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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 October 2007, 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK
Elizabeth fatigue
Anne Marie Duff, Judi Dench, Glenda Jackson and Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I

By Lisa Mitchell
BBC News

Cate Blanchett has donned her red wig for a second time to play Elizabeth I. But do we really need another version of this well-worn tale of virginity and power?

A sweeping view of the Spanish Armada, sumptuous pearls, dashing cloaked lovers and, of course, the flaming red hair. It can only be another dramatisation about Elizabeth I.

The Virgin Queen has been portrayed in books and on stage since her rule in the 16th Century and on film since 1912 with a regularity that outnumbers every other historical ruler.

Surely we know everything there is to know about her. But Hollywood has poured millions into yet another depiction.

Elizabeth I riding a horse as she reviews her troops at Tilbury, circa 1560
She's an icon for a post-feminist age
Sarah Gristwood
What is it about this woman who ruled unelected nearly 500 years ago that is so alluring in the 21st Century?

Historian Sarah Gristwood says that every age has adopted the queen as an icon.

"Somehow, Elizabeth managed to make herself a blank slate for different eras. In the 17th Century, her reign was a golden age compared with the corruption of the Stuarts. The Victorians thought of her as an icon of Empire.

"In the 20th Century, there was more interest in her emotional foibles, in an almost pseudo-Freudian way. And now, she's an icon for a post-feminist age.

"There was a brief period in the 18th Century when they didn't like her - their sensibilities preferred Mary Queen of Scots - but you can find anything you like in her and she is resonating even more today."

Behind every woman...

The author of Elizabeth and Leicester says Elizabeth's juggling of her power with her personal life has direct lessons for another fighting to be the first woman to lead her mighty country - Hilary Clinton.

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"Elizabeth is a fantastic role model to female leaders. When you read about the difficulties Hilary will face in being respected while Bill is by her side, you cannot but think of the similarities with Elizabeth.

"She had huge problems with her last great favourite, the Earl of Essex, because he was far too popular for safety. If she had a consort, he could have taken power out of her hands. There really are echoes of that today."

Queen Victoria, of course, did have a consort and ruled in a age when Britain's role in the world was at its height.

But in a vote for the BBC News website to find the nation's most popular ruler, Elizabeth beat Victoria - and her father Henry VIII - hands down.

"The Elizabethans were such exciting people. Victoria and the age of Empire might be on paper a time for us to admire, but who fancies Gladstone? We think of them being sexually repressed and buttoned up. All those long sideburns were deeply unattractive."

Eye on America

Elizabeth bridged the Old and New Worlds and the connection with the Americas helps drum up dollars to fund productions across the Atlantic.

Historian Susan Ronald wrote about the squabble over the region between Philip of Spain and Elizabeth in Pirate Queen.

She says Californians love Francis Drake because he landed in modern-day San Francisco, while Southerners are fascinated by Walter Raleigh because he held the patent for Virginia.

"Elizabethans felt like they lived in apocalyptic times and that directly resonates with Americans today," she says.

Actors play Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, now showing around the world
Henry VIII courts Anne Boleyn - again - in The Tudors
Elizabeth's parents continue to fascinate too. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is smouldering as Henry VIII in BBC Two's The Tudors, and Philippa Gregory's best selling novel The Other Boleyn Girl - which charts Anne's rivalry with sister Mary for Henry's affections - is due out as a film starring Scarlett Johansson next year.

It appears we just can't get enough of ruffs, stomachers and doublets.

The props department of the National Theatre rents out its Elizabethan costumes for TV and stage productions.

Manager Liz Murray says they are popular because it is a period the audience recognises easily from its "definite and dramatic shapes in the clothing".

"The shapes are much more extreme than that of previous eras such as the medieval. It is also a period very far-removed from our current fashion.

"For men's fashion it was just before the frockcoat was introduced which is much more recognisable to our concept of modern clothing."

Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I
Sumptuous yet sanitised in Elizabeth: The Golden Age
In The Tudors, there is scant reference to the filth that followed Henry's court. His young lovers have snow-white chemises and 21st Century dentistry.

Sarah Gristwood visited the set of the Elizabeth: The Golden Age. She says that while parts of the film are historically inaccurate, the set designer had to exaggerate the sumptuousness of the court to create the same effect on a modern audience that it would have had on a 16th Century one.

"You don't see poor people in these films," she says. "They concentrate on the court, which was staggeringly splendid.

"The cost of a coat would buy a small estate. If Walter Raleigh did fling his coat down over a puddle for Elizabeth to walk over, it was a fairly impressive gesture."

Coveted role

Cate Blanchett has played Elizabeth twice and follows in the bejewelled footsteps of such grand dames of stage and screen as Sarah Bernhardt, Bette Davis and Judi Dench.

She was a fantastic, exciting, sexy, vibrant woman
Anne Marie Duff, actress
Dame Helen Mirren has described the role as an "incredibly explosive character". One reason there have been so many portrayals of Elizabeth is that so many actresses want to play her.

"She was very feminine, very vulnerable, kind of slightly silly sometimes, but at the same time, incredibly intellectual and very, very emotional," Dame Helen says of her HBO role.

Anne Marie Duff, who played her in The Virgin Queen for the BBC in 2006, describes her as a "fantastic, exciting, sexy, vibrant woman".

Alistair Smith, of entertainment industry newspaper The Stage, says her popularity as a character lies in the lack of strong roles for women.

Cate Blanchett
Cate's Elizabeth is Oscar-tipped
"Whereas a male actor can choose between a vast role call of monarchs and politicians who have been prominent in history - and therefore in literature - it is quite rare to find similarly prominent female figures, due to the historically male-dominated nature of society."

Elizabeth's greatness often rubs off on her imitators. Judi Dench won a best supporting actress Oscar for playing Elizabeth for just eight minutes in Shakespeare in Love.

As long as actresses need a character to get their teeth into, Elizabeth will be re-invented.

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