The 1969 Documentary That Tried to Humanize Queen Elizabeth II and The Royal FamilyBreaking News
tags: English history, British history, Queen Elizabeth II, Royal Family, documentary, 60s
A well-groomed, staid British family sit around the breakfast table. Two young adult children and their middle-aged parents are dressed formally, without a hair out of place. In a high-pitched voice, the mother tells a funny story about her great-great grandmother, while everyone listens with their backs remarkably straight.
But this is no ordinary English family. The storyteller is Queen Elizabeth II, and the subject of her tale is Queen Victoria. The scene was one part of a 105-minute color documentary named simply, “Royal Family,” that was broadcast across England on June 21, 1969.
The concept behind the documentary was to soften and modernize the royal image. But members of the royal family, including the Queen, were reportedly dubious about the idea from the start. After its premiere, Buckingham Palace greatly limited the film’s circulation, at least in its entire form.
Lord Mountbatten's Son-in-Law Suggests TV Special
It was Lord Brabourne, the son-in-law of the royal cousin Lord Mountbatten, who suggested using the medium of television to provide the Queen’s subjects a sense of her personality. By the 1960s, the times were rapidly changing, and the shy, dutiful Queen and her young family were seen as increasingly irrelevant. A TV special, Brabourne suggested, could also introduce British subjects to 21-year-old Prince Charles, ahead of his investiture as Prince of Wales.
At the urging of Palace press officer William Heseltine, who was convinced that offering a humanized view of the royal family would strengthen the monarchy, Prince Philip agreed. The Queen cautiously gave her consent, while other family members were decidedly not on board.
“I never liked the idea of 'Royal Family,' I thought it was a rotten idea,” Princess Anne later recalled, according to an account in the 2015 book, Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal Family. “The attention which had been brought upon one ever since one was a child, you just didn’t need any more.”
But the Mountbatten camp won the day and filming began in 1968. Richard Cawston, the chief of the BBC Documentary unit, was put in charge of shooting the royals at work and play. For months, he shot 43 hours of unscripted material at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, on the royal yacht, the royal train, and even at the Queen’s beloved Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
Understandably, the royal family had a difficult time adjusting to the presence of the crew in their personal space. Peter Conradi writes in his 2012 book, Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made it into the Twenty-First Century, that during a film day at Balmoral, Philip snapped at the crew, “Get away from the Queen with your bloody cameras!”
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