Just Above Sunset
December 25, 2005 - A Prince's Speech - Reviewing the Year 2005

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill - born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers. Of course in the new year he will be leaving these pages to join The Scotsman full time. Drat.

Come Sunday, at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, millions of Brits the whole world over will be in front of their televisions, ready for the annual ten-minute address by Queen Elizabeth II. This is regarded as a special event, more so than in the States, I think, where a Presidential address is relatively common. On one "why we love Christmas" programme shown over here in the last few days, a contributor said he particularly enjoyed the Queen's Speech for the way it united the nation: that, after all the present-wrapping and unwrapping and eating of turkey, everyone in the UK would all be sitting down together, in lounges up and down the land, and collectively hanging on the words of our national figurehead.


Which is all fine and good, except that I don't think I've ever been there. The Queen's Speech has always been a ten-minute lull for me, a time-out between the far more obvious excitements of the annual Top of the Pops Christmas special, counting down the year's most popular records, and the big Christmas movie (this year: Shrek, with Toy Story 2 to follow).


Partly, I think that's because my anti-royalist tendencies developed early - I came very quickly to learn Christmas in our household would not be like Christmas at Buckingham Palace - and partly because the Queen's Speech is, in form if not content, always, always the same. If only, one year, it were shot with lightweight digital cameras, or wholly improvised, or if there were a surprise ending: the Queen pulling off the latex that previously comprised her face to reveal Kevin Spacey, perhaps - well, he's been in the country - or maybe delivering a line of dialogue to explain she'd been a ghost (or a sled, or a man who dresses as a woman, or a sled who dresses as Keyser Soze) all along.


So predictable is the annual Speech that I feel confident I can guess what will come up in those ten minutes on Sunday. There will be sincere festive greetings to our troops in Iraq this year, just as there were sincere festive greetings to our troops in Iraq the year before, and the year before that, and as there were sincere festive greetings for our troops in Afghanistan the year before that.


There will be some reference - and the tabloids will be very interested to see just how much - to this year's royal wedding between the Prince of Wales and his long-term love interest Camilla Parker-Bowles. I'm willing to bet Liz (as all of her subjects are legally allowed to refer to "our" Queen) will deliver this particular section of the speech in a supremely po-faced fashion, and I'm certain there won't be anything on the subject of the recent legalisation of gay marriage to avoid providing smart-assed satirists with the raw materials to make some unfounded jibe concerning Elizabeth's unmarried sons. After all, in this speech, there is room for only one Queen.


But I suspect the bulk of this year's Queen's Speech will be on the subject of one month: July. Rarely can so much have transpired within one 31-day period. British newspapers tend to refer to the summer months as "the silly season": a time when politicians are off on holiday, major decisions are thus deferred to the autumn months, and vast swathes of both tabloids and broadsheets alike are filled with the antics of whichever reality television show is on the air at the time.


Not so this year. As if the unexpected news that London had won the right to host the 2012 Olympic Games - allegedly due to a mistake in the voting, if this report today is anything to go by (erm, chad, anyone?) - wasn't enough, the following day brought a series of orchestrated bomb blasts on buses and trains in the British capital, killing 56 people. As I wrote in this column at the time, the unexpected (and strangely uplifting) repercussions were those of a city defiant in shrugging off the debris and getting back to as close to normal as a city fifty-six people lighter could possibly get. In fact, the reversal to type was such that the subsequent failed bomb attacks on July 21 came to be regarded not as evidence of a concerted terrorist threat, but as a footnote or minor annoyance, a fly at the summer picnic.


Expect Queenly nods towards the Olympic bid team, headed by Tory MP Sebastian Coe, and the emergency services who did such a sterling job in getting Britain back on its feet after the attacks. I'm not sure whether the Metropolitan Police, still under some kind of cloud following the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, will get any similar acclaim. And anything about the Government, who've since refused a public inquiry into the July bombings, might draw only tactful silence.


I suspect - since everybody else in a prominent public position has been jumping on this particular bandwagon over the last few months - that Her Majesty might also tip her tiara in the direction of England's cricketers, who regained "the Ashes", their sport's most mythical of prizes, following a exceptional series of matches against the visiting Australians. As an example of how quickly things can change, though, Liz might want to look at the decidedly mixed set of results England chalked up on their recent winter tour of Pakistan: an anti-climax, by all accounts, after the summer's many highpoints, with many of the key Ashes players either injured, or missing, or otherwise thoroughly homesick. Theirs will be a happier Christmas for having seen Heathrow again over the last few days, I suspect.


With only ten minutes at her disposal, I doubt the Queen will have much time to review the year's most significant events in British cultural life. She probably won't reveal that Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit was an outstanding achievement in British film (especially in a year when the cinema at large - and there were none larger than Peter Jackson's King Kong - got further and further away from plasticine stop-motion), though it was. She probably won't dismiss the UK-US co-production Rome as the second biggest TV letdown of the year (after Lost), though that was, too. And I doubt she'll have much of an opinion on Live 8, although Pink Floyd were pretty good.


She might, however, find time to reflect on one of the most uniquely British controversies of the year.  In May, the BBC decided to change the lay-out of its TV weather maps, part of an evolution from the old-school, stick-on temperatures I watched growing up, through the more recent green-screen technology, to what was described as the "virtual weather map". The virtual weather experience resembles a tracking shot in one of the Lord of the Rings movies: a sweeping digitised camera movement over pixellated hills and valleys, covered in browny-blue-and-sometimes-white ambient fuzz intended to denote cloud cover, rain or snow.


The letters of complaint flooded in. You couldn't make out the geography for the atmosphere. You couldn't see the wood from the trees. The angle of approach made Scotland, Wales and Ireland appear mere blips on the digital horizon, and suggested this software had been manufactured by individuals in the London area. If the ensuing controversy - which, for something so insignificant, went on for what seemed like weeks - proved anything, it's that you don't mess with the weather in Britain. It is, after all, our first-fallback topic of conversation.


Next week: the forecast for 2006. Will it be a sunny affair, or is there a cold front in store for Tony Blair's New Labour government?



Mike McCahill

December 23, 2005





Copyright 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm



Editor's Note: British spelling and punctuation retained here.


Editor's Personal Note: Living for two years in Canada, vaguely part of The Commonwealth, and specifically in London, the one in southwestern Ontario, I caught two of the Queen's addresses in the late nineties.  While not developing any anti-royalist tendencies, I did find these short talks, while less than dull, quite puzzling.  The purpose for doing this was lost on a visiting American.  We don't have royalty – we have celebrities.  Some traditions we do not share.  And too, we don't have Boxing Day on the 26th - since we have no tradition of preparing post-Christmas gift boxes for the servants.  It seemed a different world.  After the televised speech from the Queen I switched over to curling.  That was even more puzzling.




Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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