LONDON — Gone is the empire upon which the sun never set and Britain's power has dwindled during her reign, but Queen Elizabeth II has propelled the British monarchy to the pinnacle of international superstardom.
As the queen celebrated her 60th birthday last Monday, she remained at the top of the royal popularity polls, a symbol of continuity who has adroitly adapted Britain's 920-year-old monarchy to the nuclear and television age of the 1980s.
During her 34-year reign, the monarchy has been transformed from a mystery-shrouded national institution into a family of celebrities whose weddings, travels and antics are followed by millions around the globe.
A grandmother--with two of her four children married and a third, Prince Andrew, due to become so in the next royal wedding extravaganza July 23--the queen shows no signs of slowing down. So far this year she has been to Nepal, Australia and New Zealand, and this fall she will go to China.
Although the royal family is a popular institution, some quarters in Britain see no need for a monarchy in this day and age. These critics, who are in a minority, contend that it is too much of a burden on taxpayers. In 1983, the last year for which figures are available, the government spent $34 million just on two palaces and royal travels.
Buckingham Palace has dismissed press speculation, which surfaces from time to time, that Elizabeth may abdicate so her 37-year-old son, Prince Charles, can become king. Abdication has not become a serious issue, although an opinion poll for a newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, in late March indicated that 45% of the 981 Britons surveyed favored the queen's abdication before she turns 65.
This may reflect the growing popularity of Charles, who in recent years has been outspoken on a range of issues including the plight of the poor in Britain's decaying inner cities and his distaste for much modern architecture.
His popularity has been enhanced by his wife, 24-year-old Diana, Princess of Wales, whose poise and glamour make her a modern-day symbol of a fairy-tale princess.
Their wedding July 29, 1981, was among the monarchy's most elaborate events and one of the biggest television spectacles in history--watched by an estimated 1 billion people in 70 countries.
"The state occasions are part of the living theater of the monarchy," said the queen's husband, Prince Philip, in a 1983 interview. "The royal family . . . are producing live theater in which . . . all those who stand and watch or participate--they're part of the living theater too."
The director and lead actress in that theater is a trim, brown-haired, 5-foot-2 woman who has regiments of horse cavalry to escort her carriage on state occasions, an immense collection of jewels and priceless art, and an attractive family of four children and four grandchildren.
Her three sons, Charles, Andrew and Edward, know how to fly airplanes, scuba dive, parachute or command ships, and daughter Princess Anne, 35, is a one-time Olympic equestrian competitor and president of the Save the Children charity.
Social analyst Anthony Sampson wrote in "The Changing Anatomy of Britain" that the royal family saga--divorced-sister Princess Margaret, longtime bachelor-heir Prince Charles, outspoken-husband Prince Philip--"could rival 'Dallas' in its range of situations."
The queen was born in London on April 21, 1926, named Elizabeth Alexandra Mary. She was not expected to become queen, but that changed when she was 10 years old and her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Elizabeth's father, the Duke of York, became King George VI, and since he had no sons, she as the elder daughter became first in line to the throne. When Elizabeth was 25, her father died of lung cancer and she immediately became queen on Feb. 6, 1952.
300 Million Watched
The decision to televise her coronation June 2, 1953, thrust the royal family into the international spotlight on a scale never known before. The spectacular ceremony in Westminster Abbey was seen on black and white TV sets by an estimated 300 million people around the globe.
Britain then ruled more than 100 million people in colonies stretching through Africa, Asia and Latin America, and her ascension was seen by many as the dawn of a new Elizabethan era, a chance to take Britain back to its 16th-Century glory.
The new Elizabethan age never arrived and Britain's status in the world has fallen, with far less economic power than its wartime opponents, Japan and Germany.
Today, Elizabeth's domain has dwindled to 13 colonies with fewer than 6 million people, including 5 million Hong Kong Chinese.
But she has rarely looked back on the lost empire. Instead she lavishes attention on the Commonwealth, the association of Britain and 48 of its former colonies.
Little Political Power