It’s the Ultimate TV Prize: An Unscripted Queen Elizabeth
Posted January 14, 2018 5:51 p.m. EST
LONDON — In the annals of television interviews, a drawing-room chat with a 91-year-old woman, watching home movies and offering occasional droll remarks, would not seem like edgy stuff.
But that all changes when the woman is Queen Elizabeth II.
“The Coronation,” a documentary on the 1953 ceremony to air on the BBC here and on the Smithsonian Channel in the United States on Sunday, marks a thaw for the queen, who has never agreed to an interview on camera. (The exchange, in deference to palace sensitivities, is being described as a “conversation.”)
It represents the culmination of 20 years of petitions to the palace, backdoor lobbying with protective courtiers, leveraging of family relationships dating back centuries and a television culture that has, with the popular cable series “The Crown,” yielded the queen’s inner life to the domain of fiction.
Anthony Geffen, the film’s producer, said in an interview that “The Crown” was a key element of the case he and commentator Alastair Bruce brought to Buckingham Palace early last year, in the hope of softening the long-standing resistance to the idea.
“I watched the episode of ‘The Crown’ about the coronation and it struck me that this was bizarre: We have Peter Morgan, who is a wonderful writer, but had no access to the queen, writing his version, which people loved,” he said. “Then there is a version from 1953, and the only person who could tell us the truth about this is the queen herself.”
The argument came at an auspicious time, before the tide of cotton-candy publicity that will accompany Prince Harry’s wedding in May. Advisers were concerned that “coverage of the royals was constantly just going out and opening a supermarket,” Geffen said, and were looking for ways to focus attention on the more solemn aspects of the monarchy.
Nothing could be as solemn as the coronation, in which the monarch is anointed with oil and is believed to be brought into direct contact with God.
Ancient rules surround every aspect of the ceremony. Geffen was surprised to discover that he was prohibited from filming the two crowns used in the ceremony from above, because that is the vantage point reserved for God.
“They didn’t want you to really stand above them at all,” he said. “You’ve got to realize, the crowns are considered quite sacred, and even filming them is seen as if it could devalue them in some way.”
“The Coronation” marks the first time the crown jewels, a collection of regalia used in British coronations, have been filmed, and offers loving, hypnotic footage of crowns rotating slowly on velvet-swathed stands, with resolution so high that you can see motes of dust circulating in the light beams.
For decades, Britain’s royal family has measured out media access with teaspoons.
Elizabeth led this approach at the age of 26, siding with palace traditionalists who feared that allowing cameras into her coronation would erode the monarchy’s mystique. The decision provoked such public outrage that she then backpedaled, allowing the BBC to broadcast the early stages of the ceremony, though not her anointing.
In the years that followed, royal gatekeepers have retained stringent control over broadcasters seeking interviews. A 15-page contract leaked to The Independent, a daily newspaper, in 2015, laid out an eye-popping list of conditions for interviewing Prince Charles, including the right to preapprove the wording of questions, and to review the film at the “rough cut” and “fine cut” stages, with the option to withdraw the interview at any point.
Alienating the royal family, meanwhile, has proved damaging to broadcast careers.
In 2007, a trailer for a BBC documentary was edited, inaccurately, to make it appear that the queen had angrily left a photo session with Annie Leibovitz. (The footage had actually shown her walking into the session.) The corporation waited until the next day to publish a correction, allowing the story to proliferate in tabloids and stoking such resentment that the head of one of the BBC’s TV networks, Peter Fincham, was forced to resign.
A reminder of that hazard came this week, when Rigby & Peller, a bra manufacturer that had designed undergarments for the royal family since 1960, lost its royal warrant, a coveted designation, after its director, in her autobiography, “Storm in a D-Cup,” described interacting with the queen. Buckingham Palace gave no reason for the decision.
For the most part, Britain’s broadcasters have refrained from pushing back against the palace, which has the power to curtail access altogether, said Valentine Low, who covers the royal family for The Times of London.
“The broadcaster is essentially going to play ball,” he said. “They know they have got a massive property on their hands and therefore you have to accede to any palace demands.”
Though “The Coronation” does not interrogate the monarchy — indeed, it comes off as a lush advertisement for the institution — it does capture Elizabeth in revealing, unscripted moments.
In preparation for the shoot, two crowns were removed from the Tower of London and transported, under secretive conditions, to Buckingham Palace, where the queen is given the chance to examine them. She does so with an unsentimental, appraiser’s eye, as if they were racehorses or hunting dogs, and deems them, with a perfect deadpan, “unwieldy.”
“You can’t look down to read the speech,” she remarks. “Because if you did, your neck would break.”
Geffen, whose previous subjects have included Barack Obama and Saddam Hussein, said he was pleasantly surprised at the queen’s relaxed manner during the shoot, especially when she reached out to touch one of the crowns. According to custom, she is one of three people on earth — along with the archbishop of Canterbury and the crown jeweler — who are allowed to touch it, he said.
“The atmosphere during the filming, even for the courtiers looking on, was ‘Wow, this is the queen we might not have seen before,'” he said. “I think everyone was delighted to see that happen. Because she was quite free-flowing. She wasn’t guarded.” The impression is one of a woman considering her legacy, but Geffen warned against reading too much into that.
“Some people thought, ‘Gosh, now that she’s done that, she’s going to resign,'” he said. “But from what I gathered, from everything in that room and from that day, there was absolutely never an intention of that.”
He added, though, that the next monarch is almost certain to simplify and shorten the ceremony. Geffen, whose lineage can be traced to Anne Boleyn, a queen beheaded by her husband, Henry VIII, stopped there, noting jokingly that Tudor-era statutes made it a crime to plan the next coronation.
“You’re not allowed to talk about the next coronation, you know,” he said. “It’s treason. So you have to be careful.”