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Royal Family is a British television documentary about the family of Queen Elizabeth II. It originally aired on BBC One in June 1969. Although the film attracted more than 30 million viewers in the United Kingdom, the critical reception was generally negative, and the film has not been allowed to be shown since 1972.


Royal Family was commissioned by Elizabeth II to celebrate the investiture of her eldest son, Charles, as Prince of Wales.[1] It was directed by Richard Cawston,[2] and Antony Jay wrote the script,[3] narrated by Michael Flanders.[4] The film was jointly produced by the BBC and ITV.[5]

It was the brainchild of William Heseltine, then royal Press Secretary, and the television producer John Brabourne (son-in-law of Lord Mountbatten), who both believed that showing the family's day-to-day life on TV would help to revive public interest in an institution widely seen, in the Swinging Sixties, as out of touch and irrelevant.[6]

Cawston was approached in March 1968, and filming began on 8 June at Trooping the Colour. A total of 43 hours of material were shot for the documentary. Editing started in March 1969, while filming came to an end in May.[6] All scenes had to be agreed by an advisory committee chaired by the Queen's husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.[7] However, Cawston was allowed to shoot everything he wanted, later recounting "I never asked for things which I thought would be in bad taste; therefore, there was never any question of asking for something that would have to be turned down". The Queen saw the film in its entirety one month before the broadcast.[6]


The 110-minute documentary covers a year in the Queen's life. It gives an insight into the private side of the family as well as the role of monarchy in the 20th century.[2] A typical day sets the tone, beginning with an official audience, followed by lunch and an afternoon garden party. In the evening, the Queen chooses a dress to wear to the opera.[6]

Later in the film she, Prince Philip, and their children enjoy a barbecue at Balmoral Castle, Scotland.[4] In another scene, the Queen buys Prince Edward an ice-cream, exploding the myth that she never carries money. At one point, Charles is practicing the cello when a string snaps in his little brother Edward's face.[7] Various members of the family are shown eating breakfast, watching television,[8] water-skiing, playing host to the British Olympic team, and having lunch with Richard Nixon, then President of the United States.[7] The film includes a royal tour of South America and shows Princess Anne visiting a gas rig in the North Sea.[6]


Royal Family was first broadcast on BBC One on 21 June 1969, on ITV the following week,[4] and in Australia on 21 September. It was seen by 30.6 million viewers in the United Kingdom.[9] The commentary had to be altered slightly for American audiences in a version that was broadcast in the US.[6] Owing to the film's popularity, there was no televised Royal Christmas Message in 1969. Elizabeth issued a written message to avoid the possibility of over-exposure.[10] The documentary was last shown on BBC television on 6 February 1972 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Queen's accession to the throne.[11]

It is protected by Crown copyright and has not been repeated since the 1970s. According to Heseltine, "we put very heavy restrictions on it because we realised it was a huge shift in attitude".[7] In the 1990s, the film could be viewed privately by researchers, with permission from Buckingham Palace, at the BBC for a fee of £35. Broadcasters have been allowed to use short clips in other documentaries;[4] for example, as part of the BBC's The Duke at 90 in 2011, to celebrate Prince Philip's 90th birthday.

In 2011, it was announced that clips would be made available for public viewing as part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. It formed part of an exhibition called Queen: Art and Image, which also featured photographs of the monarch from across the years.[12]


Royal Family has been accused of revealing too much about the royals. David Attenborough – at the time, controller of BBC Two – warned Cawston that his film was in danger of "killing the monarchy".[4] The film critic Milton Shulman wrote "every institution that has so far attempted to use TV to popularise or aggrandise itself has been trivialised by it".[9]

A review in The Times concluded that Cawston's film had given the nation "an intimate understanding of what members of the Royal Family are like as individual people without jeopardizing their dignity or losing the sense of distance".[13] The journalist and broadcaster Peregrine Worsthorne remarked "Initially the public will love seeing the Royal Family as not essentially different from anyone else … but in the not-so-long run familiarity will breed, if not contempt, familiarity".[8]

In later years, some blamed it for the growing lack of deference towards the monarchy. However, William Heseltine had no regrets, calling it "a fantastic success".[7]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Bastin, Giselle (Summer 2009). "Filming the Ineffable: Biopics of the British Royal Family". Auto/Biography Studies. 24 (1): 34–52. Retrieved 21 August 2013.
  2. ^ a b Alan Rosenthal (2007). Writing, Directing, and Producing Documentary Films and Videos (4 ed.). SIU Press. pp. 72–73. ISBN 978-0-8093-2742-3.
  3. ^ Hardman, Robert (20 October 2011). "Yes, Ma'am". The Spectator. Retrieved 16 August 2013.
  4. ^ a b c d e Richard Tomlinson (19 June 1994). "Trying to be useful: Twenty-five years ago, the Windsors attempted to re-create their public image …". The Independent on Sunday. Archived from the original on 11 June 2015.
  5. ^ "Royal Family - BBC One London". BBC Genome. Retrieved 21 January 2019.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Alan Rosenthal (1972). The New Documentary in Action: A Casebook in Film Making. University of California Press. pp. 201–209. ISBN 978-0-520-02254-6.
  7. ^ a b c d e Robert Hardman (2012). Her Majesty: Queen Elizabeth II and Her Court. Pegasus Books. pp. 240–245. ISBN 978-1-4532-4918-5.
  8. ^ a b Nick Fraser (2012). Why Documentaries Matter. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. pp. 38–39. ISBN 978-1-907384-09-7.
  9. ^ a b Ian Bradley (2012). God Save the Queen: The Spiritual Heart of the Monarchy. A&C Black. p. 202. ISBN 978-1-4411-9367-4.
  10. ^ "A Point of View: The story of the Queen's Christmas speech". BBC News. 28 December 2014. Retrieved 23 January 2019.
  11. ^ "Search results". BBC Genome. Retrieved 21 January 2019.
  12. ^ Anita Singh (13 January 2011). "Royal family documentary revived four decades on". The Telegraph. Retrieved 21 January 2019.
  13. ^ Milton Shulman (1973). The Ravenous Eye: The Impact of the Fifth Factor. Cassell. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-304-93851-3.

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