Recently a film that has been lost for over 40 years popped up on the web, and its caused quite a stir amongst the British establishment.
Back in 1969 the BBC and the Royal Family got together and decided on collaborating on a behind the scenes style documentary on the lives of the Royals. Showing their work in the Palace and duties as representatives of the British state in great detail. It was a major success attracting 30 million viewers, however it also caused the Queen to panic and use her powers and connections at the BBC to have the film suppressed and stored in the royal archives, it was taken off the air in 1972 and since then the only way to see the film was to get permission from the royal family (well their staff manning the office) effectively consigning the film to obscurity. Until this month when it was leaked onto the web.
Its worth quoting from the reactions section of the films wiki page
[Edit - or use https://bit.ly/3ov0k9e ]
"Royal Family (also known as The Royal Family) is a British television documentary about the family of Queen Elizabeth II. It originally aired on BBC One and ITV in June 1969. The film attracted over 30 million viewers in the United Kingdom. The Queen later had the documentary banned, and it has not been shown again on TV since 1972, and access to the remaining copy was severely restricted. Despite this, in early 2021 it was leaked, and published online."
Royal Family has been accused of revealing too much about the royals. David Attenborough – at the time, controller of BBC Two – warned Cawston that his film was in danger of "killing the monarchy". The film critic Milton Shulman wrote "every institution that has so far attempted to use TV to popularise or aggrandise itself has been trivialised by it".
A review in The Times concluded that Cawston's film had given the nation "an intimate understanding of what members of the Royal Family are like as individual people without jeopardising their dignity or losing the sense of distance". The journalist and broadcaster Peregrine Worsthorne remarked "Initially the public will love seeing the Royal Family as not essentially different from anyone else … but in the not-so-long run familiarity will breed, if not contempt, familiarity".
In later years, some blamed the film for a growing lack of deference towards the monarchy. However, William Heseltine had no regrets, calling it "a fantastic success".
Seems really exciting and damming, "killing the monarchy" can't wait. Unfortunately the BBC is still actively trying to shutdown the spread of the film, uploading it to youtube quickly results in a takedown and the more well known alternative streaming platforms are also not particularly safe. Fortunately they haven't got to them all, its up on the Eye
[Edit - or use https://bit.ly/3ov0k9e ]
And can be downloaded, I strongly recommend you do so if you're interested in seeing it, in case of further action. This film has been the victim of over 40 years of grudges from some of the most powerful people in the British establishment after all.
Anyway with all that said it may be a surprise to read that having watched the film in its entirety there isn't really anything that on first glance would explain the hostile attitude by the authorities to the film. There is no smoking gun scene where the Royals and the Queen in particular being openly evil or transparently corrupt while the microphones are still on them. There are scenes of luxury and opulence that to me make them look bad, but nothing special, and most of it, like the jewels from India are openly flaunted to create a sense of splendour and majesty. There's also footage of a Royal visit to Brazil which means the royal family were hobnobbing with a military dictatorship. That could potentially have been damaging and controversial but the royals hosting or visiting brutal despots isn't exactly rare and the doc fails to even mention the political situation in Brazil, its just another opportunity for photos and crowd cheering. Large sections of it seem indistinguishable from the mountains of pro royal guff that gets recorded and broadcast on a nearly daily basis in the UK.
But clearly if there still trying to stamp out the film there must be something in it worrying them. And after a second watch I do think I get why they tried to bury the film. While it doesn't demonise them it does possible the next worst thing and normalises them. By normalise I don't mean it shows them as normal people, on the contrary they come across as aloof and a bit weird, I just mean that the film just strips them of their manufactured imagery that makes them appear more than they are.
Instead of being depicted as sober and wise benevolent stewards of the nation and their subjects, which is what the royal family want everyone to see them as, they come across as bureaucrats dedicated to their jobs, and due to the circumstances of their surroundings a bit pompous and at times whiny and very, very out of their depth, to the point they struggle to understand how the world works in the 1960s. God knows how much hand holding they need nowadays.
For an example there's a section very early on that introduces Prince Phillip to the film and he struggles to understand how to proceed with a royal visit to a school (in Cambridge naturally) even though he's done this sort of thing many times and he's reading the typed out instructions that are walking him through it stage by stage. He has to contact a servant on a special intercom system and have him talk him through it and after that he still doesn't sound sure of what they want him to do.
And the Queen isn't much better, she sounds lost and confused in most interactions even with her long time staff and some visitors of high rank. Nearly every conversation, even between her family comes across as awkward and stiff. There is also a strong focus on many of the ceremonies that surround the palace and the other royal estates, again there isn't much out of the ordinary from the countless other fawning films that the royal's approve of in terms of content, its trooping of colours, garden parties, royal visits and royal audiences etc. What s different and actually caught me by surprise when I first watched it was how matter of fact and dry it was about the whole thing. There's no attempt to romanticise any of it, its happening, the narrator explains in detail how it happens and an explanation for why it happens and why its done the way it is, which most of the time is just "Queen Victoria did it this way so we're still doing it like this".
What stood out to me the most was an early example of a royal audience with the poet Robert Graves, the whole thing is given a sort conveyor belt feel, then after that its on to a garden party that's planned and operated just like hundreds of other garden parties like it every year. There's no personality to any of it, everything is repeated and runs like clockwork, the only difference is the people the Queen makes idle and superficial chatter with, today she meets a trade union leader, next week she will receive a sportsman of some kind or the ambassador to a nation.
Another highlight is a montage of royal visits that cuts quite aggressively between Prince Phillip, the Queen and Prince Charles, all of them essentially just looking at things (cows in Ulster, military Jets, oil rigs, etc) and occasionally making inane conversation. Its clear they either have no understanding of most of these things or just don't care, which gave me a strong sense of pointlessness.
We even see a rare meeting between Prince Charles and the Queen and the estate managers of the Duchy of Cornwall, and they're discussing whether to renovate an old farm house before selling it. Which on reflection if I had to point to one scene that got this film blacklisted it would be that one, seeing the Queen and her heir quibbling over expenses and revenue streams and running an actual commercial enterprise is as far from the official propaganda image of the benevolently disinterested care takers of the state and their subjects as you can get.
And then there's the servants. If this film had a thesis statement it would be the Royal Family is an archaic institution adapting to life in the 20th century. There is plenty of evidence that most of the Royals are struggling with that, but the biggest sign that the adaptation isn't working well is the servants. We see a lot of how the serving staff perform their duties and its extremely incongruous. Most of them work in ways hard to distinguish from modern office staff, manning phones, preparing reports, arranging appointments etc, but on top of that they're still burdened with protocols and customs that date back many decades because they were decided by Monarchs long dead. Like the Page of the Backstairs (yes really, that is a job and its official title) his job is to deliver to the Queen the state papers, while on a Royal Yacht he and other crew on deck must wear soft shoes and use hand signals to preserve their masters quiet. How are these state papers delivered to a yacht at sea? By helicopter, a big noisy Navy helicopter. The royals need their rest and quiet so the staff must be burdened with extra steps to carry a box from one room to another, but a giant helicopter can just hover above them while awkwardly winching a sack full of paper down every single day.
Its largely this pattern from start to finish, there's no real major moment of damage its just little moments cutting into the royal propaganda, like the segment where a secretary as part of his duties presents the Queen with a certificate for a state honour (gallantry I think) and while she signs it the secretary gives her a quick summary of the achievements of the recipient and she makes vague noises of admiration. Its clear she has no idea who these people are, but these are the people we are officially supposed to celebrate and admire for their great deeds. I imagine that stung a few people who were proud of holding various medals and honours in 1970 watching her immediately just start signing those "well done we're all proud of you" certificates that come with the medals, just because they were dumped on her desk during the hour set aside in the day for signing things.
I suppose the closest thing we do get to a smoking gun in the whole film is at the end when the Americans arrive for a visit. The filming was done in 1968 so the President is Richard Nixon, but all they do is send a horse and carriage train for the American diplomats and the President and then spend their time with him just chatting about nothing of substance, he just asks if it would violate protocol to send the Queen a photo of him and his wife to replace the official Presidential photo he sent out. Its like that with every important figure the Royals meet in the documentary, from the ruling Junta of Brazil they just exchange toasts and then chat about the climate, and then the next day buy up all the newspapers and look at the headlines to see how popular they are. With the diplomats its just talk about weather and hobbies and how they're finding everything, then move onto the next one and repeat. The filming took a year to complete and during that time nothing of substance happens. It seems like the only function the royal family has in the 20th century is letting powerful people from other countries enjoy a day out in a fancy carriage while wearing elaborate costumes. Yet somehow this sole function needs multiple big castles and estates and personal armies of put upon servants.
So alas its no bomb at the foundations of the crown, but it could chip away at it quite a bit. I think funnily enough this film is largely wasted on people who already think Monarchism is a horrible idea and should be abolished, but I can see this film doing quite a bit of work on people who do support the monarchy or don't really have strong feeling either way. So while a 40 year grudge over a documentary they agreed to work with and star in is a bit strange I do get why they want to lock it away forever.