A queen in the age of television

·8-min read
The royal family in the late Sixties when they appeared in their first television documentary (PA) (PA Archive)
The royal family in the late Sixties when they appeared in their first television documentary (PA) (PA Archive)

Wherever the Queen went on official duties, a television camera followed.

She was rarely in public without a lens trained in her direction.

The Queen being filmed meeting broadcaster Sir Trevor McDonald (Tim Ockenden/PA)
The Queen being filmed meeting broadcaster Sir Trevor McDonald (Tim Ockenden/PA)

Yet she did not play up to the cameras, and saw them simply as part and parcel of her role.

During her long reign she did, however, occasionally allow film crews behind the scenes into her home.

Here’s a look at some of the most insightful television documentaries about the Queen.

– 1969 – Royal Family

It was the first real look at the private life of the Queen and her children.

The 1969 BBC documentary Royal Family was groundbreaking and offered a unique glimpse into her world, away from her public duties.

In the Swinging Sixties, the royal family was viewed as becoming increasingly remote and alien compared with most people’s everyday lives.

The documentary, shot in colour, was a PR drive to highlight their “ordinary” side.

The Queen and her family were shown enjoying a picnic at Balmoral, where a kilted Duke of Edinburgh cooked sausages on a barbecue.

The Queen and her in the grounds of Frogmore, Windsor, during filming for the programme (PA)
The Queen and her in the grounds of Frogmore, Windsor, during filming for the programme (PA)

They decorated a Christmas tree together and Charles went fishing.

It was directed by Richard Cawston and followed the monarchy for a year.

The Queen, relaxed, chatted with her family around a table about meeting someone once who looked like a gorilla.

I had the most appalling trouble keeping a straight face

The Queen

“I had the most appalling trouble keeping a straight face,” the Queen admitted.

It was watched by millions of people and set a precedent in terms of what the public knew about the family’s private lives, but not everyone was a fan.

The Princess Royal later admitted her dislike of the programme.

I never liked the idea of the Royal Family film. I always thought it was a rotten idea

The Princess Royal

“I never liked the idea of the Royal Family film. I always thought it was a rotten idea,” Anne said.

“The attention that had been brought on one ever since one was a child, you just didn’t want any more. The last thing you needed was greater access.”

The footage has never been broadcast in full since, and was believed to have been withdrawn from use at the Queen’s request.

Yet inevitably it paved the way for a demand for more.

– 1992 – Elizabeth R

In 1992, the documentary Elizabeth R marked the 40th anniversary of her accession to the throne.

Filmed again by the BBC, it was also compiled from a year’s worth of footage and showed the Queen at work and at play.

It highlighted her deep sense of duty and she insisted her role was a “job for life”.

Talking of the death of her father, King George VI, at 52, the Queen said candidly: “In a way I didn’t have an apprenticeship, my father died much too young. It was all a very sudden kind of taking on and making the best job you can.

“It is a question of maturing into something one has got used to doing, and accepting the fact that here you are and that is your fate, because I think continuity is very important. It is a job for life.”

She said: “If you live in this sort of life, which people don’t very much, you live very much by tradition and by continuity.”

The Queen added: “I think that this is what the younger members find difficult – the regimented side.”

Pictured “doing her boxes” – the state papers which over the years gave her a unique knowledge of confidential government business – she admitted she was thankful to be a quick reader.

Though I do rather begrudge some of the hours that I have to do instead of being outdoors

The Queen

“Though I do rather begrudge some of the hours that I have to do instead of being outdoors,” she said.

She added: “Most people have a job and then they go home. In this existence the job and the life go on together because you can’t really divide it up.”

The documentary, made by Edward Mirzoeff, included a voice-over commentary by the Queen herself.

They unburden themselves or they tell me what's going on or if they've got any problems

The Queen on her PMs

Of prime ministers, she remarked: “They unburden themselves or they tell me what’s going on or if they’ve got any problems … occasionally you can be able to put one’s point of view, which perhaps they hadn’t seen it from that angle.”

But the film was also instrumental in revealing her sense of fun, which people had rarely seen before.

The Queen was shown as a witty woman who enjoyed employing the comic pause.

One royal correspondent described her afterwards as “one of the nation’s great undiscovered comediennes”.

When told on a US trip that she would be knighting Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, the Queen absentmindedly practised the procedure with a letter opener.

He only knows two English words (pause). They are quite interesting words...

The Queen on Polish president Lech Walesa

Speaking to Anne about Lech Walesa during the Polish president’s state visit to Windsor Castle, she remarked: “He only knows two English words (pause). They are quite interesting words…”

In one clip, chatting with the then US secretary of state James Baker and former prime minister Edward Heath about Baghdad, she agreed it was a city Mr Baker could not have visited during the Gulf war.

“I went there,” declared Mr Heath.

“I know you did, but you’re expendable now,” said the Queen, laughing.

Mr Mirzoeff later summed up his view of the Queen.

“The dour look you see in public is very misleading. She can give the impression of being bored, the absolute opposite is true,” he said.

“Of course, like everybody else, she has her moods; she is bright on some days, a little sharper on others.”

In the Royal Box for the Derby at Epsom, the Queen was filmed having banter with the Queen Mother, addressing her as “mummy”, and excitedly winning £16 in a Royal Box sweepstake.

Over the years, the Queen saw her family air their dirty laundry on television, from Charles’s Dimbleby interview to Diana’s shock appearance on Panorama, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s bombshell Oprah broadcast.

The Duke of York stepped down from public duties after his disastrous Newsnight appearance about his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

– 2007 – Monarchy: The Royal Family At Work

In 2007, Monarchy: The Royal Family At Work – a fly-on-the-wall BBC documentary in which a camera crew spent a year with the Queen as she prepared for her 80th birthday and a visit to the United States – generated a storm of controversy.

It led to what became known as “Crowngate” and ended with the resignation of BBC One controller Peter Fincham.

I'm not changing anything. I've had enough dressing like this, thank you very much

The Queen in the 2007 documentary

A trailer shown at a press launch was misleadingly edited by production company RDF to give the impression that the Queen had stormed out of a photoshoot with US photographer Annie Leibovitz.

During the shoot, Miss Leibovitz asked the Queen to remove her “crown” – actually a tiara – for a “less dressy” shot. The Queen, wearing a ceremonial robe, retorted: “Less dressy? What do you think this is?”

The Queen’s reaction during BBC One’s A Year With The Queen programme during her photoshoot with Annie Leibovitz (BBC One/PA)
The Queen’s reaction during BBC One’s A Year With The Queen programme during her photoshoot with Annie Leibovitz (BBC One/PA)

The trailer then cut to the Queen apparently walking off with an official, declaring: “I’m not changing anything. I’ve had enough dressing like this, thank you very much.”

But the footage was actually filmed as the Queen made her way into the sitting.

It was Mr Fincham who told journalists at a press launch that the documentary would show the Queen leaving in a huff.

Within hours he had discovered that the story was untrue, but did not correct it until the following morning, although this happened in consultation with the Buckingham Palace press office.

An independent inquiry was launched and the corporation was criticised for a catalogue of “misjudgments, poor practice and ineffective systems”.

Stephen Lambert, head of RDF, also resigned.

The series was eventually aired at the end of 2007, with the offending footage used but placed in the correct order.

– 2018 – The Coronation

In a 2018 BBC documentary about the coronation with broadcaster Alistair Bruce, the Queen delighted viewers by manhandling the Imperial State Crown as she grabbed it and pulled it forward, declaring: “This is what I do when I wear it.”

The straight-talking Queen described the procession to the abbey on Coronation Day “horrible” because of the uncomfortable coach, and made dry comments about the jewels being secretly hidden in a biscuit tin during the war.

– The Queen’s Cameraman

The Queen was filmed at all of her official engagements in the UK, usually by the same favoured royal pool cameraman Peter Wilkinson, of whom she was fond.

Royal cameraman Peter Wilkinson to the Queen at a reception (PA)
Royal cameraman Peter Wilkinson to the Queen at a reception (PA)

Mr Wilkinson was made a Member of the Victorian Order (MVO) by the Queen for his services to the royal household.

She was once caught on camera by Mr Wilkinson, who worked for ITN, at a garden party, describing how Chinese officials had been “very rude to the ambassador” during a state visit.