Ali G and the Queen Mum: keeping it surreal

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
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Is this the beginning of the end? Does the discussion surrounding the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother mark a watershed in public attitudes towards one of Britain’s favourite institutions? I refer, not to the Royal Family, but to Ali G. Just when one thought that there was nothing more to be said about the life and death of the Queen Mother, her grandsons, Princes William and Harry, come up with a fresh angle. Sunday’s newspapers splashed the Princes’ shock revelation that the Queen Mother did a ‘wicked’, ‘cool’ impression of Ali G, the spoof character created by Sacha Baron Cohen.

On closer inspection, the story didn’t quite support the headline claims that the Queen Mother ‘did her Ali G rap at the dinner table’. What the Princes told the press was that, at the end of one Christmas feast, their grandmother stood up and said to the Queen, ‘Darling, lunch was marvellous -respec’,’ and clicked her fingers, Ali-G style. Somebody might tell the hip-hopsters at The Sunday Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday that this does not technically qualify as a ‘rap’. Yet the fact that such a bizarre interview could be published while the Queen Mother was lying in state amid the ancient splendour of Westminster Hall is another sign of these confused and confusing times.

The implications for the public standing of Ali G could be serious. His image as a cool iconoclast has survived the embarrassment of being publicly impersonated by Richard, of Richard and Judy, and by Prince William himself. What impact the posthumous endorsement of the most respectable royal matriarch will have on his reputation for ‘keeping it real’ on the street remains to be seen. There are those who claim that Spike Milligan’s maverick status never recovered from Prince Charles singing the Goons’ ‘Ying Tong Song’ while standing in a dustbin.

The planted Ali G-meets-HRHQM story says much about the royals and their PR strategy. Not content with making the Queen Mother the symbol of tradition and pageantry, it appears that some now want to present the old lady as not just royal, but ‘real’. It seems a good job that she was the remarkable woman described in the obituaries, what with having to carry all that baggage through her declining years.

Presumably somebody imagines that, by linking the last Empress of India to the character whom the BBC called ‘the King of Staines’ (when he wore crown and robes for his movie premiere), they can somehow improve the royals’ standing among young people who queued to see Ali G In Da House, but have been noticeably absent from those filing past her coffin. (However, commentators concerned about the lack of black faces in Westminster Hall might worry that Ali G has also been accused of racism.) So it came to pass that two Princes of the realm happily broadcast their regal grandmother’s appreciation of a comic who has recently been upbraided for using sexual swearwords on the Radio 1 breakfast show, displaying a patois word for female genitalia on daytime television, and using ‘offensive’ posters to advertise his film.

All of which rather captures the air of confusion surrounding the Queen Mother’s death -a situation where nobody seems sure what they should or should not do or say, what tie to wear or where to draw the line. There is no longer any agreed national script or cultural narrative.

The reruns of the Queen Mother’s life story remind us of how the royals once acted as a symbol of unity with which many people could identify. That they no longer do so has already been made clear by the display of national indifference towards the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Even many who have queued to see the Queen Mother’s coffin seem to be self-consciously going through the motions, rather than displaying any real emotion.

Yet there has been no coherent anti-royalist response either. Those of us who have no opinion of the Queen Mother personally, but dislike living under a monarchy, might recall that the hall where she has lain in state is where Charles I stood trial. That, surely, should have been ‘the beginning of the end’ for the monarchy. Instead, within a few years, Cromwell’s head was displayed in Westminster Hall. There has been little serious republican politics since. Instead, we are left with incoherence on all sides, in an uncertain climate where the royals apparently want to be part of the Staines Massive, while Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols says he supports the Golden Jubilee for ‘our Royal Family’.

As Ali G might say, we’re keeping it surreal.

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