Since many people are barely aware of its existence, I was pleased to see Commonwealth Day enjoying a splash of media attention this week. It was, of course, because the Queen was back on parade for the first time since her recent illness — and endorsing the Prince of Wales as next Head of the Commonwealth. In recent years, the post-imperial cousinhood has faded from view. When Tony Blair abandoned one Commonwealth summit to watch football on telly, some wondered when, not if, the FCO would simply drop the C. But ‘the club’ is now enjoying a modest resurgence. The three latest recruits have not even been ex-British colonies but, respectively, ex-French, ex-Portuguese and ex-Belgian, and there is a waiting list. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is much keener on ‘the Family of Nations’ than his predecessors. Hence a new plan to share some diplomatic missions with Canada. It might offend EU diplomatic sensibilities. But who cares? From Vimy Ridge to Juno Beach to the funding of the new Bomber Command memorial, we know who our true allies are. And, of course, we share a head of state. The Queen’s love for the Commonwealth is not mere sentimentality. It is her baby — her Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, her Prince’s Trust. She inherited the Forces, the Church, the palaces, the estates and the Crown Jewels. Not so the modern Commonwealth. She’s embraced and shaped it to such an extent that it might have vanished without her. When she took over, it had eight members. Today, it has 54 — and rising.
How has the Queen got on with her 12 prime ministers? It’s the central theme of The Audience, the new Helen Mirren play at London’s Gielgud Theatre, in which HM plays HM. It’s a magnificent turn by an Oscar-winning national treasure but, dare one say it, Mirren’s Queen is more remote — more stereotypically regal, perhaps — than the real monarch of my experience. For the past year, I have been part of a production team following the Queen through her Diamond Jubilee and beyond for this Sunday’s ITV documentary Our Queen. The director, Michael Waldman, and I witnessed many Sovereign/PM moments, including prime ministerial audiences. My favourite was watching the Queen come to Downing Street for lunch with all her surviving prime ministers (minus a frail Lady Thatcher). It’s a poignant moment as David Cameron escorts the longest-lived monarch in British history up the stairs (she won’t take the lift) past the photographs of all her PMs. ‘Now, I think you remember all this lot,’ says Mr Cameron, introducing the Queen to Sir John Major and Messrs Blair and Brown. They all grin like naughty schoolboys and she responds with a knowing smile. She is the only person alive who knows what all ‘this lot’ genuinely think of each other, and they all know it.
One thing which may surprise viewers is the Queen’s functional approach to heating. Her sitting rooms at both Balmoral and Buckingham Palace have elegant marble fireplaces. Yet, in both, we find an electric heater. The Queen doesn’t expect a roaring log fire except in communal spaces. In one scene, as she waits for David Cameron to arrive at Buckingham Palace, she observes that her electric fire is out of place. Without blinking, she places a well-shod foot into the grate and gives it a kick.
The Queen has had more than 12 prime ministers, of course. Start totting them up from Canada, New Zealand and so on and the total exceeds 150. I’m not sure anyone — let alone Helen Mirren — could bear a play exploring the royal rapport with all 150 of them. But there must be dramatic potential in that 1993 audience at Balmoral where Australia’s Paul Keating turned up with his blueprint for an Australian republic. We don’t know the details but we do know the Queen’s first words afterwards: ‘I really do need a very large drink.’
Few will have been more dismayed by the Queen’s recent illness than her fellow head of state, President Napolitano of Italy. Last week, the former Communist should have been welcoming her and Prince Philip to the Quirinale palace for a couple of days. After the shock of the papal abdication and an Italian election which has left him presiding over an ‘ungovernable’ nation, he could at least look forward to a chat with one dependable world leader. But even the Queen had to let him down. He should not despair. The Queen always tries to make amends. In 2006, with two hours to go, a bad back forced her to cancel the formal opening of Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium. A few months later, the entire squad was summoned to the Palace for a private tour — and tea with the Queen.