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In the late 1960s, as seen in The Crown, Prince Philip had the idea that spin could save the monarchy by making the royal family look just like ordinary folk. Instead, they became a laughing stock.
You would think it’s hard to make a television documentary seen by 38 million people suddenly disappear, never to be viewed again, but that is what happened to Royal Family, after its first airings in Britain in 1969.
To make the film, Buckingham Palace recruited a top BBC documentary director, Richard Cawston, and the filming lasted nearly a year, following the queen in 172 locations, including state visits to Brazil and Chile.
Royal Family aired on June 21, 1969, on the BBC, in a black and white version that drew an audience of 23 million. The following week a color version was aired on ITV, the commercial channel, where it had an audience of 15 million. It was estimated that more than two-thirds of the adult British population saw it.
The reception was mixed. At first there was a sense that something extraordinary had happened, as it had: People who were far from ordinary were pretending valiantly to come across as ordinary. Once the pretense sank in and people sobered up, it was clear that the film had not achieved what Philip had thought it would.
The most salutary critique was anthropological—from David Attenborough, the doyen of BBC documentarians, who used his scientific expertise to point out that the monarchy was an institution that “depends on mystique and the tribal chief in his hut. 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.”
Since the 1970s all copies of the film have disappeared, although fragments can be seen on YouTube. It was last seen by the viewing public in 1972. It’s clear that this happened as a result of direct action by the Queen.
How did this fiasco happen?
The obvious source of answers is the BBC, but the corporation declined to answer a set of questions sent by The Daily Beast. Instead, a spokesperson sent this statement: “The footage forms part of the BBC archive and has been shown a number of times on the BBC and, in certain circumstances, can be licensed to third parties.”
In fact, the complete documentary has never been aired since its premiere and one repeat broadcast soon afterward. These are the specific questions the BBC failed to answer:
Does the BBC still have the tape or hard copy of Royal Family?
Why has the documentary not been seen for so many years?
Who or what has prevented its transmission?
Why is it considered not suitable for transmission?
Who or what controls the film being shown now?
Does the Queen/royal family have any say in this documentary being shown or not being shown?
Does the BBC have some kind of arrangement with the Queen/royal family around this documentary’s transmission, and if so what is the nature of that agreement?
Have there been discussions about showing it again, especially as it featured on the most recent season of The Crown?
Will the public ever see it again, or is it forever buried?
These are straightforward questions and the BBC should have been able to answer them. But for some reason both the BBC and Buckingham Palace are joined in a conspiracy of silence over a documentary made 50 years ago.
One of the key continuing subplots of The Crown is the idea that the whole Windsor ménage, with all its layers of pomp and ritual, is living on borrowed time.
Sometimes you can see the Queen—both the Claire Foy and Olivia Colman versions—looking anxiously from a palace window to see if, perhaps, the people have grown weary of them and the tumbrils are coming.
And so, at moments of acute anxiety, someone does something in an attempt to reassure the Queen’s subjects that the family are not really so different than they are, give or take a few palaces, castles, and lavish appointments.
In this narrative the one person in the family endowed with enough social awareness to do something to head off the republicans is usually Prince Philip, as it was in this case, when he led a desperate attempt to rebrand the Windsors as just folks.
The saga of Royal Family began in 1968 with the departure from the palace of the man who had been the Queen’s press secretary since her ascension in 1952, Commander John Colville. Colville served with distinction as private secretary to Winston Churchill during the war but interpreted his job at the palace to be news suppression, not collaboration with the hacks.
The Queen’s minders were dimly aware that television had become decisive in shaping the public’s view of the monarchy. One of them, the Duke of Norfolk, who was responsible for organizing large royal events, said, “If people invent these things [television] you’ve got to live with them.”
Colville was replaced by a brisk new broom from Australia, William Heseltine, who knew an ossified hierarchy when he saw one.
For years the BBC had been a docile accessory to the monarchy. It had actually banned from the air two critics of the Queen, the columnist Malcolm Muggeridge and Lord Altrincham.
Muggeridge had written for an American magazine that the monarchy was running out of time. Altrincham, as seen earlier in The Crown, was more personal. He complained that “the Queen’s style of speaking is a pain in the neck… she comes across in her speeches as a priggish schoolgirl unable to string a few sentences together without a written text.”
But Heseltine knew that in 1960s Britain the BBC and the country had left the age of deference. In 1966 a BBC documentary, The Monarchy and Its Future, showed that very little had changed at the palace since Altrincham’s broadside.
Heseltine felt that the wall between the public and private lives of the family—in place since the days of Queen Victoria—needed to come down. They had become “one-dimensional figures.”
He discovered that Philip agreed—“it is quite wrong,” Philip said, “that there should be a sense of remoteness or majesty. If people see, whoever it happens to be, whatever head of state, as individuals, as people, I think it makes it much easier for them to accept the system and feel part of it.”
But that was a fatal error in his thinking. It ran counter to a core belief about what kept the monarchy viable. The essence of the brand was majesty. It was an inexact word describing a quality of appearance and stature supposedly attained only by birth. And there was no new bargain to made with the public in which they would suddenly feel “part of the system.”
But Heseltine and Philip pressed the Queen to accept the idea of creating an epic piece of cinéma vérité in which the family’s private life would be exposed to fly-on-the-wall camera work. At first the Queen balked. So, too, did Princess Anne, who thought it was “a rotten idea.”
Philip, however, prevailed.
The connecting commentary was written by a friend of mine, Tony Jay. This was an odd choice. Tony was a wickedly smart social satirist who went on to be co-writer of Yes Minister, a television classic about political malfeasance and incompetence.
Indeed, some of the scenes reached a level of unconscious comedy that exceeded even his gifts of invention: Philip barbecuing sausages while the Queen prepares a salad; the Queen washing the dishes; the Queen feeding carrots to her horses. But for excruciating banality it was hard to beat the scene where the Queen is shopping for candy with a young Prince Edward and discovers she is not carrying enough money.
Jay did his best to bring a touch of gravitas. Over scenes of the Queen on official duties he wrote, “While she is head of the law, no politician can take over the courts. Monarchy does not lie in the power it gives to the sovereign, but in the power it denies to anyone else.”
That, at least, was a valid argument that by being above power the monarchy had the gift of benign powerlessness, but the overriding conceit of the documentary was misplaced—that the royals, once reduced to acquaintance and familiarity, would seem more legitimate.
As it happened, the producer of the earlier BBC documentary, The Monarchy and Its Future, was commissioned to edit a collection of essays by critics of the monarchy, and this book appeared at the same time as Royal Family.
I was one of the critics and, like the others, when I wrote my piece I had no idea that the palace had already embarked on its rebranding exercise.
I compared the Windsors to America’s royal family, the Kennedys, and recommended that the Queen might try to replicate the Kennedy spin doctors who transformed a family originating in a combination of a Boston-Irish ward boss and a bootlegger into Prince Charmings—witty, enlightened, intelligent.
The trouble was, though, as I had to admit, that for that strategy to be effective the family really had to be witty, enlightened, and intelligent.
In fact, the Queen’s instincts had been right, and Philip’s completely wrong. I wrote that the Queen had never pretended to be what she was not. But now, having been persuaded to attempt the opposite and being exposed to ridicule, she decided enough was enough.
As well as reaching out to the BBC, The Daily Beast asked Buckingham Palace to explain why the documentary has disappeared and did not receive a response.
But then, there is a long history of the royal family deep-sixing stuff that they don’t want to be remembered. When it comes to the Royal Family documentary, they appear to have willing accomplices: the BBC itself.
Additional reporting: Tim Teeman