LONDON • When Queen Elizabeth came to the British throne more than six decades ago, her first prime minister was Winston Churchill, a man who had served in the army of Queen Victoria, her great-great-grandmother. By the time current Prime Minister David Cameron was born in 1966, she had already been monarch for 14 years.
"The first time she saw (Cameron), he was playing a rabbit in a school production in which her son Prince Edward was taking part," royal historian Hugo Vickers said. "He is the man from whom she now takes formal advice."
The contrast between those two politicians epitomises the huge change that the monarchy and the country have undergone during Queen Elizabeth's reign, which becomes the longest in British history on Wednesday when she overtakes Queen Victoria's 63-year stint.
Now 89, she ascended the throne in 1952, during the twilight of the British empire. Over the next few decades, the royal family went from being something the public would only glimpse in newsreels and at official occasions to releasing family photos on Twitter and even "photobombing" other people's "selfies".
"You would never have guessed, at the beginning of the reign, the queen would take part in a stunt in which she appeared to jump out of a helicopter with James Bond," said royal biographer Robert Lacey, referring to her performance at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games.
The changes have been more evolution than revolution, but they were not always smooth.
A 1969 fly-on-the-wall TV documentary, Royal Family, was viewed by commentators at the time as damaging to the monarchy's mystique. But another innovation the following year, the royal "walkabout" with the crowds, became a regular occurrence. Professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, said: "The walkabout... in a way symbolised not only classlessness and informality but (also) a sense of public affection for the institution."
The celebration of her silver jubilee in 1977, and the national joy at the wedding of son and heir Prince Charles to Diana Spencer, and the birth of their children in the 1980s, gave way to tribulations in the 1990s. In 1997, the Queen faced the greatest crisis of her reign when the hugely popular Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris.
While the monarchy worked hard to repair its image over the next few years, the British public was falling out of love with the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and elected politicians. As disillusionment grew and lawmakers were embroiled in an expenses scandal, the Queen's slowness to change morphed from being a weakness into a strength.
Said Prof Murphy: "When you get past the trauma of Diana's death into the last 10, 15 years or so, in a way there's a new kind of creeping respect for the way she's stayed the same, always done her duty, still keeping the show on the road."