“Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar…” The wisdom of a windbag

Oliver Ford Davies and Whatshisname in Hamlet, RSC, 2008

If you Google images of the RSC’s 2008 production of Hamlet, your screen will quickly fill up with pictures of David Tennant. You’d have to dig deep to find one of Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. You may not even remember who Polonius is in Shakespeare’s tragedy. He’s that kind of character.

Polonius was Laertes’ and Ophelia’s father, the chief advisor to the ill-fated court of Elsinore and a pompous, irritating old windbag. He got on everybody’s nerves, particularly when he was giving them the benefit of his wisdom and he didn’t know when to shut up. The kind of person most people just want to get out of the way. Just before the interval, Hamlet obliges, albeit unintentionally, by stabbing him through the arras. Serves him right – he was snooping as usual.

And yet, from that moment, everything falls apart. The tragedy that has been threatening goes into top gear and accelerates like a bobsleigh hurtled over a cliff, dragging every character in its wake.

That’s the funny thing about people like Polonius. It’s hard to define what they actually do, but you really miss them when they’ve gone. I’ve never seen that better captured by any actor than by OFD in the 2008 Hamlet. Somehow, the hype surrounding Tennant and Patrick Stewart made his quiet performance all the more telling.

I remembered this when I started reflecting on the problem of justifying the inherited monarchy in general, and the possible reasons behind the present outpouring of affection towards the Queen. Certainly, you could regard the whole business as an offensive luxury, inappropriate in these times of austerity. The thing about Her Majesty (and here I borrow a line from Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: the power of introrverts in a world that won’t stop talking) is that she comes from a generation that valued character more than personality. That’s a hard thing to put into words, and it may seem counter-intuitative when the persona of Elizabeth II is so fresh in our minds, but the point is that any idiot can become a celebrity these days. It takes 50 minutes, not 50 years. If the Queen has become a celebrity, it’s because she’s devoted a lifetime to looking outwards, thinking more about the person she’s talking to than about herself, and dressing up and going out to do her duty over and over again when she’d rather be somewhere else.

Interestingly, the point that really brought that home to me in the TV coverage of the Thames Pageant was the little piece about the Royal Yacht Britannia and the special place it had in her heart. At the decommissioning, something I heartedly approved of at the time and would probably support at least in principle even now, she was visibly saddened. You rarely see the Queen’s feelings so clearly displayed. How clearly she came to life yesterday when she got the chance to ride once again on the little launch that used to take her and Prince Philip out to the one place where they felt that they could be themselves. I wouldn’t mind betting that that was the highlight of the whole day for her. Suddenly that national economy, imposed on her at a time when the Royal Family’s standing was at an all-time low, seemed mean-spirited rather than realistic (After all, this was the height of the boom years, when the Blair Government thought nothing of spending a fortune on the interior décor at Portcullis House).

If you asked her, the Queen would probably say that one must do one’s duty and that if Britannia had to go, she had to go. Pampered though she may be in material terms, one can never deny that she is consistent in her values and the process of living them out. Yesterday we saw her pushing her famous stamina to the limit, rather than deprive even one of her subjects, who had come so far and waited so long, of the pleasure of seeing her. She wouldn’t even spoil it for them by sitting down

I do understand the arguments against the monarchy on an intellectual and practical level, but I have a feeling that the Queen is like Polonius. Not flashy, not fashionable, and occasionally irritating in her apparent indifference to popular culture (though that becomes more forgiveable as one ages). Frankly, if popular culture means people like Fearne Cotton and Matt Baker wittering on while she stands in the rain, I prefer the quiet dignity of Her Majesty. And I have a feeling that we might miss her once she’s gone, more than we could ever have imagined.

The BBC has not exactly stabbed her through the arras, but the growing reaction to the intellectual poverty of their coverage of the pageant has certainly struck a nerve, and suggested that it might be smart for them to rethink their attitude to the Royal Family as some kind of The Only Way is Windsor. Their lack of intelligence as they scantily covered the Little Ships of Dunkirk does not contrast well with the determination of this dignified old lady to acknowledge our national debt to them by remaining standing in foul weather as they passed, or her intent, courteous interest in the individual stories of the members of the public she interacts with on her walkabouts. I’m not suggesting that we return to the extreme deference of royal coverage in the 1940s and 1950s, but the fact remained that she was the still heart of a somewhat tawdry circus.

Frankly, the BBC have been absolute idiots to let their obsession with celebrity dominate their coverage of this event. A sentiment I remember hearing often on similar occasions in the past was, “This is what we pay our licence fee for.” Their motto, Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation, is still taken more seriously in many of the world’s trouble spots than it deserves to be. If a morally bankrupt media mogul like Murdoch can do a better job, then something fundamental about our national pride has died. We may think it doesn’t matter right now, but like boring old Polonius, we might miss it when it’s gone. The outcry in the papers this morning suggests that that growth of self-awareness has already started, and might just be enough to prevent the ignorant thrusting of Hamlet’s sword.

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