Handbagged: What's it like to play The Queen?

Imelda Staunton

West Hampstead actor Imelda Staunton is the latest in a long line to play The Queen in the forthcoming Season Five of Netflix's hit series The Crown - Credit: Alex Bailey/Netflix

Helen Mirren, Emma Thompson, now Imelda Staunton have joined a long line of actors to play The Queen.

But few have played both the monarch and her mother.

"It's a little thing she does when she has to stand still for a long time," says Marion Bailey. "A way of relaxing the arm that isn't holding the handbag. Then there's the gloves, and the voice, her pitch has come down and softened with age."

She then breaks into the plummy tones of her forthcoming role as Q in a revival of Handbagged at Kiln Theatre.

A scene from Handbagged by Moira Buffini @ Tricycle. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham
(Opening 1-10-13)

A scene from Handbagged by Moira Buffini from the 2013 run at The Tricycle now Kiln Theatre - Credit: Tristram Kenton

Fans of hit Netflix series The Crown will also clock Bailey as the Queen Mother to "daughters"' Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter in Season 4.

"It was such a nice job. I loved working with those two," says Bailey who would play the song Whispering Grass and add a spritz of Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue to get into character.

"They are very different but both wonderful and lovely.

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"The Queen Mother was a fascinating woman to research, an interesting mixture of Edwardian - she gave the Queen the basis for her religion - but also quite a wild child who was witty, cultured and liked cigarettes and a drink. In The Crown she's less sympathetic towards Margaret. Her world view was you just have to toughen up and get on with it. You marry for duty and have your fun discreetly."

Marion Bailey as The Queen Mother and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret in The Crown

Marion Bailey as The Queen Mother and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret in season 4 of The Crown - Credit: Courtesy of Des Willie / Netflix

While there are fewer recordings of the Queen Mother's voice, taking on The Queen was "easy" with lots of footage to research.

"I don't know why I ended up playing the monarchy when the first half of my career was quite the opposite," says Bailey who has appeared in several films by her partner Mike Leigh. "But when I was much younger, if I was given a certain sort of hairstyle, I'd think: 'I could play The Queen one day with hair like this.'

"I grew up with her, as a little girl I had a book about her, and loved looking at the dresses. For my mother's generation, the young Princess Elizabeth was part of that hopeful post war era. Working class aspirational women like my mother admired and copied her. I grew up surrounded by grown ups who behaved as much as they could like the Queen."

Moira Buffini's comedy started out at the Kiln - then Tricycle - in 2010 as a half hour play in the Women Power and Politics season. Gleefully imagining the fractious weekly audiences between Margaret Thatcher and The Queen - born six months apart and sharing a love of Lautner handbags - it later became a full length play. It ran in the West End at the same time as Peter Morgan's The Audience, his precursor to The Crown, which starred Helen Mirren as The Queen.

Bailey says the two tackle similar scenarios very differently with Buffini's "vaudevillian" play pitching older and younger versions of "Q" and "M" alongside two actors playing 72 different roles.

"It was great fun to have a go at playing The Queen in a way that wasn't too serious, rather than having to be the Queen. It's a very comic depiction, no long speeches, and lots of quick fire bantering lines, back and forth."

West End audiences she recalls were different to the Kilburn crowd: "There were more tourists watching who had more sympathy towards Margaret Thatcher. I don't think that was Moira's intention."

Bailey, who is currently filming Netflix's All The Light We Cannot See with Mark Ruffalo and Hugh Laurie, says she's read so much about the Royals "I almost feel as though I know them."

The Crown

'I have done so much research on Royalty I almost feel as if I know them' says Marion Bailey who played The Queen Mother in Season 4 of The Crown - Credit: Courtesy of Des Willie / Netflix

While no monarchist, she appreciates The Queen's difficult role "operating in a patriarchal system" as a head of state who has no real power.

"It's bizarre, all she can do is try in her private moments with the prime minster to discreetly voice her feelings. That's why these relationships are so fascinating. She apparently got on like a house on fire with Harold Wilson but not at all well with Margaret Thatcher. That's the humour of Handbagged, because she doesn't do spiky, she expresses herself in a subtle way. The play isn't hard hitting, but gets its digs in gently."

As the Platinum Jubilee approaches, Bailey feels "you have to totally admire" The Queen's hard work over seven decades.

"Whatever you make of the establishment or the Royals you can't deny she's done an amazing job. Sometimes the establishment has been less than perfect, but she's always represented loyalty, duty, continuity and stability in a changing world. When she dies it will have a profound effect on our country. I don't know what it will be, but our society will change."

Handbagged runs at The Kiln Theatre from September 9. Tickets at kilntheatre.com/whats-on/handbagged/