Monday, September 20, 2010

The Queen in 3D: A Participatory Exercise in Public History

Earlier this evening (or later this evening, if you're in Central Time or points west), I made a short appearance on the CBC documentary The Queen in 3D. My brief clip provided a short bit of context to the Princess's 1951 visit to Canada, two years before her coronation.

It was an interesting process to be a part of. I was asked to participate in mid-August. Initially, I was asked to contextualize five different royal visits, providing some details and stories about the Canada being visited by the Queen in 1951, 1959, 1967, 1982 and 2002. Ultimately, the latter 4 visits were compressed into a dialogue-free montage of about 1-2 minutes, and my stories ended up on the cutting room floor as the documentary shifted emphasis towards the 1953 coronation and the most recent royal visit.

It's interesting to look at the documentary through the lens of a public historian. It's pretty clear, given the amount of time spent on the garden party footage and the time allocated to the spokeswoman for Hello! Canada that this documentary is mainly aimed at royal-watchers and fans of the monarchy. I probably would have wanted to incorporate a lot more footage from the many royal visits. But that being said, I don't think the filmmakers erred in pitching this documentary at its likely audience.

Beyond my 45 seconds of fame, I was actually quite impressed with the first 20 minutes of the film. It provides a very interesting window into the culture of the 1950s, when a network would have spent a small fortune running coronation footage across the Atlantic Ocean in a fighter plane to try to air it the same day. The fact that this race-across-the-ocean was itself documented is also quite neat. And for all that I think the script over-hyped the significance of finding the Royal Review footage, from a history of technology perspective, it is quite remarkable to find 3D colour footage of such a significant cultural event from the early 1950s.

Mind you, all of that being said, I'm not a monarchist at all. I don't agree at all with a system of government based on birthright. To me, it's not far off from the Monty Python and the Holy Grail scene where Arthur's claim to be King is the result of "strange women lying in ponds distributing swords" model of governance. If Canadians could find a way to agree on how replace the Queen as head of state, I'd be thrilled. But that doesn't mean that as a Canadian historian I'd deny the significant role that the British connection has played, and continues to play in Canada's political, social and cultural evolution. And it got me on TV.

Update: The full documentary is now available online here, and if you scroll down there is one of my outtakes that didn't make the final version.

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