Much of the appeal of the English monarchy is their stature. Of course, that’s been a major source of resentment, as well. The royal family could never please both sides of the coin, and yet they attempted to do so in the late 1960s through a documentary titled, plainly, Royal Family. The film was produced and broadcast by both the BBC and ITV as a look at Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, their children, and others in their daily routine and extracurricular activities.
As dramatized in the Netflix series The Crown, the documentary was made at the suggestion of Philip as a way to present the residents of Buckingham Palace and showcase their worth to the British people at a time when public favor for the monarchy was low. And yet while Philip himself complained about their financial situation on American television. The program in this context backfires since its portrayal of the royals as regular folk obviously diminishes their status as deserving special treatment and support.
Much of the third season of The Crown deals with waning acceptance of Queen Elizabeth II’s significance and a changing world including decolonization. The series, while spotlighting historical events, does not mean to be a documentary itself. Each episode functions as a contained story with a theme that employs one or more events for the purpose of character-driven entertainment. Certain inaccuracies, particularly with regards to chronology as well as precise motivations of real-life figures, are bound to happen.
Royal Family, which indeed was almost entirely locked away following its first few airings, was actually arranged for a few reasons. One of them was to introduce Charles to the world ahead of his investiture as Prince of Wales — this is interesting since we don’t even see him as a character in the episode (S3E4, “Bubbikins”). According to the doc’s director, Richard Cawston, in an interview in the 1972 book The New Documentary in Action: A Casebook in Film Making, media outlets around the world wanted to put Charles onscreen at the time.
But The Crown is correct in that another part of its purpose was to humanize and make further relevant the British monarchy, albeit while displaying the behind-the-scenes work and activities of Elizabeth II that would one day be her sons’ tasks. The doc was arranged by Philip and Royal Press Secretary Bill Heseltine along with TV and movie producer John Brabourne (an Oscar nominee around the same time for Romeo and Juliet), who happened to be the son-in-law of Prince Philip’s uncle (that would be the brother of Prince Philip’s mother, who is also a very big part of this episode).
Cawston was given complete freedom in his making of Royal Family, though he did grant Elizabeth and Philip the allowance to approve all audio that would go into the film since this was the first time they’d been recorded so casually. They also screened the doc ahead of its premiere, whereas in The Crown they appear to first watch the program as it was initially broadcast on their and 30 million others’ televisions on June 21, 1969. Given that shooting lasted for nearly a whole year, the Queen also had become more comfortable with the crew (one member of which, cinematographer Philip Bonham-Carter, is a distant cousin of The Crown actress Helena Bonham Carter) and with being filmed and miked and heavily lighted over time. Surprisingly for a year-long shoot, only 43 hours of material was produced.
For some scenes, such as one famous moment in which Elizabeth II buys her youngest child, Prince Edward, ice cream with her own money (despite the fact that she did not actually ever carry money), the Queen was even made to redo things from different angles. Not that much was scripted, but scenes like that did have to be somewhat pre-planned given the way docs of a certain quality had to be done at the time. Many parts of the film, like a meeting with the new U.S. president Richard Nixon, were scheduled formal events anyway, but some others were well-advised by Cawston and his team.
During the editing of Royal Family, truth was also manipulated to make the film more entertaining. We could criticize the creative license on The Crown, but even the doc contains a fudged chronology, according to Cawston. Further guidance of what viewers get out of the footage is achieved through the editing and the standard voiceover narration written by Antony Jay and performed by Michael Flanders, which critics argued gave too much stuffy formalization to what would otherwise be and what should have been a more relaxed portrayal.
The Crown implies that the Queen was caught off guard by the contents and tone of Royal Family (despite approving the final cut in May 1969) or at least by the reaction to the doc (the press also saw it pre-broadcast, by the way). At the end of the episode, she (as played by Olivia Colman) forbids its broadcast in Canada, Australia, American, or anywhere else. The truth is that airings around the world were pre-arranged and did occur. The film was shown in Australia that September, and it also had a U.S. version with an altered script — this was more a matter of tweaking some terms — and a new narrator “with more warmth.”
Royal Family was otherwise kept locked away for the most part. The BBC did broadcast the doc again three years later for the occasion of the Queen’s 20th anniversary as monarch, but that was its last official public screening. Bits of the film have been permitted for inclusion in other programs and documentaries over the decades (including the BBC’s The Duke at 90 in 2011) and exhibitions, while the whole film has been available to watch in full privately by researchers, with permission, for a fee, since the 1990s.
Looking at Royal Family today — or at least a bare amount of footage (I have not seen very much of it, only what’s available online) — and also considering the idea of this doc, the folly of its intent and creation seems obvious. Why would the British people want to see the Queen and the rest brought to their level? They’re supposed to be God’s chosen ones and above everyone else. Or else, why do they matter? And couldn’t anyone from anywhere be worthy of living in the palaces and castles seen in the doc?
There’s a certain desire from the common folk of the world, whether it’s inherent or cultivated, for leaders to be of a higher class and stature and wealth. It’s part of why the suggestion of the Kennedys being the American royal family caught on so easily and why the Trumps are so popular among much of the world today and why the Marcos family is on the rise again in the Philippines. Royal Family being in the spotlight right now is perfect timing for consideration next to Lauren Greenfield‘s doc The Kingmaker, which reveals the cult of personality of Imelda Marcos, a woman shown to be of luxurious prominence.
There is some irony and contradiction to the way we hold up celebrities and leaders today, of course. Royal Family is, although a singular feature-length doc, a kind of precursor to reality television. The film is shaped to depict a rich and famous clan in a combination of everyday normalcy and lofty exceptionalism that correlates to such modern series as Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Osbournes. Now it’s standard, though, for such shows to be a mix of affluence and (allowed instances of) imperfection, and they are enjoyed two ways (sometimes by the same viewer), as envious adoration and schadenfreude.
While not a new thing, many leaders around the world, including President Trump, are former reality TV stars. And it’s on all sides, with Democrat presidential candidate Cory Booker having been the focus of documentary films and series — yes, there’s a difference between reality series and documentary series, but not a lot with regards to the spotlight shined on their subjects. Media attention of any kind can be helpful, especially if controlled, in building up a politician’s awareness. But would a president allow a reality series made while they’re in office?
If made today, Royal Family might experience the same sort of scrutiny the film faced 50 years ago. The Queen and the rest of the British monarchy are just so unlike any other kind of celebrity or political figure. But there are also so many different circumstances to their lives and status compared to what their world and the world overall were like in the late 1960s. And they have had more exposure in recent years, whether in the form of personal appearances or through dramatized portrayals.
One example of the latter is the 2016 BBC documentary Elizabeth at 90: A Family Tribute (presently available to stream on Netflix), which features the Queen and others watching old films and home movies from the Royal Family’s collection. It came to mind while watching the “Bubbikins” episode of The Crown, particularly when the Queen, her sister, and their mum are filmed while watching television. It’s even narrated by Prince Charles (who sounds a lot like Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip in The Crown).
The family is rather candid in Elizabeth at 90 and because of the format of the doc, with everyone able to present and watch the old footage while offering commentary for historical context and contemporary appreciation, I can’t help but wonder if it’s time for Royal Family to be made available for similar purpose as both public record and a source of enjoyment. What if a new film is made around the old one with Elizabeth II and the rest re-watching from a new perspective? Perhaps its attention via The Crown could make that happen.
For now, though, here’s what little there is to watch, via YouTube, excerpted from the 2002 documentary series Queen & Country: