Tina Brown's Must Reads: The Queen's Jubilee
Tina Brown, editor of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, tells us what she's been reading in a feature that Morning Edition likes to call "Word of Mouth." This month, Brown shares reading recommendations on Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family. The Diamond Jubilee takes place over the weekend, marking 60 years of the queen's reign in Britain.
A Queen At 25
Brown first recommends a Newsweek article by historian Simon Schama that takes the reader back in time to Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953, a year after her proclamation as queen. While Queen Elizabeth seems like a national grandmother today, she was 26 at the time of her coronation, and in photos from the day she appears with a broad smile, "a real 'It Girl,' " Brown tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne.
"She was this young woman of great celebrity appeal actually," Brown says, "and her husband, Prince Philip, the young naval officer, was a real heartthrob."
Schama profiles the royal couple as well as evokes the postwar atmosphere of austerity in which Elizabeth became queen — rationing didn't end until 1954. Schama vividly describes how the nation's sacrifices played into the planning of the coronation.
"They had to really consider, for instance, for the first time whether or not the BBC cameras would be allowed in," Brown says. "Interestingly, Winston Churchill and his Cabinet were against it, as was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Churchill felt it would show too much riches and ermines and upper-class kind of overbearingness which might be very bad PR — and the Archbishop of Canterbury thought the reverse: that letting cameras in would kill the mystery and the mystique of the monarchy."
But it seemed that Elizabeth herself had not been consulted, and the decision not to have cameras present was reversed. As Schama writes: " 'The cabinet is not being crowned, I am,' she is said to have told the government."
"It was a crucial decision," Brown says, "because letting the cameras in allowed 52 percent of the British nation to watch it and really took them into the patriotism and the excitement and the color .. and set her reign off to a very, very popular moment."
Remembering A Reign
Brown next suggests The Queen: A Life in Brief by Robert Lacey, which Brown says gives a useful overview of Elizabeth's reign.
"It reminds you of great things," Brown says, "for instance, of Philip's great feeling for the queen when he was trying to persuade her mother to let him marry her."
In Philip's thank-you letter on the acceptance of his proposal to Elizabeth, he writes,
To have been spared in war and seen victory, to have been given the chance to rest and re-adjust myself, to have fallen in love completely and unreservedly, makes all one's personal and even the world's troubles seem small and petty.
Brown highlights another epoch from Elizabeth's reign — her time as a grandmother — that Lacey describes.
"She really made up for all her terrible troubles with her own children," Brown says, "by becoming a very, very good grandmother to William and Harry once they lost their mother, Diana."
Lacey writes that William, when he attended Eton College, would visit Queen Elizabeth every Sunday at Windsor Castle for tea.
"She would go through all kinds of fun historical mementos," Brown says, "and it has actually prepared him in a good, sort of sober way for the immense destiny that he faces."
The biography also touches on the more publicly contentious periods of the queen's reign, including Elizabeth's self-described "annus horribilis" in 1992 when members of the royal family divorced and a tell-all biography of Princess Diana came out. Not to mention the "Squidgygate" scandal that ensued after tapes surfaced of the princess's phone conversations with a close male friend.
"It was just a terrible year," Brown says, "that ended with Windsor Castle going up in flames and her having to really decide for the first time that the royal family would allow to be taxed. It was just the worst period for her."
Above The Fray, A Popular Queen
For whatever scandals the crown has suffered the past two decades, though, Brown's third recommendation — the result of a poll conducted by the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper — shows that support for the monarchy is as strong as it has ever been.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents in the poll said the country would be worse off without the monarchy, while 22 percent said the country would be better off.
"That 47 percent royalist margin is pretty incredible," Brown says, "when you consider they also recently have polled what people think about the three political leaders in England [Prime Minister David Cameron], [Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg], and [Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband], and those guys got 11, 12, and 27 percentage points off doing a bad job."
Although respondents said they would continue to support the monarchy after Elizabeth's death, when asked specifically about Prince Charles as king, reactions were more negative: Thirty-nine percent want the crown to go to Prince Charles next, while 48 percent want it to pass straight to Prince William. In the 1980s and '90s, Diana was the only one who rivaled the queen's ratings.
Brown says that the chances of the crown skipping a generation are highly unlikely, though the transition from one monarch to another may present a small window of opportunity for those who support Britain moving toward a republic to gain some traction.
That Queen Elizabeth has reigned for 60 years and remained popular, however, suggests a tactful, measured strategy, Brown suggests.
"I think it's an enormous tribute frankly to how she has comported herself in this very, very difficult and oftentimes thankless job," Brown says. "She has just always been absolutely discreet, understanding the limitations of being a head of state in a constitutional monarchy. She simply has done her job with such judicious discretion that, in the end, people celebrate that she has been such an impeccable monarch."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Tina Brown of The Daily Beast and Newsweek is with us once again for our regular feature Word of Mouth. She shares what she's been reading, and we get some recommendations. Tina's been thinking about Queen Elizabeth, as have many people, because Queen Elizabeth is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, 60 years as Britain's monarch, this weekend. Good morning, Tina.
TINA BROWN: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's start with an article that is the cover of this week's Newsweek that takes us back in time to Queen Elizabeth's coronation. And I think something very important here - it's by Simon Schama, the wonderful, great historian. But one thing that's really key here is, I think, how young she is, and in fact how young she looks when you think of her really as such a grandmother.
BROWN: Well, yes, we put her on the cover of Newsweek this week as a young woman. I mean, you see this wonderful picture of her smiling like a kind of real It girl, you know, 'cause she was only 27, just a graduate student age, really.
I mean, it's hard to believe it today, but she was this young woman of great sort of celebrity appeal, actually. And, you know, her husband, Prince Philip, the young naval officer, was a real heartthrob, a real hunk, which, again, people don't remember today.
MONTAGNE: Or quite think of him that way, but in fact they made this lovely couple, and also it came in a time when Britain was emerging from and still in the midst of wartime sacrifices.
BROWN: Yes, well, Simon Schama in this piece really does, I think, evoke the atmosphere of this sort of post-war period, which we tend to forget, which was - Britain was still in - had ration books. There was a great sense of austerity, and also a lot of grieving for the lost young men of the war. And all of those things factor into the planning of the coronation.
So his piece does this wonderfully vivid deep dive into everything that went into the coronation day itself 60 years ago, how they had to really consider, for instance, for the first time whether or not the BBC cameras would be allowed in.
And interestingly, Winston Churchill and his cabinet were very much against it, as was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Churchill felt that it would show far too much riches and ermines and upper class kind of overbearingness, which might be very bad PR. And the Archbishop of Canterbury thought the reverse, which was that letting cameras in would kill the mystery and the mystique of the monarchy.
But it seemed that no one had actually asked Elizabeth herself, because she said the cabinet are not being crowned queen, I am. And so the decision not to have cameras was reversed. And of course it was a crucial decision, because letting the cameras allowed, you know, 52 percent of the British nation to watch it, and really took them into the patriotism and the excitement and the color and so on, which set her reign off to the(ph) very, very popular moment.
MONTAGNE: You also suggest a book called "The Queen: A Life in Brief," by Robert Lacey. Now, you write a biography on Princess Diana. What did you learn about the royal family that you didn't know before?
BROWN: Well, I mean what Lacey's book does is just give you a great sort of gallop through the life, fast, which, you know, is actually a useful thing at the time of this great jubilee. You know, my own book, "Diana Chronicles" was really - took the dive into that very troubled period in the queen's life with her family when everything went wrong.
In fact, in 1992 she had what she called her annus horribilis, which was the worst year of her life, where everybody got divorced, and you know, there was a ghastly embarrassment at every turn, Princess Diana caught on that tape, talking to her lover in the famous Squidgygate tape.
It was just a terrible year that ended with Windsor Castle going up in flames, and her having to really decide that for the first time the royal family would allow to be taxed. It was just the worst period for her.
The Lacey book, though, is a lot fun because you just get the whole sort of sweep through the life. And, you know, it reminds you of great things, for instance, of Philip's great feeling, for instance, for the queen when he was trying to persuade her mother to let him marry her, which is really an extraordinary thing when you think back.
And he says, you know, to have been spared in war and seen victory, to have been given the chance to adjust and re-adjust myself, to have fallen in love completely and unreservedly. And he also describes, actually, how terrific she's been as a grandmother. She really made up for all her terrible troubles with her own children by becoming a very, very good grandmother to William and Harry once they lost their mother, Diana.
William, for instance, every Sunday at 4:00 would go from Eaton, where he was at school, over to Windsor Castle, which is very near, and have tea with the queen, and she would go through all kinds of fun, historical mementos, and it has actually prepared him in a very good, sort of sober way for the immense destiny that he faces.
MONTAGNE: Well, Robert Lacey's biography, "The Queen: A Life in Brief," doesn't, though, gloss over some of the ugliness that we've all been privy to over these last couple of decades. But still, at the Diamond Jubilee apparently support for the monarchy is stronger than ever in Britain.
BROWN: Yeah, there's a very interesting piece I was reading in The Guardian last week. They did a poll which showed that the queen has just had this amazing endurable popularity. Sixty-nine percent of the respondents in the poll said that Britain would be worse off without the monarchy against 22 percent saying that they'd be better off without them.
I mean that 47 percent royalist margin is pretty incredible when you consider they also recently had polled, you know, what people think about the three political leaders (unintelligible) Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. And those guys got 11, 12 and 27 percentage points of doing a bad job. So the queen out-polls everybody.
But what is interesting, though, about the poll is that it shows that although the respondents did say they would continue to support the monarchy after her death, when it got a little more specific about, well, what about Prince Charles as king, then they're less enthusiastic.
So there, I suppose, is a tiny sort of window for Republicans that people are not enthusiastic about Charles and Camilla coming next, and really would like them to - the monarchy to skip a generation and go straight to William and Kate, which of course isn't going to happen because there's no way that William is going to become like the Young Pretender leading an insurgency against his father.
And anyone who knows anything about Prince Charles will know that the mournful heir to the throne, who has waited and waited like some sort of diligent sort of miserable, you know, in-the-wings figure all these years, is not going to finally give up the chance to sit on the throne, because he's really waited an awful long time. He'll probably be in his 70s when it finally happens, because of course the queen's own mother lived till she was 102.
MONTAGNE: At this point, when we do look back over these years, though, Queen Victoria was the only other British monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee, and that was back in 1897. What does it mean that Elizabeth, who was never supposed to be queen, who was not born to be queen, has reigned for 60 years and is still so popular?
BROWN: Well, I think it's an enormous tribute, frankly, to the way she has comported herself in this very, very difficult and oftentimes thankless job. I mean, she has played the long game better than anyone one can think of. I mean, she has understood from the beginning, for instance, even not to become too celebrated and popular.
I mean, you know, Prince Philip once said, don't get too popular, it's much safer, meaning that they understood the great difference between sort of star power and celebrity, and actually being a carefully played out, discrete, always dignified figure who knew when to keep her mouth shut.
For instance, you know, Prince Charles is constantly brimming with opinions and shooting off his mouth about how much he hates architecture or disapproves of the Chinese, or whatever, and the queen has never done it. I mean, she has just always been absolutely discrete, understanding the limitations of being a head of state in a constitutional monarchy. She simply has done her job with such great judicious discretion that in the end people certainly celebrate the fact that she has been such a pretty much impeccable monarch.
MONTAGNE: Word of Mouth from Tina Brown. Tina, it's been a pleasure talking to you as always.
BROWN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.