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Fiction & Politics: The birth of the royal biopic

60years pic-1

In 1913 G.B. Samuelson and Will Barker got together to make an unprecedented British moving picture. The longest and most prestigious cinema project attempted to date, this superfilm of the life and times of the recently deceased Queen Victoria (she had only died in 1901) would chart the events of a generation (and their parents’ generation), and depict events such as the Crimean and Boer Wars for its veterans to view on screen. It was a ridiculously ambitious undertaking. But if was successful, it had the potential to make so much money for its producers that it would be worth every effort, and be one of the biggest films of 1914, while Hollywood was only just beginning to cut its teeth on the Western and the melodrama.

Where did Britain get its experience in the period documentary and drama, otherwise known as the docudrama? Where did it all begin? In analysing this history you could do much worse than look at Sixty Years a Queen. Its passion for reconstruction from newspaper articles, its relationship with the West End theatre and its box office success all pre-shadow later forays into the biopic and historical fiction and factual shows. Investigation into the way it looked and was put together shows that it was the closest model to The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918), the recent rediscovery of which caused such excitement among silent film historians.

Sixty Years a Queen, is, unfortunately, missing apart from a single fragment of its version of the legendary moment when Victoria received the news that she was Queen. However, there is a very important document, which has survived, a souvenir book with 55 photographic illustrations taken from the cinematograph film. These production stills give an impression of what the film would have been like. For my PhD research I compared these pictures with the souvenir editions and earlier editions of the Illustrated London News, to contextualise the piece in wider Victorian culture and contemporary attitudes to royalty and the recent past.

A very interesting part of my research was finding out how it was received at the new generation of picture palaces being built up and down the country. For, trading on the prestige of the monarchy, it was used as a ‘prestige’ film to open many purpose-built cinemas in different civic centres. Their openings were even attended by local dignitaries, keen to be associated with the legacy of Victoria and the rising glory of the cinema. Special performances were put on, with staff wearing themed costumes and invitations extended to Army and Navy veterans, essay competition for school students, and local choirs, quartets and music groups providing tuneful accompaniment. I’m sure younger groups of school students and scouts could have been quite bored during over two hours of this, but it seems to have been lapped up by the elder generation who had more of a personal investment in events depicted.

Given its success it is surprising that this biopic did not lead to more films about Victoria. But George V disliked such vulgarity and used his influence to prevent further such productions on the stage and screen. The British however continued to enjoy watching the lives of their monarchs – The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) was one of the most successful British movies of the decade. However, it took George V’s death to see the production of another film about his grandmother, Victoria the Great (1937), one whose popularity was, if anything greater than Sixty Years a Queen.

Jude Cowan

Published inArt, Fiction & Politics

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