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Making republicans weep

Queen Victoria

This Thursday I am delivering the John Campbell Annual Lecture for Republic.

During the early years of this century John Campbell helped build up Republic into the prominent and active campaigning group it is today, one whose aim is to replace the monarchy with an elected head of state. The Annual Lecture is Republic’s tribute to his memory.

The theme of my lecture is the depiction of Queen Victoria on the big and small screen since Herbert Wilcox first produced Victoria the Great (1937). Something of what I am likely to say has been published here. Some of what I say will also appear in my forthcoming book A State of Play.

Most students of British politics don’t take the monarchy very seriously. They think its political powers are so limited, it has an insignificant role; some even think the institution provides some stability to our system. And it is true that the formal powers of the monarchy are heavily circumscribed – although currently Prince Charles’ behind-the-scenes attempts at lobbying have aroused controversy.

My own research suggests, however, that depictions of the monarchy on the screen up to and including Young Victoria (2009) shows how far it still exerts an insidious influence over the way in which audiences think of themselves politically. For the monarchy is presented as existing only to advance the people’s interest and often in conflict with shifty and self-serving Prime Ministers – in other words the only element within British democracy that truly cares for the people is the unelected part, the one not subject to popular sovereignty. Moreover, Victoria is by no means alone in being presented in such terms.  Most recently, The King’s Speech (2011) suggested that it was vital for George VI to overcome his stammer because the British needed his wartime broadcasts to inspire them to victory. Without his words, the film implies, the British might have given up.

Of course this is all nonsense; but it is powerful nonsense. It points to a deep popular discontent with representative democracy and also suggests the people’s lack of faith in their own political agency, given their dramatised dependence on the good will of  a hereditary monarchy. Hence, I have called my lecture ‘The Heart of a Heartless Political World’.

It’s enough to make a republican weep – for how are they to tackle such entrenched attitudes?  So I’ll be taking some hankies in case they’re needed.




Steven Fielding

Published inArt, Fiction & PoliticsBritish Politics


  1. Thomas Thomas

    Funny how people who are anti-monarchist believe themselves as superior to those who are monarchist, and that they can just dismiss them as being indoctrinated or having a false conscience.

    • Steven Fielding Steven Fielding

      Funny how some monarchists are so defensive! I’d be interested to know if you think that any of the films I mentioned were an accurate rendition of the role of the monarchy …

      • Adam Adam

        Steven. It is a film or rather films. They are not meant to be an accurate showing of the monarchy. If people want that, then you watch a documentary. I am a history student and believe me historical many films are very bad, and a someone who is planning to become an academic historian it is very annoying. But you have to remember that it is a film and at the end of the day it is there to make money.

        Also the the king speech is accurate in a sense, the king did need to over come his problem as he was looked to, to lead the country. People did turn to the royal family for support and inspire them. However , I think it is your view that the film basically is saying that without the speech we could not go on and give up. But there are a few historic errors , no one says different.

        Oh and monarchist get defensive purely because republicans like Thomas say they dismiss views and basically calls us stupid because we support the monarchy,

        Also potlical the monarchy is limited, and prince Charles is doing nothing wrong.

        • Steven Fielding Steven Fielding

          I think all historians should be more aware of what screen histories say about the past as studies prove they exert more influence on how people think about the past than do the most scrupulously researched text books. Rather than just dismiss them such films are worth studying in their own right and in their own terms.

          Re: the King’s Speech – it transformed Churchill’s role to make it the reverse of what it was in fact – and to imply the British needed a few radio speeches to win the war is something of an insult, is it not?

          • Adam Adam

            Historians very well known that the history projected on the screen is trying to grab the wider audience as well as making money. However, historians also know that most educated people would not look at a film like the kings speech and say this is fact, this all happened. People go watch these films for the story they know it is not correct and they know it is over the top. I am not saying you are uneducated but your political view against the monarchy, is really clearly here.

            No one said to dismiss films total. We look at films and question there reliability and how accurate they are. We also study or look at history in film and tv there purpose and value. So historians do not dismiss them at all. We just know at the end of the day, it’s a film it’s not meant to be accurate despite how annoying it is for us.

            The purpose of the kings speech is not to show the war nor Churchill and his roll at the time. The film actually, leave the fact out that he didn’t want Edward to abdicate and they did not show the policy of Appeasement and his views on that, they also did not cover the build up of the war.

            Films are the starting point of history same with tv in the modern world, many people like basic history not the level of detail I deal with day to day, like most historians. Films like this are pulpy a method of people getting interested in the topic and then if people choice like many do , they can go forward and look into the topic by reading books and article or even reading

            It is nothing like an insult, as the focus of the film is not Britain fighting the war as such. And as everyone knows this is certainly not the case.

  2. Joe Joe

    You appear to be implying that essentially the British electorate are nothing more than gullible lackwits who are incapable of distinguishing between reality and “Hollywood history” – a continuing theme in the anti-monarchist circle who seem to be incapable of understanding that others may legitimately hold rational but differing views.

    If we are so biddable, why should we be trusted with a vote?

    What *should* make ‘republicans’ weep is the current state of republicanism in the UK.

    • Steven Fielding Steven Fielding

      There is lots of evidence that what audiences see on the screen influences how they see the world – even when it comes to ‘Hollywood history’. That’s not an insight specific to republicans. It does mean we should be more aware of what such screen fictions are saying about all kinds of subject – and it’s undeniable that Victoria’s screen histories do denigrate democracy in various ways.

      • Joe Joe

        Politicians of course being such noble, self-sacrificing and self-effacing individuals that no-one would ever think to ascribe the terms shifty and self-serving to them.

        Oh wait – you did.

        It is quite deniable “that Victoria’s screen histories do denigrate democracy in various ways” since that was never the point of the films – merely your personal interpretation from an entrenched viewpoint.

  3. I see that it is unlikely we are going to agree.

    I do not however say that politicians are shifty – it’s the films that present the politicians in that way: watch how Disraeli comes across in Mrs Brown for example, or Melbourne in Young Victoria.

    And, surely, texts that systematically praise an hereditary, unelected figure while criticising elected characters might be reasonably seen as undermining faith in democracy?

    I suggest you actually watch some of the films I discuss!

    • Joe Joe

      Please do not patronise me. I have seen all these films plus many others as well as stage plays involving monarchy depicted as both good and bad.

      Is it true, as posted on Facebook by one member of your audience tonight, that you said (I quote:) “in answer to why was “the nation” so enthralled by the Queen’s presence at the Olympics? …” a talking dog is amazing because it talks, not for what it says””

      What exactly were you saying? Because on the face of it this comes across as both disrespectful of the office of Head of State and intentionally insulting.

  4. Richard Richard

    Professor Fielding, it’s clear from the way these monarchist commentators have distorted your own blog post and comments that such distortions come naturally to them. Could this be the exact reason that the films you mention do indeed attempt – successfully for many viewers, doubtless – to distort history?

    • Adam Adam

      No one had distorted feildings posts at all. If you read them , more closely you would see that , every film distorts history. If you want something that shows history correctly pick up a book, or watch a documentary. Film makers are not interested in political views in general on pro monarchy, or pro republicanism. They produce them to make films and at the end of the day money. A good film draws the audience in. As I have said before most people are not stupid enough to belief what they see in a film and believe it to be true. Unless I am guessing you are a republican, because that seems to be the case here. Moaning about history being portrayed in a certain way, it happens all the time and republicans do it more then anyone else. You must remember that some aspects of the films are corrects others are not, general films are based on events not showing them truly same with thins like James Bond or Harry potter, or lord of the rings, twilight etc. it’s a film pure and simple.

  5. Richard Richard

    Adam, to assert that nobody had distorted Proffesor Fieldings posts is both untrue and absurd. To take only the most obvious example, see Joe Eldren’s post where he says :
    ‘Politicians of course being such noble, self-sacrificing and self-effacing individuals that no-one would ever think to ascribe the terms shifty and self-serving to them.

    Oh wait – you did.’

    Except of course that he didn’t. He was, of course, ascribing this view to the creators of the largely fictional film ‘Young Victoria’. For either you or Joe to suggest – as Joe clearly did – that this is Professor Fielding’s own view is indeed gross misrepresentation.

    • Joe Joe

      1. Why do you assume I am “Joe Eldren’? Can I therefore assume you are Richard Vernon?

      2. He ascribed this view, as you say, to the creators of ‘Young Victoria”. That is HIS view of what the creators did, not what the creators of the film were trying to achieve, nor has any attempt been made to obtain from the creators to explain what their views were – which personally I doubt were much more than introducing some dramatic tension, given that the subject of the film was Victoria herself.

      Of course if you would rather see monarchs displayed as “black hats” then you – and Professor Fielding – could view the recent “King John” as a starter; or El Cid; or many others (including Shakespearean plays) which display monarchs in a poor light – all of which appears to have escaped both him and you.

      • Richard Richard

        Joe, the way you so obviously attempt to distort the words of others makes you as easily identifiable as Adam Bowley. In fact he’s just used his favourite phrase ‘Best you can do’ yet again. He’ll be using ‘do the research’ next.
        However I’m glad to see that you admit that he did indeed ascribe this view to the makers of ‘Young Victoria’, and not, as you previously claimed, held this view himself. I can also agree with you that it is indeed his view of what the makers were attempting. Is it an accurate view? Yes, absolutely, in my opinion. Victoria, like many monarchs, is known to have been highly active politically, largely but not entirely hidden from public view, and much of the reality behind this monarch, as with many others, is far from attractive.

        • Richard Richard

          Just to point out that when I said ‘he did indeed ascribe this view…’ I was of course referring to Professor Fielding, not Adam. Apologies for any confusion.

    • Adam Adam

      Misunderstanding steven really? ” For the monarchy is presented as existing only to advance the people’s interest and often in conflict with shifty and self-serving Prime Ministers – in other words the only element within British democracy that truly cares for the people is the unelected part, the one not subject to popular sovereignty. Moreover, Victoria is by no means alone in being presented in such terms. Most recently, The King’s Speech (2011) suggested that it was vital for George VI to overcome his stammer because the British needed his wartime broadcasts to inspire them to victory. Without his words, the film implies, the British might have given up.” Republican view coming in here. Missing the points of making a film , the purpose of the films too. And what is being shown on screen. Plus both the context of the film and the events it is showing.

      Also politicians are not angels and many of them do look out for number one on occasions. So the film on this aspect is not far off.

  6. Lester Lester

    It’s quite obvious that films are used to distort the perception of their audience. Triumph of the Will for example. Find about royalty are no exception, they perpetuate the myth that these people are somehow a bastion against self serving politicians which of course is absolute hogwash.

    • Adam Adam

      Films are used to make a story sell. Creating a screen version of anything is hard. Not everything can be shown on screen, because it is either too differecult, cost too much money or would not be exciting enough, for an audience to watch. If you want something complely or nearly 100 percent accurate you watch a documentary. People that go to see a film, know what they are watching is not 100 percent correct, they are not expecting it too be. A film like the young Victoria will of course try to show the monarchy in a better light, compared to the political figures. Why? Because you need a form of a good and bad character. People also related to self severing politicians as there are many self severing politicians throughout history and know, or rather people think this anyway.

  7. Mark Taylor Mark Taylor

    Adam,judging by the quality of your blog post I’d suggest a special class in inglesh. An academic you ain’t and you’re expected to at attempt some level of neutrality.

    • Adam Adam

      Mark best you can do? If one such as your self has to insult or bring up the issue of spelling with nothing else to add to the current debate. You clearly have one, no intellect to conduct a debate, or no understanding of the topic being debated. Or two, has nothing better to do then waste time insulting people. Try bring something to the table before you, comment on others posts.

      Seeming, I am typing first on an iPad and anyone who has used apple products would know and understand that sometimes , it will replace a word, with one that was not intened. Granted, closer reading of the posts would have highlighted this to the user, but oh well.

      An academic I am, currently third year studying history. Guess what you did not go to UNI?.

      Ps I am one of the few on here being objective. Reading the posts actually show that. I would suggest less attitude and more time reading what you are commenting on, in the first place.

  8. Lester Lester

    Perhaps I should qualify my previous post. It’s quite possible that a film can affect the political view of those watching it, without that being the intention of the film-maker. Films about royalty, with their usual saccharine coated portrayal of royals, are no exception.
    That doesn’t mean that those who may be affected are “lack wits”, it means that the human mind is susceptible to any number of stimuli that can colour their views, any stimuli, film included.

    • Richard Richard

      To be honest I do think that it is the specific intention of the makers of most films and so-called documentaries about monarchy – to portray them in as flattering a light as possible, no matter how unrealistic that view is.

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