Kensington Palace: Behind Closed Doors, review: hardly more access than tourists get

Textile conservator Libby Thompson with one of Princess Diana's dresses - Channel 5
Textile conservator Libby Thompson with one of Princess Diana's dresses - Channel 5

“Nestling at the edge of Hyde Park in central London, there’s a secret palace,” said Sue Johnston in the introduction to Kensington Palace: Behind Closed Doors (Channel 5). Which is an odd way to describe a tourist attraction which can clearly be seen if you go just past the end of Kensington High Street.

Johnston is a good actress – see last week’s BBC One prison drama, Time, for proof – but here had been instructed to narrate in the tone of a nurse addressing doddery patients who can’t remember what day it is. She repeated things several times, in case we were very slow on the uptake. Mind you, some people are. The Palace receptionists recounted some of the questions asked by the visiting public. One asked if Victoria was the current queen. Another wanted to know “if Charles and Diana still lived in the apartments at Kensington Palace, and this was about two months ago.” A frequently asked question is whether they can pop in for tea with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

This is one of those series that falls some way between fly-on-the-wall documentary and PR puffery. It is interesting to see how buildings such as this are run, and the love and care that goes into their upkeep, from the operations manager who opens up every morning (with a bag full of remote controls) to the textile conservators laying out Diana’s dresses, to the gardens and estates manager who was tasked with getting the Sunken Garden looking its best for the Harry and Meghan’s engagement photos.

One of the focuses of this first episode was a refurbishment which included the replacement of four enormous, gilded chandeliers in the King’s Drawing Room. The originals had long since disappeared, but craftsmen had a 19th-century illustration to work from. The newly-created ones looked quite magnificent when hoisted into place, although the laws of television mean it is impossible to see people working with giant chandeliers and not brace oneself for an Only Fools and Horses-style disaster.

Some historical detail about Queen Victoria was thrown in. It was a perfectly pleasant programme, but the doors to anything more intriguing than that were left firmly closed.