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nt live: the audience

THE AUDIENCE-001
Richard McCabe (Harold Wilson), Helen Mirren (Queen Elizabeth) and Edward Fox (Winston Churchill). Pic Dave Benett

“If you want to know how it is that the monarchy in this country has survived as long as it has – don’t look to its monarchs. Look to its prime ministers.” THE AUDIENCE

They don’t get much better than this. Along with most of my colleagues I am searching for superlatives to describe THE AUDIENCE, filmed at the Gielgud Theatre in London.

For sixty years Elizabeth II has met each of her twelve Prime Ministers in a weekly audience at Buckingham Palace – a meeting like none other in British public life – it is private. Both parties have an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said. Not even to their spouses. Neither the Queen nor any of the Prime Ministers have broken this bond of trust.

THE AUDIENCE breaks this contract of silence – and imagines a series of pivotal meetings between the Downing Street incumbents and their Queen. The Buckingham Palace designs are imposingly spacious and feature two yellow chairs. This is contrasted with the rather staid and dreary designs for Balmoral which PM Wilson delightfully teases Her Majesty about.  In an unbroken line, from Churchill to Cameron, (a ‘Dirty Dozen’ as Her Majesty jokingly says) each Prime Minister has used these private conversations as part therapy,  sounding board and confessional, – sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive …

The parade of prime ministers is thematic here, not chronological. There is no Tony Blair, no Alec Douglas-Home and no Edward Heath. John Major, who bursts into tears about his lack of O levels, (Her Majesty offers a hanky) is here given a respectful, rather low key portrayal in line with his personality.

There is a magnificent scene change when we first see Churchill (Edward Fox), drawing gasps from the audience. He is solidly fixed and somewhat uncomprehending as the young Queen, still in her mourning frock, argues that she should take her husband Philip’s name for the sake of his pride.

Haydn Gwynne’s Thatcher is amazing, tall, stalking, severe in a pin stripe suit and lacquered hair .The battle of wits between her and the monarch over South Africa is delightful, a thrilling duel of words.

Her Majesty’s rather appalled questions to Anthony Eden about the legality of the Suez invasion hint at the difficult times ahead.

Richard McCabe is magnificent and moving as Harold Wilson, who we see facing early Alzheimer’s and the loss of his prodigious photographic memory. PM Wilson is   presented as being somewhat of a Royal favourite. Both Anthony Eden and Gordon Brown admit to taking pills to deal with their stress and depression.

Above all, THE AUDIENCE is a vehicle for the amazing Helen Mirren as Her Majesty, featuring very tightly choreographed wig and costume changes. Mirren is brilliant. From young mother to grandmother, these private audiences chart the arc of the second Elizabethan Age. Politicians come and go through the revolving door of electoral politics, while she remains a fixed constant, ready and waiting to welcome her next Prime Minister.

Peter Morgan’s play, directed by Stephen Daldry, is respectful, full of warmth, witty dialogue, and is impeccably researched.  Haunting use is made of scenes of a young Princess Elizabeth, who did not want to be Queen, shown with her favourite nanny. We also see the loneliness and the imposing sense of responsibility, the challenges that lie in having to look after her subjects. Thematically rich, the movie depicts gender politics, large and serious truths about the very unordinary lives of constitutional monarchs, the need of men in power to unburden themselves, and poignantly reveals the dutiful woman who is far more than how she describes herself as,  ‘a postage stamp with a pulse’.

THE AUDIENCE, with a running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes, screens at selected arthouse cinemas from July 5.  And yes … corgies are featured in this film.

 

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