The Queen ascended the throne at the dawn of the age of mass media. Her coronation in 1953 was the first nationally televised event, and nearly every step she took in public thereafter was caught on camera.
As for her private moments, a number of actresses attempted to portray what might have happened behind closed doors.
Here are some of the documentaries that opened a window into his life, and some high-profile fictionalized portrayals that helped shape public perceptions.
The Crown (Netflix series, 2016–present)
Impossible to write about the queen on the screen without mentioning The Crown, the great Netflix series retracing the reign of the monarch from her ascension until the early 2000s.
Claire Foy and Olivia Colman have starred in all four seasons so far. Imelda Staunton takes over for the fifth, set to launch in November and set in the 1990s.
The series feels like a high-class soap opera at times, heightening the supposed drama and conflict both within the royal family and between the monarch and prime ministers, though its historical accuracy has been widely criticized.
A Tribute to Her Majesty The Queen (BBC Documentary, 2022)
Touching memories of the Queen’s own children set this 90-minute documentary apart from most other factual films about her life and times.
With so few opportunities to see truly intimate moments between the royals, the obvious, genuine affection with which they speak gives us a glimpse into their relationship with their mother when they were first family and then royal.
Prince Charles, as he was known at the time of filming, recalls an old memory from when he was just three years old. “I will never forget, when we were little, we took a bath and she came to practice wearing the crown before the coronation,” he says. “All those kinds of wonderful times, I’ll never forget.”
Elsewhere, narrator Kirsty Young tells the story of the private and public aspects of the Queen’s reign in her warm, authoritative style.
Watch on BBC iPlayer (UK only)
Her Majesty The Queen (Channel 4 Documentary, 2022)
Veteran presenter Jon Snow opens this hour-long special with a very personal connection – proudly displaying a blurred black and white photo of himself and his brothers meeting the Queen five years after her coronation, when he had 10 years.
His main memory is that the encounter involved repainting the downstairs toilets in case any of the royals needed to go (they didn’t). Otherwise he doesn’t remember much, “except that she was small, pleated skirt, hat, didn’t say much”. He adds: “Prince Philip – he said a lot, but I didn’t understand much of it.”
Snow spices up the program with more memories, both her own and those of others, like her next-door neighbor, a former lady-in-waiting.
It balances these personal moments by using its journalistic rigor to also tell the official story, re-examining the most defining episodes of the Queen’s seven decades on the throne, from her coronation to the controversies of the 1990s.
Watch on Channel 4 (UK only)
The Queen’s Coronation in Color (ITV/Netflix documentary, 2018)
The beginning of the Queen’s reign may now seem to belong to a distant historical era. Full color coverage of the coronation and more relaxed behind-the-scenes footage commissioned by the young queen herself help bring the occasion to life.
There are interviews with some of those who participated, such as the bridesmaids who had to save one of their limbs from fainting during the ceremony. We hear how the Archbishop of Canterbury later helped revive her by giving her a sip of brandy in the sacristy.
The programme, presented by Alexander Armstrong, also includes wonderful amateur footage of happy and sometimes eccentric street parties that took place across the UK on the same day.
Watch on ITV Hub (UK only) or watch on Netflix
Elizabeth R – A Year in the Life of the Queen (BBC Documentary, 1992)
If you want to peek behind the velvet curtain, the makers of this documentary had rare access to follow the Queen over the course of a year in 1990 and 1991.
He captures private moments and encounters in his various residences and on tour. It’s particularly refreshing to watch her act and chat naturally – whether it’s joking around with Nelson Mandela or fending off a light band-aid she received from a resident of a Yorkshire care home.
There’s also a voiceover from the monarch herself, in far less formal tones than we’re used to hearing in her speeches.
And perhaps the closest the Queen has come to losing her temper on camera is a fleeting mother-daughter flash – the kind any family will know – when the Queen Mother teases her as they watch the Derby from Epsom.
Otherwise, there’s not much royal scandal on display, and if you want drama, you should watch The Crown. This was filmed just before his 1992 “annus horribilis”, so captures the calm before the storm.
Watch on BBC iPlayer (UK only)
Elizabeth: A Portrait In Parts (Amazon Prime Video Documentary, 2022)
More irreverent and lively than most royal documentaries – yet still respectful – this 90-minute film brings together the archives of the Queen and her surrounding culture, traveling back and forth in time through her 70s.
Released for its platinum jubilee earlier this year, it was Notting Hill and The Duke director Roger Michell’s last work before his death a year ago.
Its style, using cut footage to compile loose thematic chapters rather than telling a chronological story, gives it a fresh feel and helps break up some of the pomp and formality that surrounded the monarch.
Elizabeth: Our Queen (Channel 5, 2018)
For a fuller account of his life, covering the ups and downs of his unique status in the country, this four-part, seven-and-a-half-hour series should satisfy.
It uses the familiar formula of news archive television documentaries combined with talking head commentary from historians, politicians and members of the royal circle.
Although there are few new revelations, it offers an in-depth and nostalgic trip down memory lane.
The Queen (Netflix movie, 2006)
Dame Helen Mirren won the Best Actress Oscar for her title role in the 2006 film The Queen.
Set in the wake of Princess Diana’s death in 1997, the film depicts one of the most difficult times for the monarch, when she was seen as aloof and slow to react to the national mood.
Dame Helen revealed earlier this year that she had written to the real Queen ahead of filming to say: “We are investigating a very difficult time in your life. I hope it is not too awful for you. ” The actress told the Radio Times: “I can’t remember how I said it. I just said that in my research I found myself with a growing respect for her.”
The actress also previously said she wasn’t sure if the Queen had watched the film, but “I felt like it was seen and enjoyed”.
How she got that meaning is unclear, given that the portrayal isn’t always entirely flattering – including to the extended family – and Mirren added: “I’ve never heard directly, and I never will.”
A Royal Evening (film, 2015)
This 2015 film starred Canadian actress Sarah Gadon as a 19-year-old Princess Elizabeth, who takes to the streets incognito with her sister Margaret during VE Day celebrations, the end of World War II. world in Europe in 1945.
It’s a lighthearted and charming reimagining of the Princesses’ Anonymous Freedom Night, loosely based on real events when the sisters actually joined the merry crowd in the mall outside Buckingham Palace.
However, it seems unlikely that Elizabeth actually encountered a dashing airman on a double-decker bus before frolicking through town with him and taking him back to the palace for breakfast with his mother and father – but the screenwriters of the film decided that they too could use artistic license by filling in the blanks on the Queen’s life.
Available on various platforms on demand