We are amused: how the Queen saw the funny side – The Guardian

From slapstick to dry wit, Elizabeth often used humour to defuse situations
A group of American tourists once approached the Queen as she was out walking near her Balmoral estate. Not recognising the unassuming woman in a headscarf, they asked if she lived nearby. “She answered quite non-committally that yes, she had a house quite close by,” says the writer Karen Dolby, recounting a talk given by Richard Griffin, the Queen’s former protection officer. “They asked if she’d ever met the Queen, and without missing a beat she replied ‘no’ but pointed at Richard Griffin, and said, ‘but he has’. And then they walked on, none the wiser. I think her sense of irony and lightness of touch reflected her humour very obviously.”
The Queen’s sense of humour was not always obvious in public, but those who knew her or met her privately would often remark on it. Speaking in 2012, Rowan Williams, the then archbishop of Canterbury, said: “I found, in the Queen, someone who can be friendly, who can be informal, who can be extremely funny in private. Not everybody appreciates just how funny she can be. Who is quite prepared to tease and to be teased.”
In his memoir, Sir Elton John wrote that the Queen “could be hilarious”. During an event, she asked her nephew Viscount Linley to go and check on his mother – her sister, Princess Margaret. “When he repeatedly tried to fob her off,” wrote the musician, “the Queen lightly slapped him across the face, saying, ‘Don’t’ – SLAP – ‘argue’ – SLAP – ‘with’ – SLAP – ‘me’ – SLAP – ‘I’ – SLAP – ‘am’ – SLAP – ‘THE QUEEN!’ As he left, she saw me staring at her, gave me a wink and walked off.”
Her public face was one of duty and seriousness, not only influenced by her position but because she was also from a generation that shied away from showing emotion in public. This could have an unintended effect. Richard Crossman, the leftwing intellectual and politician, noted after meeting the Queen in the 1960s: “She laughs with her whole face and she cannot just assume a mere smile because she’s really a very spontaneous person. Godfrey Agnew [clerk of the privy council] was right when he said to me that … she finds it difficult to suppress her emotion. When she is deeply moved and tries to control it, she looks like an angry thundercloud. So, very often when she’s been deeply touched by the plaudits of the crowd, she merely looks terribly bad-tempered.”
Humour, says Dolby, who compiled The Wicked Wit of Queen Elizabeth II – a collection of some of the monarch’s humorous remarks and sense of fun – was “a key part of her character but certainly, in the earlier part of her reign, she was very aware of the need to be dignified. Whereas other members of the royal family might have been more open, Prince Philip in particular, her humour was more apparent in private.”
The historian and royal biographer Robert Lacey says: “She had a wonderful wry and dry sense of humour, and it was a very important ingredient of her identity. I would say that her sense of humour and her religious faith were two of the personal elements that kept her so much on track.”
Her famous “annus horribilis” speech of 1992 – the year in which three of her children’s marriages publicly broke down, and a fire wrecked part of Windsor castle – was “a classic example”, says Lacey. That phrase “annus horribilis” has been taken seriously, an expression of the Queen’s anguish, but Lacey points out it was a wry joke. “It’s not correct Latin. Classical scholars regard it as a joke on the expression ‘annus mirabilis’. This was her joke that she opens the proceedings with, and suddenly everybody’s on her side, she’s acknowledged the problem, but she’s moved on.”
There is something “inherently ridiculous about the monarchy,” says Lacey, who believes “her sense of humour was an acknowledgment of that. This goes right way back to the fact she wasn’t born into the succession. She was the Princess Beatrice of her day: she was the elder daughter of the Duke of York, she wasn’t destined for this job.” On her uncle’s abdication she was suddenly in line to the throne. “So it’s a pure lottery that cast her into it. She could see the funny side of that.”
Humour, says Dolby, has been important to the whole family, from the joke presents exchanged each Christmas at Sandringham to their informal barbecues and picnics. “They have nicknames for one another, and quite a lot of teasing goes on,” says Dolby. “They don’t let anyone take themselves too seriously, or have an overinflated sense of their own importance. I think teasing, jokes and nicknames are all part of the whole family ethos.”
Humour also defined the Queen’s relationship with her husband. “I don’t think anyone without a sense of humour would have been so happy, or forge such a successful partnership, with a man like Prince Philip,” says Dolby. What people forgot, says Lacey, “when they talked about Prince Philip, his gaffes and his dreadful politically incorrect sense of humour, that the main person that was designed for was the Queen”.
In public, particularly in later years, the Queen was prepared to poke fun at herself, whether in her starring role in a James Bond sketch for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, or in a video with Prince Harry before his Invictus Games. She could also turn a witty remark, and would use humour to defuse a tricky situation. Making a speech after being confronted by anti-monarchist, egg-pelting protesters on a visit to New Zealand in 1986, she said: “I myself prefer my New Zealand eggs for breakfast.” In the US, in 2007, after President George W Bush said the Queen had helped celebrate the US bicentennial in 1776, when he meant 1976, she began her speech with a smile and said “I wondered whether I should start this toast by saying, ‘When I was here in 1776 …’” to roars of laughter.
During a visit to the Chelsea flower show in 2016, the gardener Jekka McVicar explained to the Queen that lily of the valley was once used as a poison. The Queen, according to McVicar, quipped: “I’ve been given two bunches this week. Perhaps they want me dead.”
Behind the scenes, staff have reported a warm relationship with their boss, in which humour played an important part. The royal yacht, Britannia, was one of the places she could be off-duty and the atmosphere was informal, where crew members were reportedly recruited for their sense of humour.
In her book, The Other Side of the Coin, Angela Kelly, the Queen’s dresser, wrote that whenever she was overcome with emotion, particularly when helping the Queen into robe and crown for state occasions, the Queen “rolls her eyes and playfully tuts at me”. Once, on a royal tour of Australia in 2006, Kelly bought a toy kookaburra and put it on the Queen’s balcony. The Queen, thinking it was real, was very excited to see it. When she realised it was a joke, “she had”, writes Kelly, “only two words for me: ‘You’re sacked!’.” Kelly has previously said the Queen was a talented mimic, and liked to imitate her Liverpudlian accent. As Dolby writes:“Her repertoire is said to include politicians like Tony Benn and Tony Blair, familiar TV characters and a very convincing Russian president Boris Yeltsin, along with several US presidents.”
In the later decades of her reign, the Queen seemed more willing to show a lighthearted public face. “It was partly being completely confident in her own position,” says Dolby, “but there was a change after Diana’s death, when I think the royal family realised they needed to be more human.” For the Queen, that meant a broad smile, a ready laugh and a reminder that under the heavy sense of duty was a woman who could see the funny side.


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