I remember back in the mid-80s a magazine asked the leading royal photographers of the day to sum up each member of the House of Windsor in one word. The Queen, they said, was ‘awesome’ and there is still something ‘awesome’ about her: the effect she has on people, the unhurried, stately way she conducts herself.
Even her sister, Princess Margaret said: “I think she’s got an aura. I get enormously impressed when she walks into a room. It’s a kind of magic.”
I’ve taken something like 25,000 photos of her over 30 years, all over the UK as well as on historic tours of Russia and the Czech Republic.
I’ve shaken her hand – or at least half of it – on five or six occasions. The half is thanks to the way she bends in one or two fingers so that you only grasp a bit of glove and can’t give her a real bone crusher.
In action she is dignified, very conscious of who she is – if she doesn’t take her role seriously, she knows the rest of us won’t – and of course dutiful. If she’s down to stay for an hour, then she’ll stay for an hour.
She’s always dressed to impress. As one of her designers said to me: “The Queen is perpetually dressed for a wedding.” In public she wears what the rest of us wear once or twice in a lifetime. In private it’s a cardie, tartan skirt and of course a headscarf – she’s probably the last woman in Britain to wear one.
She copes well with the media; even in the Diana-crazed 80s she only list her temper once, saying; ‘God you’re all in the way’ as we crowded in for a shot. She once stopped her Range Rover and looking at my 300mm lens lying on the grass said: “Better move that. I’d hate to run over it,” in a way that suggested she’d happily crush it to bits.
She has a very instant, dazzling smile which transforms her features, and it’s the shot you want to capture. In the flesh she is smaller than you expect, the eyes a vivid cornflower blue and her skin a flawless white.
You’re not allowed to photograph her eating or drinking – the nearest you’ll get is a banquet toast. She once said: “I don’t do stunts,” unlike her mother who was an actress, happy to adlib in any situation. The Queen is more genuine, and never performs.
She invented the royal walkabout but these days finds them a chore. Instead of faces she sees rows of phones, and i-pads thrust towards her. Her minders try to make sure she is never self-ied.
She is sure-footed. I’ve seen her run across half a dozen stepping stones in a stream and I’m always amazed when she walks backwards, without looking, down three steps after laying her wreath at the Cenotaph. Very little has gone wrong in public, though her hat once blew off in Oman during the National Anthem and in Hamburg the gangplank on the Royal Yacht Britannia was angled so steeply, she broke into a jog coming down it and overshot the welcoming party.
Talking of the RYB, the Queen memorably shed a public tear when it was decommissioned, taking the world by surprise as she’s rarely been moist eyed in public. I did see her upset at the Field of Remembrance, perhaps thinking of her mother, whose royal gig this had been for decades. HM also wept at the wedding of Tim Knatchbull, the grandson of Earl Mountbatten. Tim movingly recalled his twin brother and soul mate, Nicky, who was blown up by an IRA bomb, alongside the Earl and two other people.
She is uncomplaining about her duties. It can’t have been easy hosting visits by the likes of Ceausescu and Mugabe, though as Princess Margaret said: “My sister copes very well with Presidents.” She probably grumbles in private. When Khrushchev sent five year old Princess Anne a brown bear called Nikki HM said “such a ridiculous thing to do!” and quietly had it sent to London Zoo, where it survived until the mid-70s.
She has a fondness for old style variety artists and TV stars. She would know who you meant by Charlie Drake or Joe Loss, but hadn’t a clue who Diana Ross is, has asked Mick Hucknall “and what do you do?” on the three times she’s met him, and when she was introduced to Madonna at a Bond premier she said: “Oh you sang the song did you?”
She and Prince Philip are the last Head of State and consort who served in World War 2. They embody the best of characteristics of the wartime generation – duty, self-sacrifice, and a guiding belief in Queen and Country. They both have a sense of humour – his is a joshing one; hers is more dead pan.
She will never abdicate and never give an interview. Her memoirs (which she will never write) would be one of the biggest blockbusters since the Bible.
She is one ‘awesome’ lady.