lord Rees-Mogg commended the
Queen Mother for her relative liveliness, confiding that: "Even as a child I
do not remember thinking of the British monarchy as being great fun. Indeed
there had been no great sense of fun in the court since the death of Charles

My unruly imagination furnishes me with an image of a younger Rees-Mogg, his
person outlined in the tight breeches of the time, suffering the longueurs
of a weekend with William IV. Or is it William IV who is suffering?

Chocolate-box peoples sing their obliquies. "To Scots, she was simply one of
ours" and "Cockneys pay tribute to their beacon in the Blitz". Cockneys!
Down at the Dog and Duck in Bow the regulars reminisce about how she walked
amongst them in 1940. Flanagan and Allen are singing "Underneath the
Arches", Vera Lynn has dropped in for a barley wine and PC Dixon is on the
beat outside. Lord Lieutenants and masters of fox-hounds drink toasts to a
fine old lady. And Dick Van Dyke weeps among the chimney pots.

Prince Charles's tribute to his grandma is, I don't doubt, sincere. And it
is also moving. But the country that has been depicted in the papers, on
television and on radio is not true. It is a silly pastiche. This
observation has nothing to do with republicanism, but concerns who we
actually are. The monarchy is not very important. We don't have knees-ups
down the boozer. We didn't think of this old lady as the nation's mother.

All this has less to do with the real world than even the story of the
bonking footballer. A woman wrote to the papers yesterday, commencing her
diatribe against the royalty with the words "I am a social worker" and then
informing everyone, indignantly (and worryingly) that she did "not give a
damn that this privileged 101-year-old is dead". She was the mirror of Lord
Rees-Moggs's irrelevance. She (I imagine) sees a world of satanic mills,
opera-going toffs and other such stuff.

No wonder the BBC got it wrong. They couldn't possibly have got it right.
Could they have gone to their first studio expert to be told that this death
had no constitutional significance? To their first outside broadcast to be
informed that no grieving crowds had turned up? To their first royal
correspondent to be assured that, in the scale of things, this was turning
out to be an event of marginal importance, if of slightly greater interest?
To schools to be met by bemusement? To populi being voxed who, when asked
"what did the Queen Mother mean to you?", say, truthfully, "not much"?

In 1993, when at the BBC, I discovered myself by some quirk, to be in
overall charge of the TV royal obits. They were unbelievable. Relics of the
time when prime ministers were never asked difficult questions. The tone of
all of them was not respectful, but obsequious. One sequence, in which the
Queen Mum went to Canada in the late 30s, had "Red Indians" giving a welcome
to "the Great White Mother". At that point, had she died, this obituary
would have been screened at the same time on all BBC TV channels, which
would otherwise have closed down for the best part of two days, showing a
flag at half-mast and playing sombre music.

The actual death found the Beeb in transition between Narnia and Britain.
Fleet Street preferred Narnia. The Corporation was attacked in most of the
newspapers. Somehow it had been discerned that the public disapproved of the
"lack of respect" shown to the monarchy. The Sun found a single 69-year-old
from Chigwell fuming at the BBC. The Mail's Tara Conlan was more inventive.
There had been "outrage" she claimed, "complaints poured in." Actually 500
had phoned. Of those the BBC didn't say how many were complaints. Tara just
made it up.

Lower down one of the Mail's most reliable men, Quentin Letts, accused
presenter Peter Sissons of outrageously pressing an interviewee for
"intimate details of the deathbed scene", and "with the last Empress of
India barely cold in her coffin". As it happens the Mail's front-page
headline yesterday morning was "Queen held her mother's hand as she softly
slipped away". The story went on: "It was, said one observer, as if she knew
the end was near." Just the kind of disgusting intimate detail that poor old
Sissons was looking for.

One or two of the BBC people provided the few moments of lucidity in a tepid
lake of drool. Letts felt that they hadn't "caught up with the public mood".
A public mood exemplified by his packed village church where "the national
anthem was sung to not a few tears". Hypocrisy unbounded.

The BBC couldn't do it any more. Couldn't fill the airwaves with absurd
fantasy, pretend to unknow what they knew, pretend that their viewers were
more than mildly interested, pretend Britain is a country of packed village
churches. They couldn't dissemble convincingly. They tried, God alone knows
that they tried. They put the few visitors to the palace in centre shot.

What for? What purpose does it all serve? Why project ourselves back to
ourselves as something that we are not? Why do the same people who insist on
depicting modern Britain as a crime-ridden hell, a wasteland of hypodermics
and used condoms populated by feral adolescents, also insist on a parallel
country that is supposedly full of docile, homogeneous patriots?

I think they are slightly mad.

David.Aaronovitch at

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