The Queen, The Crown and Mass Observation
What did the British public think of the Royal Family in 1966? As Olivia Colman takes over the role of Queen Elizabeth II from Claire Foy in the new season of The Crown, documents from Mass Observation Online show how the public viewed their monarch's transition to middle age.
In the opening episode of the new season of The Crown, the Queenâs Private Secretary describes the Queenâs new profile image for a stamp as âan elegant reflection of Her Majestyâs transition from young woman to mother of four and settled sovereign.â The Queenâs response is less impressed: âage is rarely kind to anyone. Nothing one can do about it.â The appeal of The Crown â besides the cut-glass accents, sumptuous curtains and antique marmalade sets â has always been its ability to dramatise family conflicts arising from constitutional roles. To this, Season 3 adds a new layer: the drama of middle age.
But how did the British public view the transition of their monarch from young woman to middle age? The Mass Observation Archive at The Keep, digitised by Adam Matthew in Mass Observation Online, contains records from the pioneering social research organisation, which used volunteers to track everyday life in Britain from 1937 until the mid-sixties. The collection includes a 1966 report written by Leonard M. Harris titled Long to reign over us? The status of the Royal Family in the Sixties. The report is based on surveys Harris conducted with the help of Mass Observation in 1964, the year The Crownâs third season begins, shedding light on public perception of the Royal Family at the time.
Although the survey respondents rarely discuss the Queenâs age directly, it is often latent in their language: âsheâs a good churchwoman and sets a good example of family lifeâ; she is âamiableâ, a âlovely, homely personâ, âa bit set in her waysâ; âshe has that motherly way with herâ; she is âa Christian gentlewomanâ with âcharm, poise and dignityâ. Frequently, observations on the Queenâs changing appearance are focussed on her clothing: âher dress is very nice. Itâs not showyâ; âperhaps she could dress betterâ.
According to the volunteer observers, the Queenâs muted, if not middle-aged and dowdy, clothing in stark contrast to those worn by Princess Margaret: âPrincess Margaret stepped out yesterday looking young and attractive in a stylish Mod outfitâ (Daily Mirror, 1965); âI like her clothes and hair-doâs. Sheâs always doing something different, even if itâs only changing her hair-doâsâ; âsheâs very charming and she dresses beautifullyâ; âPrincess Margaret is young and gay. She lives with the times.â
In fact, while the Daily Mirror describes Princess Margaret as âyoung and attractiveâ in 1965, the paper uses more homely terms to describe her older sister in the same year: âThe Queen had a good gossip over the tea cups yesterday. And she told forty women âItâs nice to be altogether and have a natter with each otherâ.â In the eyes of Mass Observationists, Princess Margaretâs trendy clothing becomes a metonym for dynamism, modernity and youth, whilst the Queenâs dress-style is pragmatic, unshowy and rarely noticeable. As The Crown lavishly dramatises the tension between regal ritual and private personality inside Buckingham Palace, Mass Observation Online shows publicâs impressions of their monarchâs âtransitionâ â as The Crown terms it â âfrom young woman to mother of four and settled sovereignâ in the mid-1960s.