Let me lay my cards on the table: I think the world of the Queen. Of course, I am not alone, there are literally millions of people who think as I do, but my steady devotion goes right back to a double-decker wooden pencil box with a sliding top, a stencil of Her Majesty on it and my name inked on the reverse, dating back to the day of the Coronation in 1953.
I still have it. It is kept with my tiny lead model of Her Majesty taking the salute during the Trooping the Colour ceremony. Her right arm is hinged to enable her to swing it up to her tip-tilted bonnet with its plume.
She sits side-saddle, easily holding the reins in her confident left hand. The mare she rides is called Burmese.
This little model has pride of place on my shelf and in my heart, because I had seen the Coronation movie A Queen Is Crowned three times, twice in black-and-white and once in glorious colour, in the huge hall in the Army School in Kuala Lumpur, ceiling fans turning lazily above the packed audience of us, the Army brats.
Joanna Lumley, who grew up in Malaya, said her devotion to the Queen dates back to the Coronation in 1953. Pictured: The Queen on a visit to Malaysia in 1972
I had a Coronation medal on a ribbon, given to members of the armed forces in the Dominions, which I pinned to my chest (lost now, or I would still be wearing it), and a tiny, dazzling State Coach with horses made of lead but gilded and heavy.
All around the country there were parties and street festivals to celebrate this great day. In Malaya – Malaysia as it is now – the Army School I attended had a fancy-dress parade.
My mother had made costumes for my sister and me on her Singer sewing machine, which I still have. I can hear now the thrum of the hand-turned wheel as she stitched, late at night, listening to Desert Island Discs as it was transmitted across the Commonwealth. We went as little Norwegian girls, with aprons edged in rick-rack and our long hair plaited up around our heads.
After the Coronation film was shown, it was odd to hear some grown-ups talking nostalgically of those wet, grey London streets as home. Home for me was the jungle near our bungalow, the bazaars and sluggish yellow river, the airstrip in front of our house and the Chinese grave behind the tin mine.
It was Fraser’s Hill, where monkeys whooped as we climbed higher and higher to the cooler air, travelling in a convoy of armoured cars, as the hills and kampongs (villages) might be full of bandits.
But what an impression that film made on us! The Duke of Edinburgh, as handsome as any fairy-tale prince, and the bejewelled nobles, the golden carriage and the great glittering crown and then… the tiny central character of the Queen herself, moving slowly down the aisle, while crowds roared.
Much later, 60 years later, at a party thrown in his honour to celebrate his birthday, I made a short speech telling the Duke of Edinburgh that because of his appearance in the Coronation film, he had immediately become the template for all the heroes I would subsequently read about in books: Julian in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories, Mr Darcy in Pride And Prejudice, and Maxim de Winter from Rebecca. He laughed a lot.
Joanna (pictured) said she began watching the Queen’s every move like a fanatic the day her dad told her the King was dead
At just one year old, I would have been too young to have heard and understood Princess Elizabeth’s vow, made six years before her Coronation on her 21st birthday in 1947, to serve the country and the Commonwealth, ‘whether my life be long or short’.
I can still hardly write the words without my eyes brimming. Such a vow! Would any of us ever have promised that when our lives were just beginning? At 21 I was sharing a flat with three other girls in Earl’s Court, living in Swinging London, mini-skirted and Tube-travelling.
She was married at 21 too. It seems very young today to become a wife, but in 1947 it was quite normal.
Though the Coronation was in 1953, Elizabeth became Queen 16 months earlier, at the moment that her father died in February the previous year.
She looked straight at me and smiled her famous smile
Far away in Kuala Lumpur, my sister and I had just returned from school, plaits dripping with sweat after the walk from school over a road of crystal quartz, past banana palms and lalang grass to our bungalow, 16 HQ Malaya.
We usually had lunch and then rested under our mosquito nets during the intense heat until the air became cooler and we could take the dog for a walk to the tin mines. That day was different: my father, serving with his Gurkha regiment, came home unexpectedly with a very stern and sorrowful face and said, ‘The king is dead.’
We scuttled away as he changed his uniform and went back to his headquarters. Being almost six years old and far from Great Britain I didn’t know who the king was, but we could guess how shattering the news must be.
That day Elizabeth became my Queen and from then on I watched her every move like a fanatic. No, I didn’t buy royal magazines or books, but I inspected her clothes in photographs with the beady eye a child keeps for its mother in public.
Joanna sees the Queen as a sort of mother figure for the nation. Pictured: Joanna meeting the Queen at a Buckingham Palace reception in 2013
She always looked immaculate… but I should have liked her to wear a crown far more often, every day in fact, and the best images were when she appeared in full regalia with diamonds and sashes and tiaras and long evening gloves.
As I write, it is beginning to dawn on me that I see the Queen as a sort of mother figure for the nation, someone we turn towards when the going gets rough. She knows how to entertain the most famous and powerful people in the world with the same calm compassion she shows at every public ceremony.
We scan the pictures of her with the assembled heads of state from the Commonwealth and marvel at how, although others tower over her, she is always the first person we focus on. We are so proud of her!
Princess Elizabeth was not born to be queen. Her uncle David was due to be king, and she and her little sister were royal princesses, born not in a palace but in a house, their father a royal duke.
I told Philip he was the template for all the heroes I’d read about
The happy and carefree young life the two girls had was, of course, privileged in a way we can only read about and never know ourselves, but it was touching to hear of their tight and loving family group, which their father called ‘us four’. The girls loved horses and dogs, dressing-up and country life.
The house where Princess Elizabeth was born, 17 Bruton Street in London’s Mayfair, was bombed during World War II, but by then the great rolling tide of fate had changed the family’s lives completely, and moved them from their townhouse to a palace.
The girls’ uncle, now King Edward VIII, had abdicated, and the spotlight swung round to focus on the next in line: their father, the Duke of York, now King George VI. Princess Elizabeth was only ten, but from that time on she knew that one day she would be queen.
Do you think you would have been able to take on such a massive and unending responsibility at such a tender age? Excuses and explanations are constantly rolled out: they had so much money, such privilege, servants. But despite all of that I don’t think I could ever have done what the Queen has for 70 years.
Joanna admits that she doesn’t think she could have done what the Queen has for 70 years. Pictured: Joanna sharing a joke with Prince Philip on the eve of his 95th birthday in 2016
Because of my job, I have had access to a lot of these privileges. But through it all there was a parallel and ordinary life. Friends still called me by my own name. I could go where I wanted when I wanted: I could stay up until dawn or take off my shoes and paddle in fountains, or walk very slowly round Ikea all afternoon.
No matter how different your life is from mine, you too have that freedom – considerably shaped and restricted by circumstances, of course, but you are at liberty to be your own person. That privilege is one the Queen has never possessed.
There are all kinds of rules about speaking to the Queen, some enough to put you off ever daring to utter any words at all to her: don’t speak until you’re spoken to; address her as ‘Your Majesty’ first, then ‘Ma’am’ to rhyme with jam; don’t talk too long; don’t think that it is up to you to finish the conversation, as the Queen will do that.
If you turn out to be a crashing bore, she might shift her bag from one arm to another to signal to a lady-in-waiting to steer you away.
In Malaya we had a fancy-dress parade to mark the coronation
And you will have made an obeisance, a bowing of the head from the neck only if you are a man, a curtsy if you are a woman, but not too deep: not the court curtsy I was taught when we were young, one knee behind the other and sinking down to the ground with eyes lowered, because it is now considered out of date and unnecessary.
That’s a shame, as I had practised it to perfection just in case I was summoned to the royal presence (‘We must get Joanna Lumley here now. She will know what to do’).
Though I’ve never been whisked to the palace in an emergency, I have been lucky enough to run into Her Majesty unexpectedly. Once, a taxi-driver was taking my husband and me to join Her Majesty (and a thousand others) for an event at the Royal Academy, in celebration of her Golden Jubilee. The traffic ground to a halt.
We were hopelessly late and the cabbie advised us to get out and walk. That evening was hot and muggy. Gasping, we dashed along Piccadilly and turned into the Royal Academy just as the royal car swept out.
‘Oh, oh!’ I cried. ‘Oh, Your Majesty!’ and I curtsied to the great limousine. At that moment, the Queen looked straight at me and her eyes lit up as she smiled her famous smile.
What a unique and remarkable woman. I have a theory the abdication of King Edward VIII was like a lightning bolt that struck the young Princess Elizabeth. It ought to have burned her up, but instead, like lightning striking sand and turning it to glass, it transformed her into a fabulous, new and different being.
She vowed to be this new person for the rest of her life, and set about becoming all she’d promised, faithful to her word, a servant of many nations but wearing a crown. A queen for all seasons.
Adapted by Christopher Stevens from A Queen For All Seasons: A Celebration Of Queen Elizabeth II On Her Platinum Jubilee, by Joanna Lumley (Hodder & Stoughton, £20). © Joanna Lumley 2021. To order a copy for £18 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Offer price valid until 19/02/2022.
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