Royal Family: A Hidden Documentary – REWIND

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With the death and funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, we revisit our 22nd episode all about the Royal Family. In 1969, Queen Elizabeth II and her family were followed around by a film crew for a special documentary to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the Royal Family. While the public loved it, the Queen did not and it was banned forever. Until last year, when it was leaked to the internet. In this episode, we talk about the documentary and quiz my friend Lance Thompson! 

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I like this one. My wife and I have been watching The Crown on Netflix and I have to say I had no interest in the Royal Family before watching it. I would even so far as to say that it’s incredibly hard for me – as an American – to understand the idea of a Royal Family. I’ve always thought that if I were living in the United Kingdom, I’d have a real problem knowing that a chunk of my taxes go toward supporting this one family. But I’ll also say that watching this series HAS helped me understand a little bit better and appreciate how the Royal Family represents ideals, traditions and something that can be argued is very symbolically important. So I know a little bit about this documentary because they talk about it in the Crown. It’s in the 3rd season and the episode is called “Bubbikins.” But I’m really curious now how much truth there is in it. There are aspects of the show that are dramatized.

I find this fascinating. I think in the television series, they squished together about 10 years worth of public sentiment and things that happened in the 60s. For instance, there were some unflattering newspaper articles criticizing the Royal Family in the late 50s and that started a small, but growing sentiment among British Citizens that the idea of a Royal Family and Monarchy in general was antiquated and unnecessary in a modern world. It painted them as out of touch. 

Then a horrible mining disaster killed 116 children in 1966 and some citizens didn’t think the Queen wasn’t responsive enough in consoling the community. She waited 8 days to visit and has said that it’s her biggest regret as Queen. She was excoriated in the press. The public was desperate to see emotion and empathy from the Royal Family.

In 1969, The Queen’s Press Secretary Sir William Heseltine along with Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinborough, had the idea to pull back the Royal curtain by inviting a documentary crew to follow the Royal Family around for a few months and expose some of the inner workings of the family to the public.  In addition to adding a feel of humanity to the Queen and her family, they thought that it would help modernize the Crown and help the United Kingdom to understand what goes on behind the closed doors of Buckingham Palace. In the end, they shot more than 43 hours of footage of the family at locations all over the UK – in the Palace, Windsor Castle, Balmoral Castle, the Royal Yacht, the Royal Train, the Royal Private Jet, Sandringham, all over their properties. It covered meetings with diplomats from all over the world, lavish dinners, The investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, and several private family moments. 

The documentary aired on June 21st in 1969 on the BBC and was edited into a 90-minute show called “Royal Family.” It was watched live by nearly one third of the United Kingdom – 30.6 million viewers. It was sold around the world and seen by 350 million people. It was the largest viewing audience of any show at the time and still ranks 3rd in the list of largest viewing audiences in the UK (behind the 1966 World Cup and Princess Diana’s Funeral).

It was immensely popular and all people talked about. For the first time, the veil of mystery had been pulled back to see what day-to-day life is like for the family. For many it was the first time that they saw the Queen as a mother and family member. They were stunned to see the Queen using her own money to pay for Ice Cream. In fact, it was one of the first times any of the Royal Family had been televised speaking in a way that wasn’t carefully scripted and planned. Unlike the way the Documentary was portrayed in the Netflix Series The Crown, the general public overwhelmingly loved the show.

But it also had a lot of critics. Traditionalists in England were mortified, for instance, to see Queen Elizabeth storing leftover food in Tupperware – which was seen as something that was below her station in life by staunch conservatives. Some thought that it was important to maintain a sense of mystery and intrigue to the Royals.

At one point in the documentary, some of the Palace housekeepers are discussing the linens and blankets and how they date back to Queen Victoria. The wait staff displays lavish dinner set ups with stacks of silver and gold plates – not exactly the kind of thing you would want to show if you were trying to convince the public you’re just like them. 

Then at one point, we meet many diplomats as they have an audience with the Queen. There’s a very awkward scene with Richard Nixon where he just seems incredibly out of place and nervous. 

The scenes that are meant to show the Royal Family as a normal, everyday family fall short. At one point, they’re gathered around a television watching I Love Lucy and just seem stiff and uncomfortable like they don’t know how to act around each other. Prince Phillip laughs at the show and utters “so stupid.” 

Then there’s a scene where the Queen, her husband Prince Phillip, and their children Prince Charles and Princess Anne are eating breakfast together and chatting. There are several bits here that I can’t believe they aired. For example, they’re talking about how Queen Victoria once had to keep from laughing as an ambassador tumbled and fell down some stairs. And then she goes on to compare an American Abassador to an ape and laughed about how she could barely keep from laughing at his appearance. Prince Phillip goes on to talk about the Queen’s father, King George the Sixth would yell and swear while gardening. The Queen looks uncomfortable as he says it. 

While many in the country loved it, the Queen was embarrassed by it. Soon after airing, she had the film banned from being aired and ordered all copies stop being sold. She didn’t like the idea from the beginning and didn’t like how it portrayed the family. In fact, it seems like Prince Phillip was one of the documentary’s only supporters. The Queen’s daughter Princess Anne discussed the documentary many years later. 

Permission was given for the film to be shown once on British Television in 1977 but has been kept in a vault ever since. Then recently – like 2021 recently – the entire 90-minute film was briefly leaked and put onto YouTube. It was quickly taken down, but not after a few thousand people watched it. One source from the Royal Palace told the Times: ‘It should not be on YouTube, and if it does appear, we would expect it to be taken down.’ It was. Very quickly. As you can tell from the details I’m able to tell you, I may or may not have seen the entire thing. Keep in mind, many of these details have been discussed in articles on the Internet as well. Okay fine – yes I saw it. I watched all of it. It was pretty slow, but really interesting. You told me what to Google and I did. And here’s a challenge for you – If your Google-Fu is strong, you may be able to find it for yourself.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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