Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 17 November 2016

In troubled and divided times, the Queen is a much-needed unifying force

I started watching The Crown, the £100-million television series on the early years of the Queen’s reign, on Netflix but turned it off during the second episode because I couldn’t bear the endless coughing by her father, George VI, as he died of lung cancer. The coughing, performed with eager realism by the actor Jared Harris, who played the king, was made harder to bear by the fact that he kept on smoking at the same time. The link between cancer and smoking may not then have been established, but it is well known now; and exposure to both at the same time is not for the squeamish. For me, however, there was another reason for discomfort — the memory of George VI’s death in 1952 when I was 12 years old, a boarder at a prep school in Berkshire. One day the headmaster summoned the whole school to assembly to hear an important announcement. With the utmost gravity, he told us that there was terrible news: the king had died. And all of us children, myself included, promptly burst into tears. We were sobbing away like the people of Thailand when their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, died last month aged 88, ceding to our Queen the record of being the world’s longest-reigning monarch.

I don’t think that even then we were quite as hysterical as the Thais are in their devotion to their inherited head of state, but those were still nevertheless deferential times. The national anthem was played in cinemas, where film-goers would stand up for it, and I can remember people even standing up in their homes when the national anthem preceded the King’s (and then the Queen’s) radio broadcast on Christmas Day. Those days are long gone. Many people now won’t interrupt their Christmas feasting to watch the Queen on television.

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