The Queen Had the BBC’s 1969 ‘Royal Family’ Documentary Banned. Now We Can See Why.
The BBC banned the 1969 documentary “Royal Family” from ever being shown again. It recently resurfaced online, and Tim Teeman sees why its intimacy may have angered the queen.
Queen Elizabeth jokes about meeting a person who is gorilla-ish, or maybe an actual gorilla. Prince Philip tells a story about how he found the queen’s father, the former King George VI, hacking away at a rhododendron bush, wearing a bearskin cap. The queen feeds her horses carrots from a fancy platter. Former President Richard Nixon creepily dominates a conversation with the queen, Philip, Prince Charles, and Princess Anne.
Charles tenderly teaches a 5-year-old Prince Edward the cello. Edward lies on the top of a vehicle waiting for a barbecue lunch to be served at Balmoral. The queen finds Charles’ salad dressing too oily. On the royal train at midnight, the queen’s dresser irons her frock for the next day, while the queen and Philip sit in a tiny cabin in cocktail dress as the train hurtles through the darkness.
It may not quite be in the league of definitive proof of the Loch Ness Monster, but finally seeing the long-buried and banned 1969 documentary Royal Family is revelatory—not just for what it shows us of the queen and Prince Philip with their then-young family and at work, but also because of the intimacy of the film itself. Having now seen it, this reporter can see why the discretion-treasuring queen reportedly never wanted anyone to see it ever again. It does the thing she recoils from most: It gets too close. Way close.
In recent days, despite the BBC rushing to slap copyright restrictions on it, the film has turned up in various channels on YouTube. You may be able to find it, you may not. The BBC is determined to stop its re-emergence. The real question: Why is the British public broadcaster still in such slavish service to the royal family in preventing its broadcast?
It includes a scene that The Crown later dramatized of the royal family watching television for producer and director Richard Cawston’s cameras, to underline how supposedly ordinary they were. The Crown showed them to be anything but ordinary, and to find this exercise of confected normalcy bizarre. Royal Family itself was intended to make the monarchy feel closer to the people, not so alien, part of the modern world, and—most important—to make an argument for its future purpose and continued public funding.
There is no dissenting view. Royal Family is focused on arguing why this institution should carry on; its peekaboo bait is to see behind some of palace’s windows and curtains. However, on seeing it and despite its sympathetic framing, the queen clearly thought: “Not that bloody close.” Hence, the 50-plus-year disappearance of the film.
It isn’t that Royal Family reveals any juicy secrets, but more that it lifts the veil of mystery around royal ritual, daily royal life and process, and around the royals themselves. A lot of the film shows the glamour of royal tours and the inside of the palace as more akin to an office job—if that office job involved appearing to screaming crowds and deciding which fabulous tiara to wear.
Royal Family makes the royal mystique ordinary, revolutionary for a time when the family was lavished with privacy. It also zeroes in physically and personally more than any documentary—including those made in modern, and what we think of as more intrusive, times—on the queen and her family. Its access is beyond what a documentary-maker would get now, or what the queen would allow—and probably so because this was made in a time pre-reality TV, pre-notions of “access.” Royal Family has the air of an original, a curio. It brings royal pomp respectfully crashing down to earth.
It is radical in other ways, at its outset asking the question that still trails the family today: What is this institution for, and how does it endure? For a film made 53 years ago (it follows the royal family for a year, from the spring of 1968 through the spring of 1969), it also by accident begins and ends by asking the question of today: What kind of king will Prince Charles be? Also, what kind of power and place does the royal family have?
The reason that Charles was the questioning focus of the film was that it was released the year he was formally invested as Prince of Wales, aged 20. He is now 72 and still waiting for his time on the throne. We see him waterskiing, riding a bicycle through London, and casting a fishing line on a river near Balmoral. The film is anticipating his accession to the throne and so will follow the queen through a typical year to see what lies in store for him, narrator Michael Flanders says.
The documentary is less overtly deferential than the more sonorous royal coverage that followed, but it is still resolutely pro-royal, making a series of claims about the royal family as a bulwark against tyranny and the ultimate arbiter of British democracy.
“The strength of the monarchy does not lie in the power it gives the sovereign, but in the power it denies to anyone else,” Royal Family concludes. That may be bluntly true, but it may not be the most diplomatic argument to make to the taxpayers paying for your palace and frocks. Perhaps this didactic manifesto may have also helped bury Royal Family as time and society evolved.
The meetings that to the queen are prosaic are anything but
The Royal Family cameras burrow everywhere, treating queen and royal life as subjects of sober examination. It does very simple things, pointing out to an audience who had never seen it for themselves that Buckingham Palace isn’t a long palace, as it seems from the Mall, but a square, with a hollowed out central courtyard.
A bagpiper, we are told, plays outside the queen’s bedroom at 9 a.m. every morning. We are then shown her and Philip at their desks, asking for things via intercom, and the Buckingham Palace switchboard staffed by old men, plugging in leads here and there. We see the queen awarding a medal to the poet Robert Graves, one of 200-300 “audiences” she has every year, which are set rituals brought to an end when the queen uses a buzzer to signal it so.
Three thousand guests trail into Buckingham Palace’s garden for one of the queen’s summer garden parties. As the national anthem plays, she stands there in a yellow dress staring at the crowd and they stare back. She talks to her guests with that halting politeness of hers. Throughout the documentary you realize the queen’s favorite word in interactions with others is the all-purpose “Interesting.”
The meetings that to her are prosaic are anything but. Corgi on lap, the queen goes through her fashion choices with her dresser through beautifully drawn sketches (Hardy Amies?), thinking how a state visit to Austria in May may require a woolen coat because “you never know” about the weather in Austria in May. She should, she opines, get another dress designed for a necklace she observes that “belonged to so many kings of Persia and Mogul emperors.”
We next see the queen and Princess Margaret at the Royal Opera House in London, and the camera follows them neck-close into the royal box, so we see the reaction of the audience to them from their perspective. The Margaret known to Crown viewers—wild, mischief-making, bitter, and also deeply loyal—is here just a happy-seeming second fiddle to her sister, the main event. She automatically knows to step back, to know that place.
The documentary makes a lot of their public appearances, showing us the queen doing her signature “wave” in one unnamed town, Charles asking about “blowouts” at oil rigs, Philip asking about the legs of cattle or Alcoholics Anonymous (with a very on-brand, totally inappropriate smile), the queen opening an oil refinery.
Royal Family is a lot of wheezing sounds of traffic and transport, of the royals and their flunkies in perpetual transit, as if their central purpose is of being somewhere to be seen and then quickly hopping on an exclusive means of transit and doing exactly the same somewhere else.
On the royal yacht Britannia it seems quieter. There the staff communicate with hand signals so as not to disturb the peace, we are told. Anne and Charles are winched between ships for some unclear reason. There are servants with titles to create another set of hierarchies (personal favorite: “the page of the back stairs”).
History and tradition are in a constant pas de deux, though we are never told why the queen still has red boxes containing documents of that day’s business (as since George III), or why she has one key and a private secretary another, or why the red boxes follow her remorselessly wherever she goes. One hopes she’s more than once got to her desk, looked at a red box, and thought “fuck it” and instead of signing her documents with her “Elizabeth R” flourish, called a friend for a good gossip session instead.
She does relax at Balmoral, although that piper still gets going at 9 a.m. outside her window even on holidays. (If the queen is ever hung over, can the piper be told to pipe down? We do not know.) Queen Victoria saw Balmoral as a bolthole from “the sad turmoils” of life, and the queen treats it similarly.
Some scenes in the documentary seem stage-managed, like the family watching TV that The Crown skewered. We see the queen go to George Strachan, the grocery near Balmoral, with a young Prince Edward. Maybe she’s nervous to be filmed doing it, but it does feel a little odd, her buying him candy and an ice cream, worrying it will mess up the car.
But it is also one of those moments in the film, all about the queen and her children, which have a tentative sweetness. The film makes clear such time is cherished, as she is often away from them, and in these scenes her smiling at their play or jokes feels almost like an act of discovery for herself. These scenes may be staged, but the queen looks to be stumbling to a happy place of fleeting joy as a result of it. Seeing these unintentional flashes of a real person made me wonder if they had upset the queen in retrospect, seeming too exposing.
We see the family organizing a barbecue, Anne scrunching up paper to burn, mulling “it will be a total guaranteed failure.” (Anne, then 18, is obviously the coolest person in the documentary, commanding, wry, not taking any nonsense from her brothers.)
Edward runs around asking what everything is for, and Philip, instead of snapping at him, tries to answer everything gently, but maybe this is for the cameras. Do they seem like a regular family having a barbecue? No, but then “regular” varies family to family. What you feel is a shared knowledge of a set of roles to perform, and a need to do this as smoothly as possible in every situation—especially when they are being watched.
Everything the royals do is function and show. Royal Family shows the institution as a conveyor belt, and a ruthlessly well executed machine of well-pressed clothes and serene smiling in the service of soft diplomacy. They are a brand, and not only know it, they know how to sell it.
We see this when the queen and Philip head to South America—a tour of crowds shouting “Viva La Reina” and waving handkerchiefs, and also meeting with diplomats. Imperialism is never mentioned, nor is colonialism. The queen’s influence and presence wherever she goes is a ceremonial given, not yet a political or cultural problem she or the institution will countenance.
The queen is obviously media-savvy; more than once we see scanning newspapers. In South America, traveling on the royal plane, she looks at all the photographs of herself, the blanket fawning coverage, and is not elated—just her usual clipped self. One incredibly brave or stupid aide says the large dogs at one ambassadorial residence were “more spectacular than corgis, aren’t they?”
The queen says, “Well, they look spectacular. They’re not nearly so nice.”
I thought this aide might simply be dispatched out of the plane at that moment, his body later found frozen on an Andes peak, but no. He then says the queen looks like Carmen Miranda in another picture wearing extravagant headwear. We do not see him again, but the queen looks amused at his impishness.
The tour barrels on, she in one brightly colored, beautifully tailored outfit after another, handbag on arm. She and Philip, we learn, shook hands 2,500 times on that trip. “God Save the Queen” was sung 18 times. The documentary makes clear that a key component of working royalty is things done to a maximized scale.
What is their power, if only to ceremonially rubber-stamp the result of politics schemed elsewhere?
The documentary is the kind of history teacher dutifully relaying dates, statistics, and facts, while also rumbling with inner passion. We see the five departments that ran Buckingham Palace in the smooth, snootily otherworldly way that it continues today—an anachronism the public is supposed to cherish in a world it bears no relation to.
There are whole teams dedicated to maintaining an art collection begun by Charles I, a fairytale garage of state coaches and carriages, bedsheets that go back to Queen Victoria’s time (one hopes they have been washed and aired), blankets from William IV, cellars of champagne, a dedicated pantry of silverware and another one for goldware, and an intense discussion about menus that concludes with a firm declaration that “Pineapples are very good.”
Ambassadors to London are all treated the same so no country can complain that they have been slighted, and so it is—buzzer close to hand—that the queen sits down for one-on-ones with all, in 1969, 107 of them. We see the leaders of Jamaica and Canada among them. When a country’s ambassador arrives in London, like the American ambassador we see, they present the queen with their letters of appointment. For a moment, you want her to scan the letters and go, “You know, I don’t think this is going to work out,” and ring the buzzer of doom.
But then, this points to one of the central absurdities of being the modern monarch. What is their power, if only to ceremonially rubber-stamp the result of politics schemed elsewhere? She seems more relaxed at an evening of Olympic athletes, and then we follow her to Christmas celebrations at Windsor and Sandringham.
All of these family get-togethers feature muttering, halting, very posh conversation, and gales of unexplained laughter. They decorate the Christmas tree, not exactly looking as if this is something they would typically do. Prince Andrew, who seems as bullish at 9 as he does as an adult, and Edward have a snowball fight. The queen takes her kids to look at some gorgeous black (Labrador?) puppies.
The queen’s children will not, we hear, be educated with private tutors. At the time, Edward is so young, he is learning with a group of other kids at home, Andrew is at boarding school, Anne is “learning French,” Charles we see with some Cambridge friends, describing in crushingly boring terms his misapprehension of how a parachute works. Again, we sense the documentary’s intent: to show this as a moment of transition, as he sits with his own “council,” deciding things about the Duchy of Cornwall. The queen will chair the meetings until he turns 21, we are told.
The documentary asks rhetorically what it is that Charles is being prepared for, and advances a set of ideas that place the queen as the practical, rather than symbolic, arbiter of British and Commonwealth democracy, with justice administered in her name. Intriguingly, the narration posits the weekly meeting of prime minister (then Harold Wilson) and the queen as “the moment democracy and monarchy meet,” as if the two are not only different but mutually exclusive entities.
It is strange, at this moment when the documentary itself introduces thorny ideas of the monarchy’s power in a democracy, that then-president Richard Nixon is shown coming to the palace.
Just so everyone knows their place, Flanders says: “His right to office goes back to a political election four months before. Her right to office goes back to the grandfather of Alfred the Great.”
Ouch. The history teacher roars.
On meeting the royals, Nixon is nothing like any of the dignitaries we have seen on screen so far. He clearly sees himself as their status equal, telling Charles he has seen him on television. Introduced to Anne, she says coolly: “I don’t think you’ve seen me on television.”
The queen tries to keep things to her diplomatic small talk of it being a “busy few days” for Nixon, which leads him into a muttering whinge about the size of briefing books and a changing world. They exchange official pictures, with Nixon hurriedly saying he will send one of both him and his wife (to match the queen and Philip), rather than of just him, “which will be much more pleasant to look at.”
Charles wants to know where Nixon has seen him.
“News shots,” Nixon says, as if this is a stupid question, adding that both his daughters follow Charles and Anne’s doings closely.
And then Nixon is gone. It is spring again, daffodils are blooming in the palace garden, and more pageantry-filled trips to Austria, Wales, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand beckon.
The documentary then suddenly makes a concluding, alarmist case for the absolute power of the queen. Royal Family proposes it is she and the monarchy that are the necessarily guard rail against a slide into tyranny. It is not convincing, but it is telling that this was the chosen argument for the monarchy’s retention in 1969, a time of social upheaval and revolution.
“While the queen occupies the highest office of state, no one else can,” we are told. “While she is head of the law, no politician can take over the courts.” (Hmm, but how would the royal family stop such a thing?)
“While she is head of state, no generals can take over the government.” (Well, they could if they toppled the monarchy too. Just the queen being the queen doesn’t stop such a thing.)
“While she is head of the services, no would-be dictator can turn the army against the people.” (Again, who says? And who knows such an event would unfold like that?)
And again, the most telling: “The strength of the monarchy does not lie in the power it gives the sovereign, but in the power it denies to anyone else.”
This may be true in a class-bound, monarchy-led society, but is it really the advertisement you want to make for a group of well-dressed toffs, paid for by the British people in a modern Western democracy, where royal power is largely symbolic? Perhaps its sugared extremism is another reason Royal Family has been buried by the queen and BBC for so long.
“It is all this that Prince Charles will one day inherit.”
The last three minutes of Royal Family comes back from the edge of declaring that all its viewers should be grateful serfs, and tries once again to sell the family as an odd mixture of divinely ordained and folksy.
“It is all this that Prince Charles will one day inherit. You could call it his high and solemn destiny, or you could say he will just be carrying on the family business, which doesn’t mean being solemn all the time.”
The queen will have also hated these last few minutes of the documentary, one guesses. She sits with Charles, Anne, and Philip around a table, first telling the story of the time an ambassador lost their footing and skidded to the bottom of Queen Victoria’s throne. Victoria, trying to quell laughter, “trembled the slightest little bit” as she did so, trying to maintain her composure. “Afterwards tears poured down her cheeks.”
Her own father was similar, the queen says.
“He did have some very strange habits, your father,” Philip replies. “Remember when I used to come to Royal Lodge [at Windsor]? I asked when I arrived, ‘Where’s the king?’ They said, ‘Oh, he’s in the garden.’ I went outside and there was nothing to be seen but a lot of terribly rude words and language coming out of a rhododendron bush. I actually found him there, hacking away wearing a bearskin cap. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
Charles meekly offers up his breath-holding method of keeping a straight face.
The queen says it can be “extremely difficult,” recalling when a visiting home secretary said a gorilla was about to enter a room.
“So I said, ‘What an extraordinary remark to make.’ It’s very unkind about anybody.”
She pressed her bell, the door opened, and “there was a gorilla,” the queen says. “He had a short body and long arms. I had the most appalling trouble.” If not an actual gorilla, who this person was is not made clear (some have said she is referring to the then-American ambassador).
Royal Family ends as it began, with Charles fishing on a river near Balmoral, the focus back on him. Flanders says that no one can know what Charles makes of his royal destiny. Some sovereigns are remembered forever, “and a few are best forgotten. But if he needs help, there is 1,000 years of family experience to call on.”
Well, Charles chose other routes of self-enlightenment, beginning with the writings of Sir Laurens van der Post and progressing through romantic disasters, eventual happiness, and a variety of political, environmental, and cultural causes and engagements.
The focus on her son may have been another element of the queen’s disapproval, the sense the documentary is placing her reign to the side in preparation for his. And still this has not yet happened. Fifty-two years later, Charles is still waiting. The documentary is both a time capsule and a little too current.
And again, perhaps it just showed too much. The queen signed up for one reason and then hated the reality of the intrusion. The royals were made too normal, she felt too seen and captured. Later documentaries like Elizabeth R (1992) and others also have an intimacy and yet an imposed distance. The queen and the royal family do not talk or play as they did in Royal Family.
The film is not alone as a small-screen cautionary lesson. Princess Diana and Charles talked about their marital woes on screen in the 1990s. They were volcanic and remain controversial today, as the revived controversy over the methods of BBC interviewer Martin Bashir has shown, but they were also broadcast in an age where reality TV and the media confessional were familiar to us. They echoed the media currents of the time.
In 1969, Royal Family wasn’t a goldmine of scandal, but it broke a wall of protected silence and was then consigned to its own vault for doing so. It isn’t surprising that the royal family demanded it be buried, but it is surprising that the BBC, a public broadcaster, capitulated to such a request—and still does so to this day. In 2021, it should not be hard to watch this documentary. One can see what the royals may have been scared of, although that fear now seems—in an era of relentless exposure—as quaint and absurd as some of their critics see the royals themselves.