When the Queen went to the Opera
Perhaps such a state visit would be unthinkable today: When Queen Elizabeth paid France her first state visit in 1957, the manifestly Republican country welcomed her lavishly. Ceremonial parades lined up; the Royal Standard flew from the Elysees Palace. The choir of Notre Dame sang to her from the banks of the Seine as she sailed down it. Abandoning all diplomatic protocol, President Rene Coty planted a kiss on the Queen, Paris March reported. The Queen was feted in the Hall of Mirrors at the Versailles and in the Louvre.
Her enthusiastic host at the latter occasion was the French prime minister, Guy Mollet, who the previous year had suggested to his British counterpart, Anthony Eden, that Britain and France should considered a “union” with the Queen as its head. When Eden rejected the idea, Mollet broached the possibility of the French joining the Commonwealth when Eden visited Paris a fortnight later.
After telling her hosts, “You were the cradle of our kings,” the Queen (it wasn’t clear whether she was informed of Mr. Mollet’s royalist bent, but the appalled Cabinet definitely was) went to the Paris Opera for the ballet Le Chevalier et la Demoiselle, where 5,000 Parisians cheered, “Long Live the Queen.” In Bert Hardy: My Life, the photographer then working for Picture Post remembers how difficult it was to cover this occasion:
“Paris Match was very much our competition, and there was a rota system in effect. Only two Frenchmen and two of us were allowed to go in; but the French newsmen were above the rules. They had twenty, we would have two, and the French police were making sure that’s all we had.
The Queen was due to visit the Paris Opera, and I wanted to be there to take some pictures, although officially I wasn’t supposed to be. The French Press had been cheating like mad (on the rota system), I knew. I decided that it was about time the British Press did a bit of cheating.
I had my usual difficulty getting hold of a dinner jacket. The only one I was able to borrow was several sizes too big, but that suited me: I was able to hide my Leica inside it. As for my brown shoes, I just hoped that no one would look down that far. The next little difficulty was getting into the Opera. I didn’t have a permit, so I waited outside on the pavement until a group of French dignitaries wearing grand plumed hats, who had got out of various cars, came towards the entrance. I sidled up and joined them. I was appearing to get on fairly well with my few words of French, when they all moved to go inside. I moved with them. The police saluted, and everybody bowed (I hoped they didn’t notice my shoes), and I was in.
I quickly looked for the best vantage point to get a good picture of the Queen coming in. I went up the magnificent staircase, and found a little box by the side where the occupants made room for me, thinking I was an official Press man. It was a fabulous panorama, and I began to realise that the scene was just too large for a standard lens to take in. The only thing to do was make a massive ‘join-up.’ Before the Queen actually entered, I started taking shots of the vast entrance hall, working slowly from left to right, and from top to bottom, and making sure that the edges of each shot coincided as far as possible with some feature like the edge of a balcony or pillar. In all I took about twenty separate shots, and the last shot of all showed the Queen climbing the stairs. After I sent the film back, I telephoned Sheila (his soon-to-be-wife) to explain to her what I had done, so she could tell the make-up man how to piece the jigsaw together. The finished picture was the most ambitious example ever of the technique I had learned from William Davis, and was published on 20 April 1957.
Fifteen of Hardy’s photos were painstakingly joined, by hand in those days before easy photoshop, to compose the one of the largest montages (or ‘join-up’ as they called it back then). The only clue that the image is a montage is in the guards’ unrisen swords to Her Majesty’s left. Picture Post’s special April 20 souvenir edition was a last hurrah for the magazine; six weeks later, it closed down.
Ironically, the photo was also published in Paris Match issue of the same date; the French magazine actually devoted 27 spreads to the Queen’s visit.