Fascinating and charming, the BBC's Royal Family humanises the Windsors far better than The Crown

Chris Bennion
·4-min read
The Queen with her privy council in the 1968 documentary - Rex
The Queen with her privy council in the 1968 documentary - Rex

It is not hard to imagine why the Royal family might have wanted Richard Cawston’s fly-on-the-chandelier 1969 documentary banished to the dusty BBC archives, after a single repeat showing in 1972. It makes the family all too human, all too familiar. But a viewing of the leaked version recently on YouTube (it was taken down today) suggests the Queen should count her blessings. She comes out of it rather well.

Taking in 12 months of Royal duties, the film shows the Queen hard at work, wherever she may be – Buckingham Palace, Balmoral, Sandringham, HMY Britannia, Brazil, Chile. Hers is seemingly a gruelling life of travel, reading and signing papers, handshakes and small talk. Her schedule is punishing, her energy and smile unfaltering.

The aim, we must assume, was to show us how hard she and the family graft on our behalf. Indeed, the opening line of the documentary calls the monarchy a “job”, and the initial shots of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh show them at their desks, shuffling faxes and taking calls. It is not a million miles away from The Office.

One unintentionally amusing aspect of the documentary are the constant shots of doddery old chaps tramping up palace stairs with stacks of papers for Her Majesty to peruse, which she does, politely. The 1960s Britain the film represents is airless, austere, drab. Hardly swinging.

The Queen’s life is also shown as something of a hamster wheel: bagpipes, papers, royal yacht, handshakes, papers, royal train, pomp, pageantry, protocols, papers, papers, papers. You’d believe the Royal family was a larger employer than the NHS and the Civil Service combined, such are the myriad layers of protocol that must go into everything the Queen does.

Perhaps the Royal family thought the film should be shelved on matters of taste. We are treated to umpteen shots and statistics about gold tea sets and antique carriages. Cawston was certainly making a point when he showed the family at Sandringham, at Christmas, crowded round the gogglebox, chuckling away at a TV comedy like any normal family would. It was a warm and cosy scene, replicated in living rooms up and down the nation. Cawston ended the scene by cutting back to wide shot of the room, which was, of course, as large as a decent sized semi-detached.

The insight, though, is terrific. Materially, watching from a 2021 vantage, we don’t learn an awful lot more than we would from a series of the TV drama The Crown. But the Windsors are totally unguarded, natural, non-media trained, it’s like watching the original reality TV show. Though it knocks spots off the likes of The Kardashians, because the family don’t know how they are expected to behave on camera, so they just behave like themselves (much like series one of Big Brother).

Queen Elizabeth II lunches with Prince Philip and their children Princess Anne and Prince Charles at Windsor Castle in Berkshire, circa 1969 - Hulton Archive
Queen Elizabeth II lunches with Prince Philip and their children Princess Anne and Prince Charles at Windsor Castle in Berkshire, circa 1969 - Hulton Archive

So, the Queen is charming but firm, Prince Philip is constantly cracking jokes, Prince Charles is nervous, gawky, bashful (another reason, perhaps, the film became verboten), Anne is a mainly silent trooper. Yes, they seem distractingly normal. The Queen even trips over her words at times, at state occasions. But what would the Royal family want us to see? This? Or Martin Bashir interviewing Princess Diana? Emily Maitlis grilling Prince Andrew? This documentary is far more palatable.

The documentary is filled with amusing vignettes, too. Prince Charles asking what a blowout preventer does while visiting an oil rig (“It, er, prevents… blowouts, Your Majesty”), the Queen and Prince Charles making a salad dressing together, a five-year-old Prince Edward (so sweet, utterly stealing the show) repeatedly bothering Prince Philip with questions about barbecue utensils, a royal chef proudly saying he will “chop a pineapple in half, longways”. In one terrific moment, Michael Flanders’s voiceover tells us the Royal family represents a broad range of interests, a broad sweep of society. “The Duchess of Kent, for instance,” he says, “is a Yorkshirewoman.”

Forty-nine years since it was reportedly “banned” by the Palace, it’s time the light was let back in on this fascinating film.