The Crown: The real story behind the 1969 Royal Family documentary – and the reason why you can’t see it

Hundreds of millions of viewers sat down to watch the royal family's one-off documentary – but now it is kept hidden from public view

The Queen being filmed - The Crown

In the fourth episode of The Crown season 3, cameras descend on Buckingham Palace as Prince Philip tries to improve the family’s public image with a one-off documentary.

Advertisement

Here’s what you need to know about the real-life history behind the new season’s storyline.

Why did the Royal Family agree to star in a documentary?

The Crown: Royal family documentary

The idea behind this one-off documentary was to display the royals as a normal family with an extraordinary (and demanding!) role in public life. By inviting cameras to follow their day-to-day lives, the Palace’s new royal press secretary William Heseltine (an Australian public relations expert) hoped to increase public support for a monarchy that was increasingly seen as out-of-touch.

Titled ‘Royal Family’, the documentary was also intended to celebrate the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969. The spotlight would be on the royal family and there would inevitably be a ton of TV coverage, so the Palace decided to commission something of their own.

How was the documentary filmed? Was Philip heavily involved?

The BBC and ITV actually teamed up to produce this one, and Richard Cawston was brought in as director. He began filming the 110-minute film in 1968, setting out to cover a year in the life of the Queen.

All scenes were agreed by an advisory committee chaired by Prince Philip.

“The making of Royal Family was a slightly different operation from any other film,” Cawston later said, in an interview with Alan Rosenthal for his book The New Documentary in Action. “The original concept of the film came from within Buckingham Palace… I subsequently met the Queen’s Press Secretary, Bill Heseltine, and Prince Philip, and discussed the possibilities of this film.

“Finally, I said I would make it on the understanding that I would be given the normal editorial freedom which I would expect in any other film, that it would not be made by a committee, and that I would be allowed to make it my own way as a film maker. This was all agreed. A small advisory committee was in fact set up, but it was simply there to give me help about information and assistance in getting things done. At no point was I ever told how to make the film or what should be in it.”

Royal Family behind the scenes - Radio Times magazine
Behind the scenes of the documentary (Radio Times archive)

Cawston explained that the royals were “very understandably” nervous at first about being surrounded by microphones, which would catch private conversations un-vetted by press secretaries or speechwriters. “However, I then put it to Prince Philip that if this was going to be a film suitable for showing in 1969, it would have to be a film with natural dialogue.”

With promises in place allowing the royals “complete right of rejection” and a commitment to have the audio tapes closely guarded under lock and key, it was agreed. “As time went on the Queen became so used to it that she came to know not only where the mike was but also where the cameras and lights had to be placed. In the end, she became enormously expert at being filmed and seemed very interested in the world process. She got to know the crew and what each man did.”

Did Prince Philip’s mother come to live at the Palace during filming?

The elderly Princess Alice was actually already living at Buckingham Palace by 1968, when filming began. She’d moved in the year before at her daughter-in-law Queen Elizabeth’s invitation, with the full backing of her son Prince Philip.

What happens in the 1969 Royal Family documentary?

The documentary starts with a “typical day” in the life of the Queen, who begins with an official audience, has lunch, hosts an afternoon garden party and then chooses a dress to wear to the opera. (This was actually an imaginary typical day; in the editing room, Cawston decided to use sequences which originally came from different sections of the film).

Then there was a famous scene with the family enjoying a barbecue at Balmoral Castle in Scotland: Prince Philip flipping steaks, Princess Anne predicting the event would be “an absolute total guaranteed failure,” Prince Charles making a salad dressing, and the Queen dipping and licking her finger and grimacing: “Oily.”

Viewers saw the Queen buying her son an ice-cream, and Charles practicing cello; they watched the royals watching TV (early Gogglebox?) and going water-skiing; they watched them lunch with US President Richard Nixon, and go on a royal tour of South America, and visit oil rigs and cattle shows. Over it all there was the guiding hand of the narrator tying it all together by stressing the importance of the monarchy to the nation.

What was the response to the documentary?

The Crown Radio Times cover

There was a lot of hype and excitement as the air date loomed closer. In The Crown season three, Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth is a Radio Times cover star – and this was actually adapted from the real-life edition, pictured above. Inside the magazine, BBC One Controller Paul Fox wrote a breathless introduction to the show: “In the relationship between the Queen and her people, ‘Royal Family’ is probably the most important event since the Coronation.”

Finally, the documentary aired. It was watched by a massive 30.6 million people in the United Kingdom, out of a total population of 55.5 million; an estimated 350 million saw it around the world. Richard Cawston thoughtfully inserted a two-minute interval in the middle of the show, and Thames Water reported a huge increase in demand during the BBC broadcast as millions of viewers nipped to the loo.

The Times gave “Royal Family” a good review, but not everyone did. The Evening Standard wrote: “Every institution that has so far attempted to use TV to popularise or aggrandise itself has been trivialised by it.” And David Attenborough (then controlled of BBC Two) saw it from an anthropological angle, apparently telling Cawston: “The whole institution depends on mystique and the tribal chief in his hut. If any member of the tribe ever sees inside the hut, then the whole system of tribal chiefdom is damaged and the tribe eventually disintegrates.”

The Crown

Can you watch 1969 documentary ‘Royal Family’ online?

Nope.

“The film has since become a broadcasting yeti, world-famous yet unseen on television screens since a repeat during the 1970s,” writes Robert Hardman in his book Our Queen. “It is in no video libraries. A trawl for a VHS or DVD edition will draw a blank. Today, television researchers are only allowed to access it under close supervision.”

Did the Queen stop it being repeated on TV?

Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth Aboard Airplane

Ultimately, the Queen has stopped “Royal Family” from being repeated on TV – but events didn’t play out exactly like we see in The Crown.

In reality, the Queen actually saw the documentary ahead of time (rather than on the night of broadcast) and gave it her blessing. “Since the press show was due to take place exactly four weeks later, during those four weeks we had to write the final version of the commentary, dub it, and make a negative cut and show print – all this in the four weeks following the Queen’s approval,” Cawston said. “The Queen didn’t request any alterations or cuts, and so we went straight ahead and finished it.”

Elizabeth and Philip only considered vetoing one scene, where Charles’ broken cello string accidentally hits Edward’s face and makes him cry – but, on reflection, they decided to let it stay in the final cut.

Michael Bradsell, the film’s editor, later told the Smithsonian channel: “We were all a little bit nervous of showing it to the Queen because we had no idea what she would make of it. 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.”

When was Royal Family broadcast?

‘Royal Family’ was broadcast on BBC One on 21st June 1969.

Unlike in the drama, the documentary was actually seen again on TV: it then got an outing on ITV on both 28th and 29th June, and went out in Australia, and then in America too – with a new narrator and some edits to the script to help a US audience.

At the time, the Palace seems to have been delighted with the documentary. They felt it showed the royals as a modern family and made the Queen look very busy and indispensable.

However, it seems the Queen came to regard the documentary as a mistake, or at least as something which should now be hidden away.

‘Royal Family’ was last shown on BBC television on 6th February 1972.  According to Hardman, “Copyright is controlled by the Queen’s Private Secretary and successive private secretaries have kept it under lock and key… the official reason is that this was a programme of its time and for its time.”

Steps were soon taken to limit its broadcast and availability. By the 1990s, the film could only be viewed at BBC HQ with permission from Buckingham Palace itself, and researchers had to pay a fee; short clips have been allowed within other documentaries, but the whole thing has been kept from public view.

Advertisement

The Crown season 3 is on Netflix now.