Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom since 1952, turns 90 today, making it a perfect opportunity to reflect on the many vivid portrayals of the reigning monarch that have appeared on television over the years. Odd as it may seem, seeing as how she’s an exemplar of dignity and class, QE2 has been played most memorably on the small screen by puppets and by men in drag.
Let’s start with the puppets. Across the pond, Queen Elizabeth II was a regular character on the wickedly satirical British puppet show Spitting Image during that program’s entire run from 1984 to 1996. While performers Jessica Martin and Louise Gold traded off on the role in the show’s early years, Kate Robbins became the series’ permanent Elizabeth II in 1988 and made the part her own for the duration of the series. No matter who was playing her on Spitting Image, however, the Queen was always portrayed as an out-of-touch, slightly cold-blooded frump who kept unpleasant reality at arm’s length. Therefore, it was particularly amusing to see her do quite undignified things, such as talk-sing a gaudy parody of “We Are The Champions,” complete with fog machines and stage lights.
Over in Canada, on the other hand, Queen Elizabeth II became a recurring character on the seminal 1990s sketch show The Kids In The Hall, thanks to a hilarious impersonation by troupe member Scott Thompson, whose drag version of the monarch was considerably softer than what had appeared on Spitting Image. Adopting a chirpy falsetto voice and a slightly dazed manner, Thompson turned QE2 into a slightly dotty older lady so insulated by her role as a figurehead that she has no idea how the real world works. Certainly, the boldest use of the character came in “Chalet 2000,” an episode-length adventure in which poor, scandal-plagued Elizabeth II seeks comfort and advice from her close friend, Buddy Cole (also Thompson). As silly as the character is, there is something sympathetic and endearing about the Kids’ portrayal of Elizabeth II. Who could dislike a woman willing to entertain romantic advances from a talking beaver (played by Bruce McCulloch)?
In more recent years, noted Anglophile and punk rock loyalist Fred Armisen took an entirely different approach to playing Queen Elizabeth II on Saturday Night Live in a series of amusing sketches. Armisen’s Elizabeth is a classic Jekyll-Hyde type, pretending to be restrained and well-mannered when necessary but becoming a completely different person behind closed doors. Once she knows she’s not being watched, this Queen Elizabeth II becomes crude and violent, even speaking with a pronounced working-class accent. In Armisen’s mind, Elizabeth struts around Buckingham Palace like a thug, threatening anyone who gets in her way. It could be the most inspired portrayal yet of the monarch.