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Radio review: The Documentary and A Laureate for Elizabeth

10 June 2022

Alamy

The Queen with the Romanian head of state, Nicolae Ceausescu, during a state visit to the UK in 1978, which featured in The Documentary: The royal diplomat (World Service, 28 May)

The Queen with the Romanian head of state, Nicolae Ceausescu, during a state visit to the UK in 1978, which featured in The Documentary: The royal dip...

“ONE is a sort of sponge.” So said the Queen, articulating in her own words the exercise of “soft power”; and, as Emma Barnett discovered in The Documentary: The royal diplomat (World Service, 28 May), you can do worse than have a wise old sponge as your head of state. In a survey stretching back to the start of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, the programme referred to instances of diplomacy enacted in many and varied settings, from the ballrooms of Commonwealth conferences to the drawing room at Buckingham Palace.

This was not the occasion to scrutinise moments of possible overreach, or the failures of this form of realpolitik. But it was not so reverential as to omit the visit of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1978. “It was bloody awful,” remarked Lord Owen, who went on to describe how the Romanian dictator and his entourage departed the Palace laden with trinkets and small items of furniture, pilfered from the guest rooms. The Queen at one point reportedly hid in the garden to avoid contact.

And, if last week’s Paddington Bear sketch was not enough to convince us of our monarch’s sense of fun, then listen in to the segment broadcast here, in which she is heard ribbing Sir Edward Heath for being sufficiently “expendable” to send to Baghdad — this in the course of a pre-dinner exchange that included the US Secretary of State James Baker, at a time when the hot topic was whether Mr Baker should negotiate with Saddam Hussein. This lends the joshing an unexpectedly dark frisson.

The great surprise in A Laureate for Elizabeth (Radio 4, 31 May), in which William Sieghart reviewed the work of the Queen’s seven Poets Laureate, was how good most of their official poetry has been. Perhaps, in response to the heady atmosphere of last weekend, I have lowered my critical guard; but, with a few notable exceptions, the likes of Cecil Day-Lewis, Ted Hughes, Sir Andrew Motion, and Dame Carol Ann Duffy have managed to balance public and private with originality and flair. Nor, as Mary Beard reminded us, should the task of writing celebratory verse be regarded with such disdain. After all, no less than Virgil’s Aeneid originated in an ambition to big up the Emperor Augustus.

It is unfair to caricature the job as a grace-and-favour position for an Establishment hack. Each new appointment was, at the time, regarded as in some way ground-breaking; and, since Sir Andrew’s tenure, the ten-year tenure has helped guard against that sterility that certainly overcame long-serving Laureates such as John Masefield.

We are nevertheless bound to remember the failures. Sir John Betjeman would never quite live down his “Jubilee Hymn” for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, which he himself knew to be sub-standard. Amid the cruelty, however, came a letter from the Duke of Edinburgh, which says much about the monarchy’s ability to ride out a storm. “Criticism is much easier than creation, and the persecution of individuals has always been the pleasure of thick-headed bullies since time immemorial.”

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