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!”
While the documentary was meant to show the human side of the monarchy, its narration carried an official tone. The voice-over, read by English actor and broadcaster Michael Flanders, ruminated on the importance of the Crown to the country in florid terms like, “Monarchy does not lie in the power it gives to the sovereign, but in the power it denies to anyone else.”
The finished documentary claimed to show a year in the life of the royal family. Queen Elizabeth was featured tirelessly working and making small talk with world leaders like U.S. President Richard Nixon. During his state visit, she asked him, “World problems are so complex, aren't they, now?” To which Nixon replied, “I was thinking how really much more complex they are than when we last met in 1957.”
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There were also sweet scenes, like one where the Queen takes her youngest son, Edward, to a candy store, paying for his treats herself even though the monarch is technically never supposed to carry money.
The royal family’s genuine sportiness was also highlighted—Prince Charles was shown waterskiing and fishing, Prince Philip flew an airplane and the Queen drove her own car surprisingly fast.
But there were also strained moments, according to detractors. At one point Prince Philip describes an instance when King George VI the Queen Mother’s late husband, took out his rage with a pruning knife on a rhododendron bush, screaming curse words while hacking it to bits. “He had very odd habits,” Philip deadpanned. “'Sometimes I thought he was mad.”
Then there was when Queen Elizabeth jokes: “How do you keep a regally straight face when a footman tells you: "'Your Majesty, your next audience is with a gorilla?... It was an official visitor, but he looked just like a gorilla.”
Millions Tuned in for 1969 Premiere
Cawston let Philip see a rough cut of the documentary before showing it to the Queen. “We were all a little bit nervous of showing it to the Queen because we had no idea what she would make of it,” the film’s editor Michael Bradsell told the Smithsonian channel in a 2017 special. “She was a little critical of the film in the sense she thought it was too long, but Dick Cawston, the director, persuaded her that two hours was not a minute too long.”
The public was, in fact, intrigued—more than 30 million viewers in Britain alone viewed the premiere. It was said that during an intermission, toilets flushed all over London, causing a water shortage.
Less than a month later, on July 1, Prince Charles was invested at Caernarvon Castle in a carefully filmed spectacle organized by the photographer Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaret’s soon to be ex-husband.
This double-whammy of royal TV was seen by some as a rousing success. “It redefined the nation's view of the Queen,” Paul Moorhouse, former curator of the National Portrait Gallery, told Daily Telegraph in 2011. “The audience were amazed to be able to hear the Queen speaking spontaneously, and to see her in a domestic setting."
Lifting the Veil on the Royal Family
But to many, the royal family had opened Pandora’s box, lifting the veil and making them easy targets for criticism and intrusive paparazzi activity.
"They were criticized for being stuffy, and not letting anybody know what they were doing, and my brother-in-law helped do up a film, and now people say, 'Ah, of course, the rot set in when the film was made,’"royal cousin Lady Pamela Hicks and daughter of Lord Mountbatten told an interviewer. "You can't do right; it's catch-22."
"Royal Family" was shown only once more in full, in 1977. And in 2011, Buckingham Palace gave the National Portrait Gallery a 90-second clip of the breakfast scene during the Diamond Jubilee celebration. The palace allowed a few more brief clips to be included in the 2011 documentary "The Duke at 90."