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(Credits: Far Out / YouTube)

Film

Movie of the Week: 'Royal Family', the documentary that ended royal mysticism

@Russellisation

Make no mistake, it’s not normal for an individual to hold a job down for 70 years, whether you’re the Queen or the owner of a quaint family business somewhere in Kent. If this is what this weekend’s platinum jubilee pageant was celebrating then I’m sure more people could get behind it, but the problem at the heart of such a bank-holiday event is the age-old question of ‘what does the queen actually do?’.

With the Conservative Chancellor Rishi Sunak dedicating £28 million of taxpayers’ money to the celebrations, according to the March 2021 budget, the monarchy and UK government have promised a “once-in-a-generation show” showing off the very best of British entertainment. This all comes in spite of the ongoing severity of the cost of living crisis that is seeing households across the country having to choose between the necessities of food and electricity, all whilst the royal family decide between how many Spitfires they want flying over their newly-refurbished mansion. 

Truly, the timing of the excessive jubilee celebrations would only seem more crass if the livestream of the event showed Prince Andrew waving a wad of cash at the camera for three hours. A loud consensus of so many in modern Britain is that the jubilee event is an expensive expression of wealth, and not much more, making for an embarrassing national statement to the rest of the world. 

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Not just the product of a disgruntled 21st century nation, this sentiment has been festering for many generations, with the monarchy even setting out to try and regain public trust in 1969 with the fascinating release of the candid documentary Royal Family. Released on terrestrial TV on June 21st, the film, commissioned by Elizabeth II to celebrate the investiture of her eldest son, came out at the turn of a new decade when culture was rapidly changing and the role of the royal family was being seen as increasingly irrelevant. 

In many ways a pioneering reality TV special, the 90-minute documentary covers a year in the life of the Queen, providing an unprecedented view into the private life of the family, demonstrating that they were ‘just like us’ as they feed horses and manically hack away at rhododendron bushes. Without the drama and media training of modern reality stars, the result itself is fascinatingly dull, with 37 million people tuning in to experience the mystique of the royal family fade away to reveal a totally ordinary underbelly. 

Even in moments of candid honesty do the royals reveal a strange obscured view on the world, with the late Prince Philip explaining in one scene the “very odd habits,” of his father in law, King George VI. Describing how he’d take out his rage on the bushes of the palace’s gardens with a pruning knife, Phillip added, “sometimes I thought he was mad,” with the whole interview feeling like the deadpan performance of an Alan Partridge skit. 

So candid and revealing was the documentary, that Queen Elizabeth II had the film banned from public access, forbidding it from ever being shown on television ever again. Made in a time in which privacy was treasured with the utmost importance, the royal family and the Queen in particular were worried that they’d allowed the public to get far too close, afraid that the mysticism of their grandeur had destroyed a valued national perception.

The next time that the documentary would be publicly acknowledged wasn’t until the recent release of the Netflix series The Crown, with one episode dramatising a moment when the 1969 documentary crew captured the family watching television together. Now popular knowledge thanks to the series, the fateful timing of the Netflix show with the platinum jubilee shows to once again resurface the inequality between British poverty and royal privilege. 

Respect and admiration must be earned by the royal family, with no amount of pageantry able to prove their understanding of how the poorest of the country operate on a daily basis. Opening the floodgates to public scrutiny, the truth is the Royal Family may have been a ratings hit, but it allowed every eye of the country to access all areas of life behind the closed doors of the palace, destroying the valuable mystique of their existence. 

Even in their intentions to gain public support and sympathy did they seem embarrassingly out of touch, with the narrator and English actor Michael Flanders saying at one point, “Monarchy does not lie in the power it gives to the sovereign, but in the power it denies to anyone else”. A dark truth that remains ever more pertinent today.

Having since been unearthed from the archives, the film is now available to watch in its entirety on YouTube.