One of the most intimate looks ever at the British royal family was shown to the public in the 1960s—but has been reportedly sitting in a vault ever since. It’s a documentary called Royal Family, and it hasn’t been seen in full for decades.
Richard Cawston’s BBC documentary team followed the royal family for 18 months as they went about their days. Their activities ranged from Prince Philip grilling sausages at Balmoral to the Queen making small talk with U.S. President Richard Nixon. On ABC’s new special, The Story of the Royals, experts say the documentary kicked off the intense scrutiny the royals now receive from the public and the press.
“I think the monarchy, in a very interesting way in the 1960s, tried to get out ahead of this notion they were out of tough or they were unapproachable,” Laura Mayhall, co-editor of Women’s Suffrage in the British Empire, said in the special. “It’s really a vehicle for us to see a little bit behind the scenes, so we can understand the monarchy as people like us.”
And when the Queen watched it, she enjoyed the finished product—with some reservations. “We were all a little bit nervous of showing it to the Queen because we had no idea what she would make of it,” Michael Bradsell, the film’s editor, told the Smithsonian channel in a separate special last year. “She was a little critical of the film in the sense she thought it was too long, but Dick Cawston, the director, persuaded her that two hours was not a minute too long.”
It was originally broadcast on June 21, 1969, to rave reviews and major audiences in the U.S. and in the U.K. Three quarters of the British public tuned in, according to The Telegraph.
The documentary was considered a public relations success. But even though it was a huge achievement, the Queen reportedly ordered it to be put away in a vault—and it has never been seen in its entirety since then.
In retrospect, the reason why makes sense. It was the first time the royals were seen as real people; it was almost a reality show before reality shows became popular. And that opened them up to an uncomfortable kind of celebrity.
“They realized that if they did something like that too often, they would cheapen themselves, letting the magic seep out,” Robert Lacey, historical consultant on The Crown, said in the ABC special.
“Some people say that this would open the floodgates, and therefore after that all the sort of tabloid interest in them [would come after],” royal biographer Hugo Vickers said in the special. “They would want to know more, and more, and more.”
In 2011, 90 seconds of the film were released for an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. In that clip, the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, and Princess Anne are sitting at the breakfast table while the Queen talks about a time a dignitary fell in front of Queen Victoria. But hours of unaired footage, plus the rest of the film itself, still remains hidden away.
Part 2 of ABC’s The Story of the Royals, coproduced with People magazine, airs Thursday night at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT.