The Story Behind The Royal Family Documentary You're Not Allowed To See


The Royal Family’s relationship with the media is a complicated one, guarded at best and deeply suspicious at worst. But was it always thus? Largely yes, but a documentary broadcast over 40 years ago probably didn’t help out relations much at all.

And, bizarrely, it all hinged on Tupperware.

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Called simply ‘Royal Family’, the fly-on-the-wall doc, directed by the then-head of the BBC’s documentary department Richard Cawston, it aired on June 21, 1969, was repeated one week later on ITV and then variously that year, before being locked away deep in the BBC vaults and never shown again.


It represented the first time that TV cameras had been given permission to document the Royals going about their daily business in such a manner, with the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward all featuring, and a voiceover penned by 'Yes Minister’ mastermind Sir Antony Jay. Lord Mountbatten, the uncle of Prince Philip, was said to persuade the Queen to authorise it, a decision that it’s claimed she later regretted deeply.

It boasted groundbreaking access, more footage than had ever been seen before of the Royals, and was commissioned by the Queen to help celebrate the investiture of Prince Charles. When it hit screens, just a few days before Charles’s big day at Caenarvon Castle, it was watched by a supposed three quarters of the entire population of the UK, and it was hoped to show that the Royal Family were a family first, just like everyone else.


But that turned out to be half the problem, stripping the Royal’s of their previously maintained distance and mystique. Sir David Attenborough, who was one of the BBC’s controllers at the time, accused the film of 'killing the monarchy’.

It caused a sensation as it pulled back the curtain on the family, and was regarded as hugely intrusive, though doubtless entirely tame by today’s post-Big Brother standards.


Oddly, one scene seemed to resonate more than any other – that food, and particularly cereal, was kept fresh using Tupperware containers at the palace. Audiences were horrified to find that the monarch was using such things. Perhaps it was presumed that the she would have her Sugar Puffs served her from something more along the lines of a sterling silver dish.

The crew, a joint enterprise between the BBC and ITV, stayed with the family over a year, filming at Buckingham Palace, Balmoral, Sandringham and Windsor. It caught small talk between the Queen and President Richard Nixon (‘world problems are so complex, aren’t they, now?’), and a family barbecue at Balmoral. Another scene had to be edited out over Philip’s expletives towards the corgis.


In another anecdote, the Queen regales Philip, Charles and Anne over breakfast with the tale of how one Asian dignitary somehow managed to trip and fall head of heels at the feet of Queen Victoria during a meeting of other dignitaries in the Far East.

There were astonishingly candid moments too, Prince Philip saying of his father-in-law George VI: “He had very odd habits. Sometimes I thought he was mad.” Meanwhile, the Queen is also seen using money – something she is said never to carry – to buy an ice lolly in a shop for a four-year-old Prince Edward.


For her part, Princess Anne hated it.

She once said: “I never liked the idea of 'Royal Family’, I thought it was a rotten idea. The attention which had been brought upon one ever since one was a child… you just didn’t need any more. The last thing you needed was greater access.”


The Queen Mother agreed, calling it 'the most terrible idea’.

In 2011, the palace deigned to allow 90 seconds of it to be exhibited in 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery, as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

But aside from a short clip on YouTube of just a few minutes, it’s unlikely that the documentary will ever see the light of day again.

Image credits: Rex Features/YouTube

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