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In 1969, the Duke of Edinburgh had the bold idea of allowing cameras into Buckingham Palace to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It would offer the public a glimpse into the private world of the Royal family, including scenes of the Duke cooking barbecues at Balmoral. Three-quarters of the population watched it and yet it was deemed by courtiers to be a public relations misstep, letting in daylight upon the magic.
More than half a century later, the Duke’s family paid tribute to him in Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers (BBC One). And by its informal nature – royals chatting away on camera, sharing anecdotes with the nation as if conversing with friends – the documentary proved that the Duke was far ahead of his time. Here they were, not as lofty members of our ruling family but as ordinary people, talking warmly about the father and grandfather they adored. The occasional wide shot let us know that some of the interviews were being conducted in the grand surroundings of Buckingham Palace but for the most part the interviewees were seated in front of plain backdrops.
Filming had begun when the Duke was alive, as part of a project to mark his 100th birthday, and continued after his death in April. The family members spoke of him both in the present and past tense – perhaps some of the scenes included here were filmed prior to April, or perhaps they were simply doing what so many of us do after losing a loved one: continuing to speak of them as if they’re still here, because we can’t quite believe they’re gone.
The film was blessedly free of the “royal experts” who clutter the schedules. It began with the Prince of Wales recalling his final conversation with his father. He attempted to discuss the Duke’s forthcoming birthday. “I’ve got to be alive for it, haven’t I?” came the reply. The Prince couldn’t help laughing at the memory. There was a lot of laughter in the film. The Duke was a practical joker – apparently several ceilings still bear stains from a trick he used to pull on his grandchildren with a squeezy mustard tube – and had a great sense of fun. Archive footage, some of it on grainy cine film, include lovely scenes of him racing around on a tiny trike with his children.
If you get all of your information about the royals from Netflix’s The Crown, you will be under the impression that the Duke was a distant father. That impression was rectified here. “I have very happy memories and we were lucky to have him for nearly 100 years,” said the Prince of Wales.
All of the Duke’s children remembered him making time to read them bedtime stories. He taught them to swim, to sail and to drive. His grandchildren spoke fondly of him, both as a supportive presence in their lives and as an inspiration – Zara Tindall inherited his competitive spirit and love of sport, Lady Louise Windsor (here giving her first interview) took up carriage riding under his tutelage, and Princess Eugenie shared his passion for art.
There was, of course, no mention made of family troubles. The Duke of York and the Duke of Sussex both appeared, although the Duchess of Sussex did not (neither did the Duchess of Cambridge, so let us not read too much into that). The Duke of Sussex recalled the matter-of-fact advice he received from his grandfather when he was about to commence his tour of Afghanistan: “Make sure you come back alive.” On his return, “there wasn’t a deep level of discussion – more a case of, ‘Well, you made it.’” This no-nonsense approach, the programme explained, was likely rooted in the Duke of Edinburgh’s upbringing. Exiled, and left without a mother when she was admitted to a sanatorium, he found a kind of comfort in the strict discipline of Gordonstoun, followed by the Royal Navy.
The documentary set out the Duke’s many achievements, from his military record to founding the World Wildlife Fund and devising the Duke of Edinburgh awards scheme, all the while supporting his wife. The Queen did not take part in the film, but her family spoke of the bond she shared with her husband. They also shared a mischievous sense of humour, particularly when it came to mishaps at official events. “Imagine, they’ve lived a life where everything has to go right the whole time,” said the Duke of Cambridge, “so when things go wrong, everyone else gets mortally embarrassed – they love it!”
“He was the most self-effacing man I knew,” the Earl of Wessex said of his father. One imagines that the Duke agreed to be the subject of this documentary with some reluctance. But one hopes he would secretly have enjoyed it. The programme was unfussy and unapologetic – just like the man himself.