Oliver Burton, a 10-year-old British boy with Downs Syndrome and terminal spine and bone marrow cancer, wanted nothing more than to have tea with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. But when asked, Her Royal Highness denied Oliver’s simple request. Though Oliver was not able to take tea with the real Queen, he was able to do arguably the next best thing: have tea with Dame Helen Mirren, who played both Queen Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II (as well as Queen Charlotte, wife of George III) in film and on television.
Mirren invited Oliver and his family to see her play Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s play The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre. After the play, she took Oliver backstage, where they were served tea and cakes by footmen, and introduced him to her corgis. The event was capped with a ceremonial “knighting” of Oliver.
Mirren stated that “it was a pleasure and a privilege to meet such a brave young man.”
It might be tempting to feel indignant at the Queen, and to paint her failure to grant a dying child’s wish as the latest instance in the long history of royalty being indifferent or negligent to the plight of their people. But we should remember that the Queen is 88-years-old, and, it is likely that she receives numerous similar requests often, and to attempt to fulfill all of them would be impractical, not to mention it would bring up the tricky issue of choosing which requests to fill and which to deny. Still, it goes without saying that if she had agreed to Oliver’s request, she would have further boosted the royal family’s popularity, perhaps giving at least some in the British Commonwealth a morale boost. More importantly, she would have performed a laudable act of generosity and compassion.
A more legitimate question is whether Mirren’s actions — falsely portraying herself as the Queen — were ethically acceptable. For his part, Oliver really believed Mirren was the Queen, according to his father, who also explained “that’s good enough for us.” Was this a form of lying and manipulation, or was an innocent, earnest attempt to bring some happiness to a child who has had to undergo a most unhappy life? Perhaps it was both?
Even if one were to analyze the situation, it seems clear that Oliver’s parents and Mirren’s actions were perfectly acceptable, and for that matter, charming and loving. Oliver was able to have the time of his life, and his parents were finally able to see their son happy. At the end of the day, this is what matters.
The British may usually mean “God Save the Queen” literally, but in this case, they — and especially Oliver’s parents — will be thinking about Dame Helen Mirren.