1 9 6 9 (UK)
1 x 105 minute episode
While the Queen was traditionally seen on television each year on Christmas Day, delivering her annual speech to the Commonwealth, it took a young Australian called William Heseltine in 1969 to inspire the most decisive turning point in the relationship between the modern British Royal Family and television as a communication medium.
As Private Secretary to then Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies, Heseltine had been personally picked by Prince Philip to come to London to work as the Queen’s press secretary.
The Duke wanted the media-savvy Aussie to shake up the palace’s press office, controlled for 20 years by Commander Colville, whose open contempt for journalists had earned him the title of the “anti-press” officer.
Immediately struck by the contrast between the Queen’s chilly public image and the wry, often funny persona when she relaxed, Heseltine urged the making of a TV documentary that would show royal life from the inside.
The result was Royal Family, a historic documentary film directed by the BBC’s Richard Cawston but produced as a joint venture between ITV and BBC. The commentary was spoken by Michael Flanders.
The documentary was first screened in Britain at 8.00 pm on Saturday 21 June 1969 (in black and white) on the BBC, where it was seen by some 23 million viewers.
Another 15 million people watched it in colour on ITV at 8.25 pm on Sunday 29 June, two days before the televised Investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales at Carnaervon Castle.
Royal Family was shortly also shown in 140 other countries.
Seventy-five days of shooting in 172 locations as far apart as Balmoral and South America yielded 43 hours of film that would be cut to less than two hours on screen.
The film presented scenes never before witnessed by the public; the inner workings of Buckingham Palace, onboard the Royal Yacht Britannia and the Royal Train, behind the scenes at daily events and special occasions, and holidays at Balmoral and Sandringham, Christmas at Windsor.
People saw the Royal Family grilling steak and sausages at Balmoral: The teenage Princess Anne lit the fire, Prince Philip wielded the spatula with the aplomb of a practised barbecuer, the Queen made the salad, and Prince Charles – who was also shown water-skiing and working on his college history essay – mixed the dressing.
Even more remarkable, people saw the Queen feeding carrots to her horses, watching Lucille Ball on the telly and driving her youngest son, five-year-old Prince Edward, out to the village shop to buy sweets and an ice cream, where she engaged in ordinary conversation that seemed so human and different from her stilted formal speeches.
Royal Family was hailed as a triumph, but a private door had been opened that, at times over the following four decades, the Royal Family would probably dearly have loved to shut and bolt.