September 7 would be the 481st birthday of Elizabeth I of England, so it’s a fitting time to review some of the most iconic and popular screen portrayals of the Virgin Queen. I’m starting with my favorite, Glenda Jackson in the BBC miniseries Elizabeth R, which was first broadcast in the U.K. in February 1971 and in the U.S. in February 1972, as part of Masterpiece Theater on PBS.
I’m not quite old enough to have seen this when it first premiered, but I did see it at some point in the ’70s in reruns, and it had a profound affect on me. This, plus attending the Northern California renaissance faire at Blackpoint, are entirely to blame for my fascination with history, costume, and especially the 16th century.
This series is exquisite in the level of historical accuracy — from the plot details to the costume to the performances, everything feels, looks, and sounds right. The story covers Elizabeth’s life from the last few years of her sister Mary’s reign until Elizabeth’s death, all in six 85-minute episodes. While some elements are truncated and others are exaggerated, you don’t see any of the crazy invented story lines that happen in some modern versions of her life (cough Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth cough). Also, this production is filled to the brim with Royal Shakespeare Company-trained actors, which adds gravitas to every scene. Between the acting and the dialog, the scenes ring true to (at least my interpretation of) history during episodes like Elizabeth flirting with Dudley and waffling over signing Mary Queen of Scots’ death warrant. Oh, and Robert Hardy (later to star in All Creatures Great and Small on telly and as Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, in the Harry Potter movies) makes a fantastic Dudley. The casting in the whole series is spot-on.
Then there are the freakin’ brilliant costumes! OMG. At least six of Glenda Jackson’s costumes are direct recreations from portraits of Elizabeth I, including the well-known Darnley portrait, Phoenix portrait, Armada portrait, and Ditchley portrait. The ruffs, makeup, hats, and hair complete every single look. The costume designer was Elizabeth Waller, who won an Emmy for this series, and Jean Hunnisett was on her staff and helped build several of these gowns, which she chronicled in her incredibly useful book, Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress 1500-1800.
The men’s costumes and extras costumes are equally excellent, and obviously so much of what was made for this series became stock costume for years to come. Check out how one of ER’s gowns ended up in Showtime’s The Tudors later!
The only possible complaint I might have about this series is about the first episode, which shows Princess Elizabeth’s tumultuous rise to the throne. Let’s face it, Jackson was in her mid-30s when that was filmed, thus playing the teenaged princess was a bit of a stretch. The episode is necessary to tell the story, and Jackson is an amazing actor in the part; the look is the only thing that doesn’t quite work. It’s a very minor quibble because I think switching from a younger actor to Jackson wouldn’t have worked well either.
I suppose some might also complain about the filming quality, being that this was made nearly 40 years ago, long before high definition or CGI. The indoor sets can feel a little claustrophobic, and the outdoor sets are often fake. But I rather find the indoor claustrophobia adds to the feeling of intrigue and machinations around every corner that seem so appropriate to the Elizabethan court.
Anyway, for me, Glenda Jackson is the ultimate Queen Elizabeth, and this series will always be my go-to for Elizabethan costume on the screen. If you like 16th-century history and clothes and you haven’t seen it yet, quick, get the DVDs or find it streaming and fix that now!
- Costume Captures: Elizabeth R — A treasure trove of screencaps from the series, featuring all the fabulous gowns of Elizabeth (and it’s where I found all the images used in this post).
- Examining the Phoenix gown — One blogger had the rare chance to look up-close at the reproduction of the Phoenix gown made by Jean Hunnisett for the series. Tons of detail about where it was historically accurate and where it deviated for TV production reasons.