As a new ITV documentary marking the 70th birthday of the Queen’s only daughter got under way, we were told that Anne never wanted to grow up to be a fairytale princess. And the programme went on to show the practical, down to earth royal that we’ve all come to appreciate over the years with plenty of comments from those who know her best backing up that hard working image that’s so familiar. But what really shone through in this special is her devotion, not just to her duties but to those she encounters as she carries them out. This birthday programme didn’t give us a fairytale but it did show us a different take on a people’s princess.
”The ability to meet people, that’s what makes the difference,” Anne said as the show got under way and perhaps the most surprising element of this special was the sheer delight that Anne takes in spending time with others. Her no nonsense approach to everything was more than evident in the TV special, shown in the UK on July 29th 2020, but so was her huge enjoyment in a royal way of life she has made her own.
In fact, Anne takes such a keen interest in those she spends time with that officials revealed in the programme that they tailor the investitures she carries out on behalf of the Queen so that she can spend plenty of time hearing the stories of those being honoured without making the whole experience too long for everyone involved. And, as you would expect from the Princess Royal, it’s not just idle chit chat. Anne has spent hours beforehand reading up about the achievements of those she’s going to meet and is ready to ask them all about their experiences.
The programme also made it clear she listens. While on a visit to one of the charities most associated with her, Riding for the Disabled, Anne couldn’t hide her delight when showjumper Evie Jones told her that even her neurosurgeon had told her to keep riding following an operation. ”She’s just so relaxed, she made it enjoyable,” Evie said afterwards and that was a key theme. Everyone who spoke to the princess on one of the many engagements this programme followed her on reflected later on the real interest she had in them and what they do.
That’s not to say we didn’t get a good dose of sensible Anne. For most of her adult life, and quite possibly earlier that that, she’s had a reputation for being rather matter of fact and her husband, Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence, and her children, Peter Phillips and Zara Tindall, showed that age hasn’t changed the princess at all. ”Good luck” was Zara’s comment when asked about mentioning slowing down to her mother while her husband confided that holidays were a long way down the list, saying ”our ideal break, if we have a break”, yet another indication that Anne intends to pack as much into her royal life as she can.
And this documentary moved at the same speed as its subject. While previous insights into royal life over the past years have involved conversations that were at times introspective, this programme marched along at a lightening pace while any hint of emotion was implied rather than expressed. The major events in Anne’s life, including the kidnapping attempt which resulted in four injuries, were dealt with but the princess’ comments were always sensible. She’d thought about what she might do in a similar situation, she said of that incident while the Queen’s decision to make her Princess Royal in 1987 was kept to one line in the show with no comment from Anne herself. In fact, the greatest show of emotion came when one of her beloved horses nuzzled her and was rewarded with an affectionate ”dear” in response.
To be fair, there was a lot to pack in. We were treated to quite a few glimpses of Anne’s life behind palace walls as a child with cine film from the royal collection while the princess explained in no uncertain terms that she’d been keen to break free and head to school as a teenager, making her the first monarch’s daughter to be educated that way. But history, royal or otherwise, is told through the lens of the time it is created. Anne herself might not be that interested in fashion or media attention but it is a major part of royal life now. As well as a rather fun dash through her time as a Seventies style icon, there was a more serious focus on the impact of being in the spotlight with the princess acknowledging things are harder for the younger generation of the Windsors.
But the overarching theme of this programme was a princess with her own way of doing things. Her work ethic, her determination to support charities and organisations and her unrelenting energy came through time and again.
”I was really bad at that role model bit,” Anne said as the programme came to an end. Whether she was shying away from praise or emotion wasn’t clear. But what had been evident, over the past ninety minutes, was that in many ways the Princess Royal has set the template for what is expected of a modern royal. Furthermore, she clearly loves the opportunity that gives her to meet and help others. Anne at 70, the unexpected people’s princess.
Anne, The Princess Royal at 70 is available to UK viewers on the ITV Hub.