Safely under lock and key, somewhere there lies a tape of the British royal family that has been hidden away for decades. The film, as it was meant to be seen, will likely never see the light of day again. That’s because the Queen doesn’t want anyone to watch it. The reason? A fear of how the public might react to what it contains.
These days, the British royal family are celebrities in their own right, and their every move is documented by tabloid newspapers across the world. They have their fair share of family turmoil, too. Even during the last few months, three prominent members of the inner royal family have stood down from public duties for various reasons.
These are Prince Andrew, who took a step back following a public outcry over his friendship with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Prince Harry and his wife Meghan have also decided to pursue a more private life for themselves away from the glare of the media. But these are no means the biggest shockwaves to have hit the family in recent history.
The royal family were rocked by the divorce of Prince Charles and his former wife, Diana, in 1996. This was tragically followed by her death in a car crash in Paris, France the following year. At this time, they seemed to be the ultimate family in crisis. Yet, in the post-war years of the ’40s and ’50s, the royals had seemed the epitome of stoicism and unity.
During World War II, King George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth II, was on the throne. He called on the British people to stay calm in the face of adversity and attack. Evacuating the young Elizabeth, who was 13 when war broke out, and her sister Margaret to Canada was considered. But ultimately they remained in Windsor Castle, just outside London. In fact, the future queen even trained as a mechanic with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).
When Buckingham Palace itself was bombed by the Nazis, young Elizabeth is said to have said that she could “look the East End in the face.” This was because this area of London had been heavily damaged by enemy ordnance during the Blitz. Elizabeth felt that she could now share in the experience of her future subjects.
After World War II ended, and following her father’s subsequent death, Elizabeth was crowned Queen in June 1953 at the age of just 27. Her family’s leadership and direction during the fighting stood the royal family in high regard. At her marriage to Prince Philip on November 20, 1947, Elizabeth had even used ration coupons in order to purchase the fabric for her wedding gown.
The royal family continued to ride a wave of public support throughout the 1950s. The British Empire was changing into the Commonwealth of Nations, comprising 53 member states. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited 13 of these countries on a lengthy world tour in 1953. As part of this, the monarch visited Australia and New Zealand, becoming the first reigning king or queen to do so. Wherever she went, she was greeted by rapturous crowds.
However, at home, the Queen was forced to make a couple of unpopular political decisions before the 1950s drew to an end. (The royal family no longer have a say in such matters). Then, as the 1960s progressed, it was not political judgements that were to affect the family’s public standing. Rather, it was a feeling that the monarchy was out of touch.
The decade saw the arrival of The Beatles and high hemlines in the U.K., part of a more liberal, swinging vibe. The Queen’s unwavering attitude, which had previously been so admired during the war, began to be seen in some quarters as perhaps stuffy and inaccessible. There was a danger, some felt, of the royals being perceived as too far removed from ordinary people’s struggles.
Not only was British society becoming more open-minded, but it was rejecting the status quo. In 1963, the Secretary for War John Profumo had an affair with teenager Christine Keeler. She, in turn, was also romantically linked with a Russian naval attaché. The liaison was to bring down the government and cause the public to lose a great deal of faith in the ruling classes.
Demonstrations against the Vietnam War and for civil rights were also rife. While protests raged on the streets, the royals enjoyed their life behind closed doors, much as they had for centuries. There was a worry that the tide of public support would swing against them if they were seen to be in an ivory tower.
At the same time, a new era of entertainment for the masses dawned: the age of television. The Queen’s coronation in 1953 had been seen by 27 million people in the UK alone. For many, it had been the first time they had watched TV. But the arrival of color sets in the nation’s living rooms from 1953 onwards meant that by the 1960s, the television was a household staple.
Against this 1960s backdrop of social change, Buckingham Palace’s press secretary William Heseltine had a brainwave. In order to portray the royal family as relatable, they should take part in a film documenting their day-to-day life. The hope was that the masses would see the Windsors in an unstuffy light, by revealing that although they lived castles and estates, in reality the royals were just like them.
Initially reluctant about the merits of such an intimate study of her family, the Queen soon came round to the idea. Heseltine later said of the film, “The Queen was a reluctant convert, but became much more aware of the possibilities and was prepared to participate when it came to actual filming.”
In fact, her husband Prince Philip was one of the driving forces behind the concept. Even though, according to Heseltine, he reportedly hated being filmed himself. He was in charge of a committee which had to watch and give the go-ahead for all the footage used in the documentary.
The film was no superficial summary of royal life. Cameras followed the family for 18 months, documenting their every move. The idea was a fly-on-the-wall type documentary, and the royals were seen going about their everyday life. In one scene at breakfast, the Queen tells her family an amusing tale of the time a courtier fell over in front of her predecessor Queen Victoria.
In another shot, Her Majesty is seen driving three of her four children to see some puppies. It appears to be winter, and a young Prince Edward asks, “Mummy, where’s my puppy?” The Queen replies, “Well, we’ll see if she’s allowed out in the snow.” The dogs rush out to greet them as they arrive.
The children are so excited that Prince Andrew, who must be eight or nine years old at the time, slips over on the ice as he rushes out of the car. Then, an 18-year-old Princess Anne can be seen cuddling two puppies while the Queen admires one. “Look at her big ears and her big paws,” she remarks.
Indeed, the monarch frequently shows herself to be a loving mother in the film. On another occasion, Prince Edward is whipped in the face by Prince Charles’s snapped cello string. His doting mom promptly takes him out to buy him an ice cream to cheer him up – putting paid to the notion that she never carries money with her.
The royals are even seen having a barbecue in the grounds of Balmoral Castle in Scotland, with Prince Philip at the grill. Even the Queen is getting involved with cooking. She makes a salad dressing with her eldest son Charles, who is about 20 years old at the time of filming. “Too oily,” she declares, as she dips her finger in to taste.
Of course, other scenes show the royals in more glamorous surroundings. Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip are seen on board a private jet in one scene. In another, she is making conversation with former U.S. President Richard Nixon. Her Majesty remarks, “World problems are so complex, aren’t they now?”
On June 21, 1969, the film finally aired in black-and-white on the BBC. A week afterwards, it was shown in color on the commercial channel ITV. If the aim of the film was to make the royals seem more interesting and likeable to the masses, it was a roaring success.
In total, 68 percent of the British public watched the film. Worldwide, it was seen by 40 million people. Ordinary folk loved seeing their royal family walking, talking, eating and watching TV just like they did (albeit in more grandiose surroundings). The monarch seemed to have pulled off a public relations coup.
The man with the initial idea for the film, William Heseltine, was very pleased with the result. In November 2019 he told Town and Country magazine, “I was delighted with it, actually. It had very few critics at the time; one or two stuffy lord lieutenants in England and one or two [TV] critics… But on the whole, I think it was really a wonderful thing and very much in their interests.”
The team had been nervous about what the ruling monarch would think. The film’s editor, Michael Bradsell, told a documentary on The Smithsonian Channel, “We were all a bit nervous about showing it to the Queen, as we had no idea what she’d make of it. She was a little critical of the film in the sense that she thought it was too long. But Dick Cawston, the director, persuaded her that two hours was not a minute too long.”
But others in the royal family were not so keen. Princess Anne said she thought it was a “rotten idea.” She retorted in another documentary in 2002, “I certainly never liked the idea of the Royal Family film… The attention that had been brought on one ever since one was a child, you just didn’t want any more. And the last thing you needed was greater access. I don’t remember enjoying any part of that.”
However, despite the favorable – even rapturous – reception by the public, others had their doubts about it. There was a worry that in fact the film made the royal family too much like normal people. These critics said the documentary meant that the royals had lost something of their all-important sense of mystery and authority.
Sir David Attenborough, the voice of many recent natural history programs such as Blue Planet, was controller of BBC2 at the time. He shared the concerns of those who thought that the royal family were showing too much of themselves with the film. He went so far as to say that the film was “killing the monarchy.”
To some extent, it seems The Queen agreed. There was immense public appetite for the film and the family were portrayed in a favorable light. But after five more viewings, she ordered it to be locked away. After this initial taste, she decided, it was better to give the public no more.
Historian Robert Lacey helped bring the royal family to life in Netflix’s smash-hit series about the monarchy, The Crown. He explained in a special program about the film on ABC, “They realized that if they did something like that too often, they would cheapen themselves, letting the magic seep out.”
Heseltine however, defended showing the family on television. With the growth in popularity of television among the public, he didn’t see how the royals could not appear on screen for much longer. He told Town and Country, “The criticism that some people made of it was that it made them too open.
He went on, “At that time, universal access to television was looming and could you imagine the monarchy not appearing on television? You couldn’t really. And if you are going to appear on television, why not do it on your own terms rather than somebody else’s? And that we absolutely achieved.”
But royal expert Hugo Vickers remarked in the ABC broadcast that there was a worry that the film would trigger something that couldn’t be reversed. “Some people said that this would open the floodgates, and therefore after that all the sort of tabloid interest in them,” he said. “They would want to know more, and more, and more.”
This of course is true of our interest in the current royal family. But whether this heightened curiosity is a direct result of the documentary, or a symptom of our modern obsession with celebrity is hard to tell. Since 1970, the Queen has certainly succeeded in keeping the film under lock and key in the royal archives.
The hidden footage extends to more than just the documentary itself, of course. Filming stretched over 75 days, following the family’s schedule in 172 separate locations. As well as the edited footage that was released, a treasure trove of the royals recorded going about their everyday lives exists safe and secure in the royal vault.
That is not to say that no aspect of the film has never been seen again. In 2011, 90 seconds were shown as part of an exhibit put on at the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The clip was mysteriously posted onto YouTube. Proving its enduring popularity, it had been seen over 400,000 times by 2017.
But the documentary as a whole has never been released for public viewing again. Royal expert Laura Mayhall summarizes in the ABC special, “I think the monarchy, in a very interesting way in the 1960s, tried to get out of this notion that they were tough or unapproachable.” It seems that the royal family succeeded in their aim.
Whether the documentary really did open the floodgates of interest in them, or if it would have happened anyway, is open for debate. In these days of the internet, it’s hard to imagine access to pictures and video of anyone in the public eye not being available at the click of a mouse button. For this reason, in more ways than one, the film is a reminder of a more innocent age.
Perhaps the Queen’s reticence over giving away too much about her family to the media showed foresight. A feeling of being under unbearable scrutiny has plagued the royals in recent years. Indeed, it has seemingly led to Harry and Meghan’s recent decision to step away from their senior roles. For the sake of the monarchy, as well as their own sanity, the Queen’s decision all those years ago could well have been the right one.