By numerous accounts, Prince Philip liked being proved right – so there might be posthumous vindication in his death getting broadcasters into trouble. The BBC’s decision to reduce its five national TV networks and 11 radio networks into a single obituary stream for much of the day led to a rush of complaints – and a rapid email to staff acknowledging that subsequent coverage would be scaled back.
This diminution of coverage neatly reflected the duke’s relationship with broadcast media: over eight decades he went from not being able to get enough airtime to not wanting any. In line with his wishes, his funeral tomorrow will be televised, by modern royal standards, as minimally as possible.
Yet what became chilly distance towards the medium began in an enthusiastic embrace. As chair of the committee organising his wife’s 1953 coronation, the duke overruled the fierce view of then prime minister, Winston Churchill, and the archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, that admitting cameras to film the ceremony would destroy the majesty of the occasion. But Philip, already an early adopter of home videos, gambled that letting family pictures into homes would humanise and popularise the royal family.
The televised coronation led to an exponential increase in the number of TV sets in the UK, creating the first royal ratings hit. In 1957, there was another, when the duke became the first royal to present a TV show other than monarch’s Christmas addresses – a science programme called The Restless Sphere: The Story of the International Geophysical Year. Subsequently, he allowed the BBC series Man Alive to accompany him on a tour for a 1966 film called The Duke Goes West. In the same year, the keen reader of history and former officer of the Royal Navy filmed an introduction to Terence Rattigan’s television play Nelson, about the hero of Trafalgar.
These positive experiences with mainstream culture must have made him easier to persuade when, in the late 60s, the Queen’s press secretary William Heseltine suggested inviting a documentary crew behind the scenes at the palace and Balmoral.
Heseltine believed the project could help negotiate the difficult balance between the royal family’s historical public invisibility and the celebrity culture that the media had extended, thanks to the Kennedy dynasty, to heads of state.
After a BBC team started filming Royal Family in March 1968, the duke himself chaired a committee of TV executives charged with approving or refusing each piece of footage that the BBC’s head of documentaries Richard Cawston wanted to include. The producer subsequently said that he was always cautious about what he captured, reflecting British broadcasting’s awed approach to monarchy at the time (and sometimes since), and so no sequence was vetoed.
The two hours of material shown by the BBC on 21 June 1969 included the royals cooking a summer barbecue at Balmoral, and the Queen buying the young Prince Edward an ice-cream in a shop, disproving the long rumour that her handbag contained none of the currency with her picture on it.
Although some influential figures – including critic Milton Shulman and David Attenborough, then a BBC TV executive – argued that such revelation risked destabilising an institution that gained appeal from mystique, the film was well received. It was broadcast five times, lastly in 1977, at the time of Philip and Elizabeth’s ruby wedding anniversary.
The palace had cannily imposed crown copyright on the film, and broadcast rights were eventually withdrawn, reportedly on Philip’s insistence. Only short clips have been licensed for use in documentaries or exhibitions.
The reason for the ban will be a significant subject of inquiry for Philip’s biographers. It seems unlikely, however, to have been motivated by what was shown, or the tone of it. I was lucky enough to watch the full 120 minutes as research for a BBC Radio 4 item marking the 40th anniversary of the film’s premiere, and the content is charming, innocuous and a rich source for historians.
There has been speculation that the duke and palace advisers became worried by the frequent citing of the film’s existence as a justification for media invasion of the family’s privacy during the cult of Princess Diana and anti-cult of Sarah, Duchess of York in the 80s and 90s. (A common legal argument of broadcasters and paparazzi is that public figures, having once given cooperation to the media, cannot expect to withdraw it.)
Yet Philip never, contrary to some accounts, completely barred broadcasters from his life. Buckingham Palace again allowed TV flies on to its walls, for BBC One’s Elizabeth R: A Year in the Life of the Queen (1992), marking the 40th anniversary of the Queen succeeding her father to the throne.
This respectful and discreet treatment might have softened the duke’s hostility to television, although it soon hardened again when, in the mid-90s, the Prince and Princess of Wales decided to effectively end their marriage through rival broadcast interviews: Charles admitting adultery to Jonathan Dimbleby on ITV, Diana to Martin Bashir on BBC One’s Panorama. Philip was reportedly infuriated by what he saw as another disaster caused by flashing family life at the cameras.
Even so, in 2008, after a period in which the royals lost some core support due to Diana’s death and Charles’s marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles, the institution again used television to make a case for its durability and usefulness in Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work, a BBC One five-parter, the title deliberately positioning the Windsors as a business.
Access was tightly controlled but the programme confirmed the capacity of television to cause trouble for the clan. A trailer for the series that gave the impression the Queen had stormed out of a photoshoot with photographer Annie Leibovitz triggered a row that led to the resignation of BBC One controller Peter Fincham. The most recent authorised family documentary – Our Queen (2013), marking six decades since the coronation – was pointedly given to ITV.
While keeping his own appearances in the various family documentaries as fleeting as possible – the duke disliked seeing himself on screen – he intermittently allowed himself to be the focus of whole shows, although his answers tended to be short and barked, and often conveyed incredulity at the stupidity of the question. In 2008, he drove a visibly apprehensive Trevor McDonald at high speed round one of his estates in The Duke: A Portrait of Prince Philip, and discussed 60 years of the Duke of Edinburgh awards with Phillip Schofield in a 2016 film (later heavily clipped for the duke’s TV obituaries).
The fact that the royal got titular second billing in When Phillip Met Prince Philip was evidence of TV’s increasing lese-majesty on the subject of the royal family. The death of deference had also been illustrated by Prince Philip – The Plot to Make a King, screened in 2015 as part of Channel 4’s Secret History series. The clickbait name – there were no circumstances in which the duke could ever have been crowned – was attached to a documentary about the alleged machinations of his uncle, Lord Mountbatten, to insert his nephew and his family name into the royal family by ensuring that Philip married Princess Elizabeth.
While the duke was rarely seen on TV after his retirement from public life in 2017, other family members catastrophically filled the gap. In 2019, Prince Andrew attempted to use a Newsnight Special interview with Emily Maitlis to refute allegations over a long and loyal friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The attempted exoneration failed so disastrously that Andrew soon followed his father into a retirement from royal duties.
Hospitalised in March, the duke may have been protected from the latest major TV interview by one of his relatives – and probably the most sensational: When Oprah Met Harry and Meghan. That show, if Philip did see it, is unlikely to have improved his view of the medium as a conduit for royal business.
The duke’s own climactic screen appearances were at a remove, portrayed first by Matt Smith and then Tobias Menzies in the Netflix royal docudrama The Crown. (Jonathan Pryce will act out the later years in series five and six.) The duke was characterised as a proud, arrogant, short-tempered man who struggled with playing second fiddle to his wife’s majestic solo, at a time when patriarchy prevailed in all other parts of society. It was also suggested that his frustration may have imperilled his marriage vows on occasion. It would have been hard to imagine the BBC or ITV risking such a depiction of living royals, but Netflix, American-funded and screening in cyberspace, is exempt from the traditions and regulations that often turn British networks, when dealing with the family, into quasi-state broadcasters.
A stark illustration of the liberties Netflix could claim was the callous calumny in season two of The Crown that Philip had been responsible, through selfish behaviour, for his sister’s death in a plane crash, by which he was for ever haunted. But, with a characteristically loose attitude towards chronology and accuracy that may not have been realised by all viewers of The Crown, both events and dates had been changed by screenwriter Peter Morgan. Indeed, with weird neatness, The Crown offered especially strong evidence for the duke’s later suspicion of television through a script that dealt with the documentary that had symbolised his early enthusiasm towards the medium.
During the fourth episode of the third season, Royal Family is being filmed at Buckingham Palace. However, Morgan moved the film’s transmission from 1969 to 1967, completely invented a subplot involving a Guardian interview with the duke’s seriously unwell mother, and showed the documentary receiving such uniformly brutal reviews that the Queen and her husband instruct the BBC never to repeat it after its single showing. This simplified – and falsified – Philip’s disillusionment with TV, which in reality was more prolonged and complex.
But the fact that he did eventually reach the position into which Morgan accelerated him means that an interesting decision for his executors and successors will be whether ever to release the unseen footage from Royal Family. If they do, historians will have great cause to thank the duke for a publicity decision that he personally came to regret.