The home movie one doesn’t want you to see
It’s the fly-on-the-wall film that changed our view of the Royals for ever — only for the Queen to ban it. Forty years on, why is she STILL keeping it under wraps?
‘ Y OU’RE killing the monarchy, you know, with this film you’re making,’ the legendary anthropologist and wildlife expert David Attenborough wrote furiously in 1969 to the producer-director of the controversial and groundbreaking BBC television documentary, Royal Family.
‘ The whole institution depends on mystique and the tribal chief in his hut,’ continued Attenborough, then a BBC controller.
‘If any member of the tribe ever sees inside the hut, then the whole system of the tribal chiefdom is damaged and the tribe eventually disintegrates.’
Attenborough was not far wrong. Even Bryan Forbes, a shrewd commercial filmmaker, had reservations. ‘If you let the genie out of the bottle, you can never put the cork back again,’ he said. ‘And a lot of people think, with hindsight, that it was a mistake.’
Small wonder, then, that the Queen, who reluctantly gave her assent to this ‘reinvention that went wrong’, ordered that the film should be withdrawn from circulation.
Even now, more than 40 years later, her attitude towards this misjudged experiment remains implacably negative. In the forthcoming exhibition, The Queen: Art And Image, at the National Portrait Gallery, Buckingham Palace has restricted the organisers to only a 90-second clip from the film.
The other 104 minutes will remain unseen and off-limits, like the 38 hours of unused footage which is now held in the Royal Archives at Windsor, unavailable to the eyes of even serious historians and researchers.
Paul Moorhouse, the curator of the new exhibition, says: ‘Legend has it that the Queen doesn’t want parts of it to be shown. I wish we could show it in its entirety. It tells you a lot about family life. And it redefined the nation’s view of the Queen.’
It did indeed, but was it in quite the way she intended or expected? The view now generally taken is that this attempt to make the Royals look like ‘just an ordinary family’ was the moment when the rot set in for the House of Windsor. AS THE distinguished journalist Sir Peregrine Worsthorne observed at the time: ‘Initially the public will love seeing the Royal Family as not essentially different from anybody else and in the short term letting in the cameras will enhance the monarchy’s popularity. But in the not-so-long run familiarity will breed, if not contempt, well, familiarity.’
It was in 1968 that Lord Mountbatten’s son-in-law, the film producer Lord Brabourne, felt the Royal Family would benefit if it was seen by the public as being more modern and informal. This view was shared by the Queen’s ambitious young Australian press secretary, William Heseltine.
Brabourne suggested to Prince Philip that a documentary should be made about the Royal Family’s private life, recommending that Richard Cawston, then head of the BBC’s documentary department, should direct the film.
The Queen had considerable reservations. She consulted her shrewd mother, the one member of the family whose judgment on matters of public relations was considered impeccable. The Queen Mother was vehemently opposed to the plan and told friends she thought it was ‘ the most terrible idea’.
In the end, it was Prince Philip’s self-serving and selfpublicising uncle, Lord Mountbatten — who was, disastrously, to become Prince Charles’s principal mentor — who talked the Queen into authorising the film.
Cawston was given full access to Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Sandringham and Balmoral for more than a year, shooting 43 hours of raw footage of the Queen’s private and official life.
The final version, cut down to a 105-minute colour documentary, entitled Royal Family — but mischievously rechristened Corgi And Beth by satirists — was screened to a worldwide audience of 40 million on June 21, 1969, just ahead of the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle.
‘We must not let in the daylight upon magic,’ the Victorian constitutional historian Walter Bagehot had once famously counselled on the subject of monarchical mystique. Cawston’s film did not just let in the daylight. It left nothing to the imagination.
The Queen was seen having breakfast, making banal smalltalk with America’s President Nixon (‘world problems are so complex, aren’t they, now?’), and regaling Philip, Charles and Princess Anne with an anecdote about Queen Victoria’s ‘incredible control’ when, at a Durbar, an Oriental potentate fell over and shot towards the throne feet-first.
There was a painfully contrived sequence at a Balmoral barbecue when the Queen and Charles prepared a salad while Philip and Anne grilled sausages and steaks. The Queen poked her little finger into the salad dressing, grimaced, and said: ‘Oh, too oily.’
After adding more vinegar, she walked over to her husband and announced: ‘Well, the salad is finished.’ Philip, gazing at his undercooked meat, responded brusquely: ‘Well done. This, as you will observe, is not.’ PHILIP’S use of the F-word in relation to the Queen’s corgis was edited out, but not his comments on his father-in-law, King George VI, now highly pertinent in the light of the acclaim being accorded to the film, The King’s Speech. ‘ He had very odd habits,’ said Philip. ‘Sometimes I thought he was mad.’
He described George VI, wearing on his head the full bearskin he used on parade at Trooping the Colour, hacking away savagely with a pruning knife in the royal gardens, and uttering, from the depth of a rhododendron bush the most incredible explosion of obscene language.
The Queen, who was supposed never to carry money, was in the film seen buying sweets in a shop for her fouryearold son Edward, which may have been an attempt to mollify him for his brother Charles snapping the A-string of a cello against his cheek, causing Edward to turn on him in fury, demanding: ‘What did you do that for?’
In another scene, the Queen asks her family: ‘How do you keep a regally straight face when a footman tells you: “‘ Your Majesty, your next audience is with a gorilla”? It was an official visitor, but he looked just like a gorilla.’
The voyeuristic fascination engendered by these very personal and politically incorrect episodes gave birth, with a vengeance, to the royal gossip mill, and after Cawston’s film, media coverage of the Queen and her family would never be the same again.
There were those who felt that the Queen, her husband, and their children, did not emerge from Cawston’s camera as entirely pleasant or sympathetic characters, and others, previously loyal to the monarchy, who did not care for seeing their Royal Family presented as bourgeois, middle-class bores with a line in small talk that seemed deadlier than an overdose of Horlicks.
And when the marriages of her children got into terminal difficulties, it became impossible to hide the truth from the media, because Buckingham Palace had already invited the cameras to peep inside the royal doors and examine their private lives.
No wonder the Queen does not want to be reminded of that film which changed our monarchy for ever. She must wish devoutly that she had heeded her mother’s advice and never given it her blessing.