Prince Charles: why I’m sharing the royal family archive

His Royal Highness is your personal guide through the archives of Britain's most famous family this Diamond Jubilee weekend

They are home movies unlike any others. The subjects are familiar to us all, the camerawork is well above usual amateur garden hosepipe standard, and the woman with her finger on the shutter button is the Queen.


As part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the Prince of Wales uses the vehicle of private family snapshots and cine footage, much of it never before seen in public, to pay a highly personal and touching tribute to his mother’s 60 years on the throne.

Addressing the audience at a Golden Jubilee concert in Buckingham Palace gardens ten years ago, the Prince turned to the guest of honour and opened with: “Your Majesty – Mummy!”, distilling in one phrase the dilemma of being son to one of the world’s most famous women.

Again this time, he concentrates on the intimacy of family over the panoply of state. Given that his relations with his parents have occasionally been strained, his tribute emerges as affectionate, revealing, admiring and respectful in equal measure.

Informality is the key to the stills and film footage shot by the Queen – and some by the Duke of Edinburgh – for private consumption rather than public broadcast. In that respect they are little different from anyone else’s family albums, to be pored over at home in a warm fug of nostalgia.

Shots of Charles, aged 31/2, and Anne, nearly two, rolling down a grassy bank, like any other children, convey a delicious ordinariness, except that the bank is in front of Balmoral Castle.

“Every generation did this on this bank,” recalls the Prince. “I’m sure Queen Victoria’s children did exactly the same thing. It was always such fun… I remember doing that with my children as well. Endlessly. The great thing was obviously to get the right way on. Otherwise you went at an angle and didn’t get the same effect.”

Rather more exceptional is the royal parents’ footage at the time they were reunited with their children on board the newly launched royal yacht Britannia. The Queen and her husband were on the last leg of a 173-day post-Coronation world tour in 1954 – a painful separation for both parents and children – when the family were brought together again in the Libyan port of Tobruk, so long ago that King Idris al Senussi was still on the throne.

During the hour-long programme, the Prince does not talk directly to camera, but provides a discreet commentary while letting the images from the private gardens of Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral largely speak for themselves. The idea was his own, but he wanted an entirely different tone from the 2002 Golden Jubilee tributes, and needed a professional to help turn home movies, however good, into BBC1 primetime material.

Anyone who saw him deliver the lunchtime weather forecast during a visit to the BBC in Glasgow earlier this month will know that the Prince is an accomplished TV performer, full of humour and at ease before the camera. Nor is it the first time he has worked with John Bridcut, A Jubilee Tribute’s director.

Bridcut, a former BBC news trainee and now an independent film-maker, has worked on several projects involving the royal family. In 2002 he made Queen and Country with William Shawcross for the Golden Jubilee, and in 2008 he marked Charles’s 60th birthday with The Passionate Prince, while last year the pair collaborated on BBC4’s The Prince and the Composer, about Sir Hubert Parry.

Working with the Prince on a film is a pleasure, Bridcut says. “He is experienced, and full of patience and understanding for the endless delays that filming inevitably involves.”

Bridcut is also full of praise for the Queen’s camera skills. “Most amateur movie-makers wave the camera all over the place when they should keep it still and concentrate on the subject. The Queen does just that; her footage is beautifully done, steady, and thoroughly focused on what she is recording.”

The film is one of the most intimate glimpses into royal family life since Richard Cawston’s 1969 BBC film Royal Family, regarded in its day as daringly groundbreaking, but now almost never seen.

The monarch, naturally, has all the best equipment. Her still cameras have included a Rolleiflex and a Leica, while the Duke has used a Hasselblad and a Nikon. Much of the couple’s movie footage is on professional-sized 16mm colour film, giving much better picture quality than the 8mm gauge favoured by amateurs in the days before the now-ubiquitous video camera and the mobile phone conquered the world of home movies.

To this day the Queen compiles and captions all her own personal photo albums. Photography has been something of a passion with the royal family ever since Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, developed an interest in what was then a relatively new hobby. His wife Queen Alexandra was so keen and capable that she occasionally allowed her pictures to be entered in public exhibitions.

Nor are family tributes a novelty for the Prince. He recorded television eulogies to both the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. This one, however, is different – intensely intimate and personal and a strong reminder that, behind all the pageantry and duty that surround a head of state, the royal family is still, essentially, a family.

A Jubilee Tribute to the Queen by the Prince of Wales is on BBC1, Friday at 8.00pm


This article was first published in the Radio Times (26 May – 1 June)