Queen Elizabeth II, 1926-2022: How her majesty guided a nation

The Queen – the longest reigning monarch in British history – was a figure of continuity as her country changed in the 20th century, through the millennium and into the 21st century.

Steadfast and dependable, Elizabeth II steered the monarchy and the nation through ups and downs for more than 70 years. She devoted her life to service without fuss or grumbling and was one of the most famous faces on the planet.

Rare television documentaries over the years offered intriguing insights into the Queen’s character, from her work ethic to her comic wit, and she graced Radio Times’ front cover more times than any other person in history, appearing on 43 occasions.

Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on 21st April 1926 – the same year Scottish inventor John Logie Baird gave the world’s first public demonstration of a television.

Nicknamed Lilibet, the princess was a sensible, bright, methodical and tidy child who led a sheltered early life. She was not expected to be Queen, but the abdication of her uncle Edward VIII changed everything when Elizabeth’s father acceded to the throne as George VI when she was 10.

As a 14-year-old she first appeared on Radio Times’ front page in her own right in October 1940 during the Second World War as she prepared to broadcast to evacuated youngsters around the world on the BBC radio programme Children’s Hour. Just over a year earlier she made her debut on the magazine’s cover, pictured in June 1939 in a carriage with her family.

On her 21st birthday, the Princess vowed, in a wireless broadcast from South Africa, that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service”. At the time she was already secretly engaged to the dashing Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, who became the Duke of Edinburgh, and they wed, post the Second World War, in 1947.

But less than five years later, their lives changed forever when the King died on February 6 1952 and the 25-year-old became Queen. The new monarch was crowned 16 months later in a deeply religious ceremony in Westminster Abbey on 2nd June 1953. Tens of thousands of people braved pouring rain to line the streets and 20 million around the country watched the event on the blossoming new medium of television.

Despite initial reservations, the Queen eventually agreed to cameras being present in the Abbey to capture the historic moment. Licence holders doubled from one-and-a-half million to three million in anticipation and many people rented a set just for the day.

It was just the beginning of the Queen’s lifelong appearances on screen – she was rarely in public without a lens trained in her direction. Traditionally, the Queen’s Christmas message was delivered on the radio, but in 1957 she gave the first televised one, live from Sandringham, saying she hoped it would be “more personal and direct”.

She has delivered a Christmas broadcast on screen every year except for 1969, when she decided the royals had been on TV enough. That was the year of the ground-breaking BBC documentary Royal Family which offered the first real look at the private life of the Queen and her children.

Shot in colour, it was a PR drive to highlight the Windsors’ ‘ordinary’ side. The Queen, the Prince of Wales, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward were shown enjoying a picnic at Balmoral, where a kilted Prince Philip cooked sausages on a barbecue. Directed by Richard Cawston, it followed the monarchy for a year.

Anne later revealed she thought the concept was a “rotten idea” which only brought more attention. Watched by millions, it whetted the public’s appetite for what they wanted to know about the royals. The footage has never been broadcast in full since and was believed to have been withdrawn from use at the Queen’s request.

In 1992 – the 40th anniversary of the Queen’s reign – the documentary crews returned, with the BBC filming Edward Mirzoeff’s Elizabeth R. The monarch spoke frankly about her deep sense of duty and insisted her role was “a job for life”.

She was also shown as a witty woman, telling former Prime Minister Ted Heath he was “expendable now” and quipping about the then-Polish president: “He only knows two English words (pause). They are quite interesting words…”

Televised addresses, other than at Christmas, were a rare occasion but were an important feature of the monarch’s reign in times of crisis such as the death of Diana, or on special occasions such as a Jubilee.

During the coronavirus crisis, the Queen appeared twice, first telling a nation in lockdown “We will meet again”, and then on the VE Day 75th anniversary, she reiterated the war-time message of “Never give up, never despair”.

The Queen always had a busy schedule dealing with official engagements and matters of state, but she liked to make time for time for a spot of radio and TV. She used to listen to Sir Terry Wogan on BBC Radio 2 and was a fan of The Archers, while Downton Abbey, Silent Witness, EastEnders, The Bill, New Tricks, Midsomer Murders, the quiz show Pointless and Line of Duty also got the royal seal of approval during the Queen’s long reign.

During her historic Platinum Jubilee celebrations in 2022, millions gathered in her honour. The Queen delighted well-wishers on The Mall by appearing on the Palace balcony and amused viewers by starring alongside Paddington Bear in a comedy sketch for the BBC’s Party at the Palace concert.

It demonstrated not only the Queen’s ability to surprise even in her twilight years, but her capacity to embrace humour alongside the serious business of being head of state.

For more than 70 years, the Queen served as a devoted sovereign and a symbol of stability, with the majority of people knowing no other monarch on the British throne. Her dedication to her duty was unwavering and the Queen’s unparalleled commitment to her country forever earned her a treasured place in the heart of the nation.

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