The Queen and her Prime Ministers: Behind Closed Doors at Buckingham Palace

The Queen and her Prime Ministers: Behind Closed Doors at Buckingham Palace

For the past 62 years, Queen Elizabeth II has consulted with her prime minister in regular one-on-one meetings at Buckingham Palace; the content of those private sessions has remained off the record.

In The Audience, currently at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, playwright Peter Morgan imagines some of Her Majesty’s confidential conversations with the 12 prime ministers who’ve been elected in Britain since she ascended the throne in 1952.
The queen is portrayed on stage by Dame Helen Mirren, who memorably impersonated the monarch in the 2006 movie The Queen, which was also written by Morgan. The movie dealt with the impact of Princess Diana’s death on the royal family and the queen’s specific interactions with Tony Blair, the prime minister at the time. In The Audience (directed by two-time Tony Award winner Stephen Daldry), Morgan broadens the scope to encompass key events that occurred over six decades, offering quick sketches of the very different personalities that occupied the prime minister’s office during that period.

Morgan confirms that the confidentiality of the queen’s audiences with her chief ministers over these decades has been well preserved, with only the rare lapse or two when a prime minister let slip an unguarded remark that could have revealed something about those conversations. But although the scenes in the play are speculative, the playwright says he was able to deduce the queen’s attitudes and feelings from other sources. “What is available is a record of how long the meetings were with each prime minister, and with certain prime ministers they ran on,” he explains. “And we do also know, from the household records, which drinks were served to whom and how. So if someone is having water and their meeting is only 20 minutes long, it’s less likely to have been a successful relationship than someone whose meetings are an hour and half long and the sherries or the whiskey come out. So just from a study of refreshment you can piece it together.”

Morgan, who also constructed conversations between President Richard Nixon and English journalist David Frost in his 2006 historical drama, Frost/Nixon, is confident that the slight liberties he may have taken in his latest play will be acceptable. “Audiences are so discerning that if they felt I was getting it wrong, they would reject it,” he says. “And, of course, in the case of most of the conversations that you see in the play, we do know what was going on at the time [politically]. It’s a joy to write a prime minister,” he adds. “There is so much on the record, so many interviews, so much footage. I read the politicians’ memoirs and talked to people. For example, I talked to someone who served as private secretary to Winston Churchill in 1953 — she is still alive. What you need to uncover is the essential truth, not necessarily all the details. If you are wrong with the essential truth then you are really in trouble.”

The playwright cites as one such truth the queen’s known disapproval of the 1956 British intervention in Egypt to secure the Suez Canal for Western interests — the subject of an audience she has with Prime Minister Anthony Eden in the play. “She also adored Churchill,” Morgan adds, “and she didn’t particularly like Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. I think if she had to go on a long motor journey with three of her favorite prime ministers, they would be James Callahan, John Major, and Harold Wilson. There is enough in whisper and gossip, and enough analysis of tea being drunk, to be sure about that!”

Morgan reports that it was the unlikely subject of John Major, who held office from 1990 through 1997, that initially sparked his imagination. “I knew I wanted to start with Major, a prime minister who everyone had forgotten. Even students of recent political history would struggle to remember John Major, and yet the queen was terribly fond of him. I think that’s because she’s naturally drawn to quiet, more modest, undynamic people.” Major is played by Dylan Baker in the Broadway production.

The play acknowledges this understanding of the queen’s preferences by giving less stage time to the superstars. Thatcher (played by Judith Ivey), for instance, gets just one scene, which does reflect her particularly fiery temperament, but Blair didn’t even make an appearance in the original version of the play, which ran in the London West End in 2013. (Morgan has since included Blair in the play for the Broadway production.) Giving a greater focus to the prime ministers who found a way into her heart, so to speak, reveals something about the monarch herself, notes the playwright.

“She has the grandest address in the world and is arguably the best known person in the world, but she’s actually a remarkably modest woman who’d sooner be somewhere else,” Morgan continues. “And she’s not a person of conspicuous intelligence or dynamism; she’s quite a beige character. And yet, that fact seems to be the hallmark of what is required to successfully prosecute that office.” Constitutionally, the British monarch, who stays politically neutral, has a duty to express her views during these audiences, but she always supports the prime minister’s decisions. “She’s made it quite clear what the rules are,” notes Morgan. “You just shut up and turn up. Is that a reasonable thing to expect of an opinionated, intelligent adult? In that sense, I think, the whole system is rather cruel.”

“It is an unbelievable achievement, the way she has done it all these years,” continues the playwright. “I would make a mess of that job within 15 seconds. I would say or do the wrong thing; I wouldn’t turn up. I’d change my mind; I’d have a hissy fit. I’d complain a lot.”

The tradition of the royal audience between monarch and minister, which was instituted by Queen Victoria, is not unlike a therapy session, notes Morgan. “If you just add all the numbers, in an average four-year term — forget Thatcher or Blair, who had three terms — you will have 70 or 80 audiences with her, when you factor in the holidays or trips abroad. We are talking about phones off, sitting opposite one another conversations without distractions. How many of those do we have in life? Most people don’t see their husbands or wives on their own in formal conversation like that.  And, you know, she has history on her side; she has had a ringside seat, watching the political process for some considerable time. I think she’s probably a very good therapist insofar as she’s a very good listener and I really, genuinely, believe she doesn’t sit there judging anybody.”

“Before I wrote The Queen I never really thought about her and I am still rather mystified that I am writing about this more,” says Morgan. “Now I feel I am writing the character really properly, right from the beginning,” he adds, confirming reports that he is also working on The Crown, an original Netflix multipart drama with each season devoted to a decade of Elizabeth II’s reign.

And Morgan hasn’t quite finished with The Audience either. Because the final royal audience depicted in the play is current, he has to continually keep updating the play. For instance, on the day when Thatcher died, during the original London engagement, he made a precurtain speech for the audience and acknowledged her passing in the play.

“I take my responsibility seriously because it is not satire, and so the rules are different. I think audiences can probably feel this is my Queen — or Helen’s Queen. That is to say, I’m sure there are things that we are projecting onto her that aren’t there. And I’m sure there are things that we are not showing that are there. The degree to which I have strayed into either of those camps is hard for me to put my finger on. But I do know that enough people who know her really well — let me rephrase that — a number of people who have worked with her closely, have come to see the play and given it a thumbs-up.” We don’t know, of course, what Her Majesty thinks of The Audience; she has yet to attend a performance.