Queen Elizabeth II Gives Rare Off-the-Cuff Interview

Fans of the British monarchy will get a treat with a new documentary called The Coronation. Produced in collaboration with the BBC, the show will air on the Smithsonian Channel Sunday at 8:00 p.m. The documentary will feature a rare occurrence: an interview with Queen Elizabeth II, who almost never gives interviews in which she has to speak off-the-cuff. The queen will reminisce about her own coronation — which took place in 1953 — as well as the coronation of her father, George VI, who was crowned in 1937 when Elizabeth was 11.

The royals have been quite popular recently, with the return of the Netflix drama The Crown, as well as the announcement that Will and Kate are expecting their third child, and the engagement of Prince Harry to American Meghan Markle. So the documentary is sure to be well-received by fans on both sides of the Atlantic. But all this does beg the age-old question: what is it about the British monarchy that Americans love so much?

The glimpses we’ve gotten so far of the interview itself aren’t particularly groundbreaking. The queen speaks, rather haltingly, about how heavy the crown is, saying that if you were to try to bend your neck in order to read your speech, “your neck would break, it would fall off.” She also comments that, “Fortunately, my father and I have about the same sort of shaped head,” which made it easier for her to wear the crown that was made for her father. Not particularly inspiring stuff. But we’re hanging on her every word. Why?

Personally, I think it’s because moments like this confirm for us that the queen is really just a woman. A person. Like us. That’s what’s so fascinating about her. The task of the monarch, as the The Crown season 1 portrayed so well, is to become the monarchy. In everything she does and says, in every moment that she is seen by the public, she must be more than she is. She is a figurehead — the physical manifestation of centuries of tradition and protocol. And yet, underneath it all, there is a woman. A woman who has dedicated her life to her country so completely as to be almost unimaginable to us. Who is she, this woman? Is she anything like us?

The interview (or the snippets we’ve been able to glimpse in advance of the documentary’s airing on Sunday) is both disappointing and touching. Disappointing because the queen shows very little personality — answering in short sentences and shedding very little light on anything we don’t already know. But touching because, for all her years in the public eye, she comes across as rather uncomfortable and unsure. She’s very much not a celebrity in the American sense of the word, or even in the way that Will and Kate, or Prince Harry, are.

But the queen’s rather awkward answers and her shy smiles are television gold for fans of the royal family. We’re used to seeing the queen as aloof, polished, and poised. Like in her annual Christmas broadcasts, in which she delivers a speech she is obviously reading off a teleprompter.

But here she is, speaking off-the-cuff, and not totally knowing what to say. And yet, of course, we still don’t know her. Where is the woman who, reportedly, found it hilarious to receive a singing hamster doll from Meghan Markle as a Christmas present, for example? We’ll never know. And so we settle for these tantalizing tidbits. These glimpses beyond the facade of the figurehead and into the woman herself.

How can she do it, day after day? That’s what we all wonder. Could we do it? Would we want to?  In the interview, Elizabeth tellingly speaks of her coronation as “the beginning of one’s life, really, as a sovereign.” Perhaps that tells us more than anything else about who Elizabeth really is — she is a woman who was reborn into a role. Are Elizabeth the woman, and Elizabeth the queen one and the same? We must be resigned, I think, to never know.

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