‘Royal Family’: the fly-on-the-wall documentary the Palace doesn’t want you to see

In 1969, millions of Britons were given a rare glimpse behind royal walls for the first time, thanks to an intimate television documentary that followed the Queen and her family as they went about their daily lives. But since the 1970s the Queen has never again given permission for the film to be shown in its entirety. Historian Sarah Gristwood investigates the real documentary featured in episode four of The Crown's new series…

The 1969 documentary was made amid a feeling that there was an increasing awareness of a need to ‘sell’ the monarchy to the people, writes historian Sarah Gristwood. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

There’s one scene everyone remembers from the 1969 fly-on-the-wall documentary Royal Family, and it showed the royals preparing a barbecue at Balmoral. Prince Philip mans the grill while the Queen sorts out the salads. Perhaps Philip, snappily declaring that his sausages weren’t ready yet, sounded a little on the sharp side for what was supposed to be a relaxed family occasion. But it was he who had from the start been behind the idea of a television programme designed to make the royal family seem more accessible. Half a century on, we are still debating whether or not it was a good idea.

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By the end of the 1960s, polls suggested the public viewed the royals as an out-of-touch anachronism. The English journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge told American television that the British “are getting bored with their monarchy”. The Queen was described merely as being “not unpopular” in the country: the Sunday Telegraph recorded that many young people thought her “an arch-square”. With inflation making the royal finances less secure, there was an increasing awareness of a need to ‘sell’ the monarchy to the people – a “distinct wind of change at the Palace”, as a BBC memo put it.

Prince Philip believed that television could be a useful tool for promotion of the monarchy. Here he paints in a scene from the 1969 documentary. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Prince Philip believed that television could be a useful tool for promotion of the monarchy. Here he paints in a scene from the 1969 documentary. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Prince Philip had always promoted the idea of television as a medium through which the monarchy could pass on its message. It was just one aspect of the modernising role he had taken on within the royal family – a reflection of his awareness they were “fighting an election every day”. Three years before, in 1966, Philip had been instrumental in allowing television cameras behind royal walls for the first time with the Kenneth Clark documentary The Royal Palaces of Britain, broadcast by both the BBC and ITV on Christmas Day 1966. But Royal Family would go much further.

Philip’s belief was that if people could see their head of state “as individuals, as people, I think it makes it much easier for them to accept the system”. He was against the idea of any “remoteness or majesty” in the people’s view of their monarchy. That belief was shared by the film producer Lord Brabourne (married to one of the daughters of Philip’s uncle Lord Mountbatten, Patricia Knatchbull, later 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma) and an insider in royal circles, who originated the plan, along with the Queen’s adventurous new press secretary William Heseltine.

Antony Jay wrote the script, and later went on to co-write 1980s satirical sitcom Yes, Minister (after which he considered making a follow-up, Yes, Ma’am!). Jay said the BBC’s attitude towards this royal production was marked by “a sort of deferential sense of respect and obligation towards the monarchy” – and that that between producers and palace, there was no doubt who was boss. All scenes had to be agreed by a joint BBC-ITV advisory committee chaired by Prince Philip. The Queen – by nature a private person, and one not drawn to change – was at first reluctant but allowed herself to be persuaded, and ironically wound up becoming something of an expert on camera angles. Under the directorship of the BBC’s head of documentaries, the former army officer Richard Cawston, shooting began on 8 June 1968, with the Trooping the Colour ceremony.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip enjoy Christmas at Windsor Castle in a scene from the 1969 documentary. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip enjoy Christmas at Windsor Castle in a scene from the 1969 documentary. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

What was shown in the Royal Family documentary?

Seventy-five days of shooting, in 172 locations, yielded 43 hours of film that would be cut to less than two hours on screen. The film purported to cover a year of royal life, with a summer scene faked in the Buckingham Palace gardens. The film has not been shown in its entirety for decades now, so even memories as to the contents vary. But the Queen was seen working on her red boxes [briefcase-style boxes covered in red leather used to convey daily dispatches from the government to the monarch] – at Sandringham; at Balmoral; on Britannia and on the Royal Train – to show the “relentlessness” of her job. The documentary also showed the Queen abroad on state visits; giving lunch to US president Richard Nixon; and receiving prime minister Harold Wilson for his weekly audience.

The Queen was shown working during the documentary, to show the “relentlessness” of her job. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
The Queen was filmed working during the documentary, to show the “relentlessness” of her job. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

The message was, of course, monarchical. “While [the Queen] is head of the law, no politician can take over the courts”, the script declared. “Monarchy does not lie in the power it gives to the sovereign, but in the power it denies to anyone else.”

But the Queen was also shown feeding carrots to her horses, watching a sitcom on television and driving her youngest son, Edward, out to the village shop to buy sweets. Prince Charles was seen water-skiing and working on his college history essay; practising the cello until a string snaps in his little brother Edward’s face. (Carefully, among the scenes of the family’s sporting pleasures there were none of deer stalking or shooting – the fear being less that they would seem bloodthirsty than elitist.)

What was the public reaction to the Royal Family documentary?

On 21 June 1969 Royal Family aired, in black and white, on the BBC, to be seen by some 23 million viewers. Another 15 million watched it on ITV in colour the following week, with subsequent broadcasts around the world. It is estimated that more than two-thirds of British adults saw the film, which would go on to be repeated five times. The royal establishment was delighted; the risk was felt to have paid off, and the programme to have done its job. The republican-leaning New Statesman declared, not without regret, that it had “added a decade or two to the life of the British monarchy”. But not everyone agreed.

The consciously ordinary atmosphere the royals had tried so hard to project at that barbecue was in some ways appealing. But was it also a little disappointing? The great Victorian essayist Walter Bagehot had warned: “We must not let in daylight upon magic”. David Attenborough, then controller of BBC Two, likewise told Cawston that the loss of mystique – allowing the members of the tribe to peer inside the chief’s hut – could ultimately kill the monarchy. Milton Shulman in the Evening Standard warned that “every institution that has so far attempted to use TV to popularize or aggrandize itself has been trivialized by it.”

A former colleague of Heseltine said the “hopeful” idea was that, by granting a certain amount of access under controlled circumstances, the media could be prevailed upon to let the royals alone the rest of the time. It is a juggling act – how best to handle the press problem? – that is still going on today.

It is arguable that the film had instead let the genie out of the bottle, so that ever more access would be expected, while the media’s awareness that they had been fed a manipulated image only encouraged them to seek a less censored reality. Since the 1970s the Queen has never again given permission for the film to be shown in its entirety.

The investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales in July 1969 was a royal spectacle of a very different sort. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
The investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales in July 1969 was a royal spectacle of a very different sort. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Hard on the heels of the first transmission, ironically, came another royal spectacle of a very different sort, and one which showed the family in a very different light. On 1 July 1969, in the courtyard of Caernarfon Castle, Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales. Decked out in ermine and purple silk he knelt before the unromantically modern-clad figure of his mother and vowed to be her “liege man of life and limb”. (It is one of the stills already released from the third season of The Crown.)

The event was watched by an estimated 500 million people worldwide, more even than Royal Family (which was estimated to have been seen, in the end, by 400 million, across almost 130 countries). Which TV spectacle gave a truer view of Britain’s monarchy? Which is the face of royalty we ultimately want to see? The jury is still out today.

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Sarah Gristwood is a best-selling Tudor biographer, novelist, broadcaster and commentator on royal affairs. To find out more, visit sarahgristwood.com or follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahgristwood