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In 1970, the Queen banned a doco about the Royal Family. Here's what we know about it.

It was reality TV, royal-style – a 1969 documentary made by trailing the Royal Family with cameras over the course of a year. And it was a terrible PR disaster.

At least, that’s what season three of The Crown would have us think. But was it really that bad?

The idea for making a documentary about the Royal Family was pushed by the Queen’s Australian press secretary, William Heseltine. He wanted to show the Royals as humans, and Prince Philip was very keen on the idea.

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“The Queen was a reluctant convert,” Heseltine tells Town & Country, “but became much more aware of the possibilities and was prepared to participate when it came to actual filming.”
Princess Anne was much less enthusiastic.

“I certainly never liked the idea of the Royal Family film,” Anne said in 2002. “I always thought it was a rotten idea. The attention that had been brought on one ever since one was a child, you just didn’t want any more.”

Filming began in mid-1968. All up, there were 75 shooting days, with the footage eventually cut down to a two-hour documentary. Every scene was approved by a committee headed by Prince Philip.

There’s the Queen, at breakfast with her family, telling a story about a dignitary with long arms who looked like a gorilla. There’s the Queen going into a shop and taking coins out of her purse to buy an ice cream for her son, Edward. There’s the whole family sitting around watching TV together – and, on another occasion, standing around outside, barbecuing sausages.

The Queen watched the documentary, entitled Royal Family, at a private viewing before it went to air.

“We were all a little bit nervous of showing it to the Queen because we had no idea what she would make of it,” the documentary’s editor, Michael Bradsell, told the Smithsonian Channel recently. “She was a little critical of the film in the sense that she thought it was too long. But Dick Cawston, the director, persuaded her that two hours was not a minute too long.”

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When the documentary aired in June 1969 – first on the BBC, and then a week later on commercial station ITV – it was a ratings smash. It was repeated five times in the UK, and also broadcast overseas. It’s estimated that three-quarters of the British population watched it.

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Heseltine insists the documentary had “very few” critics at the time, just “one or two stuffy lord lieutenants in England and one or two [TV] critics”.

“But on the whole, I think it was really a wonderful thing and very much in their [the Royal Family’s] interests,” he says.

Journalist Sir Peregrine Worsthorne was one of the critics.

“Initially the public will love seeing the Royal Family as not essentially different from anybody else, and in the short term, letting in the cameras will enhance the monarchy’s popularity,” he wrote at the time. “But in the not-so-long run, familiarity will breed, if not contempt, well, familiarity.”

Royal biographer Ingrid Seward claims that naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who was a BBC controller at the time, blasted the documentary’s director in a letter.

“You’re killing the monarchy, you know, with this film you’re making,” Attenborough reportedly wrote to 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 the tribal chiefdom is damaged and the tribe eventually disintegrates.”

The Queen listened to the critics. In 1970, she ordered the documentary to be locked in the royal archives, and never to be shown again without her permission. However, researchers have been allowed to watch it at the BBC – for a fee – and short clips have been used in other documentaries.

More than 40 years later, the Queen allowed 90 seconds of the doco to be released for an exhibition, The Queen: Art And Image.

“Legend has it that the Queen doesn’t want parts of it to be shown,” the exhibition’s curator, Paul Moorhouse, said. “I wish we could show it in its entirety. It tells you a lot about family life, and it redefined the nation’s view of the Queen.”

You can watch snippets of the doco on YouTube.

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