A year spent filming Queen Elizabeth II

"The more time I spent filming Our Queen, the more I was struck by the strange idiosyncracies of her life," says film-maker Michael Waldman

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Our instructions are precise. The cameraman and I, accompanied only by the press secretary to the Queen, are to stand in a side corridor in the Queen’s private apartments at Buckingham Palace. We have just filmed the Prime Minister and the Queen’s private secretary walking past and into a waiting room.

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We are now to wait for the Queen to go into her sitting room. I tell my cameraman whatever happens not to turn the camera off. A door opens, one of the Queen’s pages walks through and then a moment later a vision in pink appears. It takes me a second to register that this is the Queen. After a brief moment she clocks us , the press secretary curtsies, and Her Majesty walks on past. In that moment the Queen, apparently lost in thought in her own private world, comes across as nothing more than a human being, at home.

Twenty seconds later, we walk into the room in which she is now standing, alone. She exchanges no pleasantries. In fact, she does not acknowledge our presence. In this vacuum, any politician would feel the need at least to smile insincerely or say hello. But the Queen is different. She’s lived her life surrounded by people it is not necessary to acknowledge. She is now concentrating on what is about to happen, and we are, mercifully, not significant.

She puts her black patent leather handbag on a chair and goes over to the grand mantlepiece. Houseproud, she leans in to the fireplace and with her left foot straightens up the simple two-bar electric fire that is rather incongruously sitting there.

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Shortly, the Queen’s equerry and David Cameron appear at the door, both bow their heads and with, “The Prime Minister, Your Majesty”, the equerry departs. This famously private audience – now the subject of a new West End play starring Helen Mirren – happens every Wednesday at 6pm. There are no note-takers, no private secretaries or civil servants: nobody but the sovereign and her Prime Minister – and, on this occasion for a compelling few minutes, us.

It is not just the body language that is fascinating. The discussion of the Eurozone crisis and the upcoming Greek election elicits from the Queen a remark that demonstrates an intimacy, if a little out of date, with Greek politics: “Yes, the King did ring me – he’s very worried.” (Ex-King Constantine is, of course, a cousin.)

The more time I spent filming Our Queen, the more I was struck by the strange idiosyncracies of the Queen’s life. In one sense, she never has to make an effort: if she tells a joke, it will be found funny; if she recounts an anecdote, it will be fascinating. But in another way, effortful duty is what her professional existence consists of: a continuous stream of necessarily superficial encounters with strangers while genuinely seeming to engage.

“I shall always remember that,” she tells a milliner who has shown her a hat made from the cured skin of a salmon. “Fish skin! Isn’t that hilarious?”

She is delighted to meet a room full of four-year-olds and their display of royal underwear based on a book called The Queen’s Knickers. Her response? “Oh, they’re hanging up the washing.” And after months of filming her encounters during an eventful Jubilee year, I noticed that she has another trick: she never says “Hello” or “Goodbye”, which must save thousands of words a day.

From the high points of the Diamond Jubilee weekend – “the Queen was very moved by that,” the Prince of Wales recalls – to the daily chores of monarchy, it’s clear that she is a hands-on sovereign. At Buckingham Palace, we film the state banquet being prepared for the President of Indonesia – a stunning array of silver gilt and priceless china for 171 guests. And then the Queen arrives to inspect it all. Although the setting is impressive, she is in a way no different to any hostess just before a dinner party, checking that everything is in place. But of course the dynamics are not comparable.

I feel the slight tension as she remarks that the after-dinner fruit bowls are too close to the place settings. The Master of the Household turns to the Palace Steward and says, “The Queen quite rightly observes that the fruit is a bit adjacent to…” and the Queen interrupts: “I think it’s too close.” It’s all done with charm: no need for her to insist on anything, let alone slap any wrists. It’s simply that in this house, the hostess is always right. As the Queen sweeps out, the Yeoman of the Glass and China Pantry promptly moves each fruit dish two inches forward on the vast horseshoe-shaped table.

A suitable change of clothes later – the Queen into glittering ballgown and tiara; the cameraman and I into black tie (rather than white) – and as she processes into the banquet with the President, she seems (or am I imagining it?) to give me a rather steely look. Perhaps it’s just that she is noticing everything, from out of place fruit bowls to a marginally under-dressed documentary director.

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We move from dinner through to coffee in the Music Room. The Queen seems suitably animated while showing the President and his wife items from the Royal Collection that relate to past state visits, from a rather terrifying sword to her letter to a previous president. (I am intrigued to discover that whenever the Queen writes to another head of state, however dubious, she signs off, “I am, Your Good Friend, Elizabeth R.”) But she is not one for lingering. There is the unforgettable sight of the Queen inspecting her watch (right) before ushering her presidential house guests towards their quarters. It is unambiguously bedtime.

The Queen’s stamina is remarkable for an 86-year-old. At the Jubilee Military Muster at Windsor Castle – seemingly unending columns from all the armed forces – she is placed on a platform with half a dozen top brass. I notice that there is not a chair to be seen. Someone must have tentatively suggested a chair but she has clearly had none of it. For more than 30 minutes she stands stock still, taking the salute, placing her weight steadily on both feet.

She knows that she is always the centre of attention – she once said, “I must be seen to be believed.” A former senior member of the Royal Household told us of the military parade where an officer was standing in the wrong place. She lost no time in reminding him of the error: “They’ve come to see me, not you.” And her powers of concentration and recall are equally impressive. At an extraordinary lunch in Windsor Castle where the world’s sovereign monarchs have been invited to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee, there are so many kings and queens in the house that, at one point, Prince Philip loses track of which is which. “No, that was Kuwait,” she whispers. “He’s the King.”

We also go behind the scenes at a reception for visiting heads of state at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. As she explains that she is following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather in opening a London Olympics, she is impressively deadpan, given what is about to happen…

After her starring role as the new Bond girl, the Queen decamps, as she does every summer, to Balmoral. I fly up to film when the Prime Minister and his wife Samantha come to stay. The atmosphere there is very different to Buckingham Palace. Even the corgis seem more relaxed. There are woolly scarves and wellies in the entrance hall, long corridors with wallpaper deeply embossed with Queen Victoria’s cipher (a V entwined erotically with an R), plenty of outdoor activities for house guests, and for the Queen, the occasional gin and Dubonnet.

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At one point in the weekend, away from the other guests, there is always an audience with the PM. The Queen’s private sitting room is scattered with books and papers, there are framed photos including one of George VI marked simply, “Papa, 1948”, several stuffed toys – and a cushion that’s delightfully embroidered “It’s good to be Queen”.

The cameraman and I had been shown the room earlier in the afternoon to check the light. I’d been worried about the sun going down, but needn’t have: the Queen, professional to the last, seems to have turned on some of the lights for us. And this time as we enter she is in a chatty mood. Wearing a tartan skirt and a pink cardigan, she checks: “Is that light all right? Because it gets dark suddenly. The sun goes down, you know, it goes behind the hill and that’s it!”

There is a little further chat about a house on the Balmoral estate: “Queen Victoria’s house,” the Queen says, and then with her slight smile and bemused side-to-side head movement she adds, “She used to make the Prime Minister come up and see her there!” And with that, the equerry announces the present Prime Minister, and we go back to being part of the furniture…

Our Queen, inspired by Robert Hardman’s book of the same name, involved a year of filming with the Queen and her staff. I embarked on it with some trepidation, not just about the inevitable difficulties of filming in this environment, but also whether we would be able to reflect the Queen’s personality. Of course, in some ways she remains a mystery – that is her constitutional point, after all. But we get more than a glimpse of this remarkable woman, someone who seems to have been neither spoilt nor scarred by the extraordinary circumstances of her life.

Our last day of filming is at King’s Cross station in London. On a private journey to Sandringham, the face that is on over 30 currencies around the world walks calmly down the platform. She discreetly boards a small first-class section of the 10.45 First Capital Connect service about to depart for King’s Lynn. Hardly any of her fellow passengers has any idea that they are sharing their journey with Queen Elizabeth II.


Our Queen is on Sunday 17 March at 8:00pm on ITV

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The book Our Queen by Robert Hardman is published by Arrow. To order your copy for £14 (usually £20), call 01603 648 176.