For the 27 million people who watched the Queen act alongside James Bond in the 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony, or the six million people who watch her Christmas speech every year – it might come as a surprise that the Queen has kept one of her most notable TV appearances under lock and key for nearly 40 years.
Viewers of episode 4, season 3 of The Crown, will see how a documentary made in 1969 about the British royal family was withdrawn from broadcast by Her Majesty after only three public viewings, following of widespread criticism.
The Netflix drama follows the Queen, played by Olivia Colman, and her close family as they organise scripts and film scenes over the course of a year of their lives, before eventually watching it air — and dealing with the ensuing fallout. But did it really happen?
Viewers may be surprised to learn that the 110-minute film, titled Royal Family, was indeed filmed and subsequently taken off air by the Queen. In 2019, it continues to fall under the crown’s copyright, meaning it hasn’t been shown in public since 1972.
How did the film come about?
Towards the end of the “swinging sixties” the royal family felt increasingly out of touch with the new liberal mood of the country. Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge appeared on American television in 1964, telling viewers: “The English are getting bored with their monarchy.”
A year later, the Sunday Telegraph declared the Queen was seen as “the arch-square” by young people. As a result the royal family were looking for ways to revive public goodwill when Press Secretary, William Heseltine, suggested the documentary.
The family had been looking for a way to commemorate Charles’ upcoming investiture as the Prince of Wales, and this fit the bill.
The idea was that the film — commissioned by BBC and ITV — would follow the family’s daily life and give an insight into a world that had previously been kept private.
What was filmed?
Directed by Richard Cawston, chief of the BBC Documentary Unit, filming for the Royal Family began on 8 June at the Trooping of the Colour in London.
Over the next year cameramen followed the family everywhere from Buckingham Palace to Balmoral in Scotland recording the intricacies of their private lives. By the end of filming, the footage totalled over 43 hours.
It showed a typical day in the Queen’s life including an audience at the palace, an afternoon garden party and spending an evening choosing a dress to wear to the opera.
Balmoral, where they are on holiday. The children cook – Prince Charles even makes a salad dressing – and then the Queen takes a young Prince Edward to a sweet shop, dismissing the widely-held belief the monarch doesn’t carry cash.
In another “behind the scenes” moment, Prince Charles can be seen practicing the cello when the string of the instrument snaps in his brother’s face.
In more public-facing events, the film also touched on the family playing host to the Great Britain Olympic team, having lunch with Richard Nixon, and Princess Anne visiting a North sea oil rig.
When was it broadcast?
One month before the film went to air the Queen watched it in its entirety and the contents were finalised by an advisory committee chaired by Prince Phillip.
It went to air on BBC One on 21 June 1969, where it was watched by 30.9 million viewers in the UK, and then again a week later on ITV where it was watched by a further 15 million people.
What was the criticism?
The intention had been to give the general public a look behind the curtain. But critics said this was not the purpose of monarchy and as such, the film had been a flop.
Media reception was generally negative with David Attenborough, who was controller of BBC Two at the time, going so far as to claim the film was in danger of “killing the monarchy”.
In 2018 historical consultant Robert Lacey, told ABC News that the family realised if they did things like this too often they would “cheapen themselves, letting the magic seep out”.
As a result the Queen decided not to deliver a Christmas message in 1969 because she was worried about “overexposure” of the royal family.
Although the Royal Family wasn’t pulled from broadcast immediately, it was shown again for the last time on BBC in February 1972, and then never again.
In an interview, press secretary Heseltine, who had reportedly been instrumental in selling the idea to the royal family, explained the reason they put “very heavy restrictions” on the film was because they realised they had encountered a “huge shift in attitude”.
Can we view the film today?
In the 1990s the film could be privately viewed by historical researchers as long as they got permission from Buckingham Palace beforehand and paid a one-off fee of £35.
Broadcasters have been allowed to use short clips in other documentaries for example as part of the BBC’s “The Duke at 90”, shown in 2011.
Today Queen Elizabeth retains the copyright to the Royal Family, something which Richard Tomlinson wrote in The Independent in 1994 was “a sign” she regarded the film as a “mistake”.
He continued: “At the time, it was hailed as the latest example of the British dynasty’s miraculous ability to reinvent itself, just at the moment when disaster beckoned.”