Before there was reality TV, back in the 1960s, it was documentaries that provided the chance to show another side of life. The Royal Family starred in one of the best known fly no the wall documentaries of the era, which came to screens in 1969.
Called Royal Family and watched by millions, the film takes viewers on a journey through the year of The Queen. Viewers can see what some might consider “normal” as she rummaged through her purse in a sweet shop with a five-year-old Prince Edward. Other scenes include the royals enjoying a family barbecue.
The 105-minute film was watched by 30 million people when it aired in 1969 and still remains one of the UK’s most-viewed television broadcasts. The BBC estimates more than 350 million people watched it worldwide.
The film was made after the Royal Family granted the BBC unique permission to film their everyday lives. The documentary was seen by some as an attempt to regain relevance against arguments that the family was out of touch. A total of 43 hours of material was shot for the documentary. Editing began in March of 1969 while actual filming came to an end in May. All scenes had to be agreed upon by an advisory committee chaired by The Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. The director, Richard Cawston was allowed to shoot everything he wanted.
The Princess Royal later spoke of how unhappy she was with the final product: “I never liked the idea of the royal family film. 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 anymore. The last thing you needed was greater access.”
The film would only be aired once more in full in 1977. In 2011, Buckingham Palace gave the National Portrait Gallery a 90-second clip of the breakfast scene to be shown during the Diamond Jubilee Celebration. Since then, the full documentary has never bee broadcast but it has been leaked online. It received a copyright strike by the BBC in July 2021 but was not taken down.
The making of the documentary is also the plotline in an episode of the Netflix series, The Crown.