Thursday 1 March 2012

The New Elizabethans by Mary Hoffman

BBC Radio 4 is asking listeners to send in suggestions for the most influential and important people of the second Queen Elizabeth's reign, to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee this year here. 

Jim Naughtie will run a series of radio programmes about 60 such nominees from June onwards. Sixty names for the 60 years of ER2's reign. They don't have to be British, just to have had an influence on British life.

I'm sure there will be the usual dreary list of Prime Ministers, sportsmen and pop musicians; Naughtie has already suggested that Rupert Murdoch might be such a name. Well, there's no denying he has had an influence!

You have till 9th March to make your nominations to the official Radio 4  site. So far listeners have suggested:
Barbara Castle, John Rutter, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, Rose Heilbron QC, Raymond Damadian, Vivienne Westwood, Elizabeth David, Ted Hughes, Leo Baxendale, Tim Berners Lee, Richard Attenborough, Stephen Fry, Professor Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Alistair Campbell, JK Rowling, Russell T Davies and Paul McCartney among others. 

But this is The History Girls and we can make our own rules. I thought I'd consider who were the great names of the first Elizabethan era and see if we could come up with equivalents.

Elizabeth 1 - well, of course she has her equivalent on the throne now but times are very different. The first Queen Elizabeth could speak Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and Welsh. I have heard our present queen speak French and she did it, though grammatically accurately, just exactly in the same accent as she speaks English. Fortunately there are no recordings of Queen Bess's linguistic skills. She was a great orator; her distant successor's annual Christmas Speech is perhaps not a fair comparison.

But the first Elizabeth's greatest accomplishment was staying alive!  She survived many rebellions and plots and did well even to survives scandals and questioning in the Tower before she even reached the throne. Our present queen's ascension was tame by comparison though no-one would suggest it was easy for her to take up the crown in her twenties, after George V1's sudden death.

The first Elizabeth could - and did - send traitors to the block.  ER2 lost the power to execute for treason as late as 1998 though she never exercised it. (Capital punishment for murder stopped in 1969, though the last hangings were in 1964).

A quick trawl through the intellectual life of both reigns suggests that they were equally rich in scheming politicians and advisers.  On poets I reckon the score is roughly equal, if you leave out Shakespeare. Sir Philip Sydney and Thomas Wyatt versus T.S.Eliot, W.H. Auden, Ted Hughes.

Musically the great trio of Byrd, Tallis and Gibbons to be offset by Britten, Tippett, John Tavener, John Rutter. Artists: well only really the miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard to put alongside Lucian Freud and David Hockney, John Piper, Barbara Hepworth, Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink. I think the New Elizabethans do rather well out of that comparison.

Playwrights? Well, we have to bow our heads before the towering dominant genius of the first Elizabeth's time and as well as him there was Christopher Marlowe. It seems absurd to talk about  John Osborne in comparison! Though we do have Alan Bennett, Tom Stoppard, Micahel Frayn. What about the actors in the plays? We can't know how great Richard Burbage, Edward Alleyn or Will Kemp actually were but ER2 has had a wonderful bunch to choose from, from Gielgud, Richardson, Olivier, Ashcroft, Tyzack through to the Redgraves, McKellen and the amazing Mark Rylance. I think perhaps the moderns have it.

Science and philosophy: Would you like to square up Francis Bacon against Stephen Hawking, John Dee against Richard Dawkins? (Actually I think Tim Berners-Lee is the best equivalent to John Dee.) But I'm afraid both lists so far are heavily weighted towards males.

So here is my challenge: suggest some equivalents to the following Old Elizabethans.

Mary, Queen of Scots
Bess of Hardwick
Arbella Stuart
Elizabeth Bathory

John Dee
Sir Francis Bacon
Sir Walter Ralegh
Inigo Jones

Or any others that take your fancy.

As for my Radio 4 recommendations, I won't give you 60 but I think David rather than Richard Attenborough because he's the modern equivalent of a global explorer, T.S. Eliot, Benjamin Britten - oh, quick, some women: Shirley Williams, Diana Wynne Jones, Hilary Mantel, Judi Dench, Elizabeth David, Angela Carter, Jill Tweedy, Lynne Truss.

Also Rosalind Franklin, Alistair Cooke (born in Salford; his Letter from America was a big influence in British radio), Thomas Heatherwick, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, The Incredible String Band and the Beatles, Kenneth Branagh, Steptoe and Edwards, Tom Watson.... You will see this is rather random.


Stroppy Author said...

What a splendid idea!

But Elizabeth Bathory??? East European psychopath and serial killer? Er, Harold Shipman? Not someone I would nominate as a great Elizabethan, unless we are turning to the dark side.

H.M. Castor said...

I shall be thinking about this all day! Off the top of my head, I'd like to nominate Ninette de Valois... & Rudolf Nureyev!

Mary Hoffman said...

Yes but she lived here, Anne. I love the idea of Lady Dracula!

I don't think the great Elizabethans also have to be good.

michelle lovric said...

I suppose Norman Foster or David Chipperfield for architects. Leonard Cohen is excluded by his nationality? As is Steve Jobs?

Leslie Wilson said...

I can remember growing up being told that we were the 'New Elizabethans.' The difference between the Elizabeths is that the first one was highly cultured and learned, and a poet in her own right..
What the second Bess has that the first one didn't, is novelists - or were there some novels already in Tudor times? Glad Hilary Mantel has already rated a mensh. Margaret Atwood, since she's in the Commonwealth.
I'd like to nominate Lindis Percy, for her heroic and self-sacrificing resistance to nuclear weapons, and all the Greenham Wimmin, actually. Definitely Shirley Williams. And all the parents, in whatever walk of life, who have worked so hard to raise successive generations. Then there's the founder of the Medical Foundation, Helen Bamber, and how's about Rabbi Lionel Blue?

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I'm delighted we had a children's author in the list in JK Rowling. I suppose Phillip Pullman should be added.And amongst artists for the new Elizabethan age we shouldn't forget the studio potters Lucie Rie and Bernard Leech who laid down the foundation of modern British pottery... to be followed by Edmund de Waal perhaps.

Anonymous said...

What fun on a dreary late April day...
So, here goes:
Mary Queen of Scots/Edward and Wallis, Duke & Duchess of Windsor
Bess of Hardwick: Hmm, the current dowager Duchess of Devonshire (has the property & complex family past!)
John Dee: a scientist that saw/sees beyond the normal, e.g. Jocelyn Bell-Burnell
Sir Walter Ralegh: Sir Richard Branson (beard and all)...
Inigo Jones: Zaha Hadid?
Sir Francis Bacon: much more difficult. Perhaps someone like George Monbiot or Tony Benn, with his upper class background but concern for larger social/environmental concerns