An unscripted Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth, at the Palace of Westminster in London in 2013, is one of three people – along with the archbishop of Canterbury and the crown jeweller – who can touch the crowns.
Queen Elizabeth, at the Palace of Westminster in London in 2013, is one of three people – along with the archbishop of Canterbury and the crown jeweller – who can touch the crowns. PHOTO: REUTERS

The monarch, who has never agreed to an interview on camera, breaks her silence in The Coronation, a documentary about the 1953 ceremony

LONDON • Would you watch a television chat with a 91-year-old woman? What if she is Queen Elizabeth II.

The Coronation, a documentary on the 1953 ceremony that aired on the BBC in Britain and Smithsonian Channel in the United States on Sunday, marks a thaw for the Queen, who has never agreed to an interview on camera.

It represents the culmination of 20 years of petitions to the palace, lobbying with courtiers and a television culture that has, with popular cable series The Crown, yielded her inner life to the domain of fiction.

Mr Anthony Geffen, the film's producer, said The Crown was a key element of the case he and commentator Alastair Bruce brought to Buckingham Palace early last year.

"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 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", Mr Geffen noted, 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 believed to be brought into contact with God.

Ancient rules surround every aspect of the ceremony. Mr Geffen was prohibited from filming the two crowns used in the ceremony from above, because that is the vantage point reserved for God.

The Coronation marks the first time the crown jewels, a collection of regalia used in British coronations, have been filmed, and offers hypnotic footage of crowns rotating slowly on velvet-swathed stands, with resolution so high that you can see motes of dust in the light beams.

For decades, Britain's royal family has measured out media access with teaspoons. Queen Elizabeth led this approach at 26, siding with palace traditionalists who feared that allowing cameras into her coronation would erode the mystique.

The decision provoked such public outrage that she backpedalled, 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.

For the most part, Britain's broadcasters have refrained from pushing back against the palace which has the power to curtail access, said Mr Valentine Low who covers the royal family for The Times of London.

"The broadcaster is essentially going to play ball," he added. "They know they've 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 Queen Elizabeth in unscripted moments.

In preparation for the shoot, two crowns were removed from the Tower of London and sent 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 says. "Because if you did, your neck would break."

Mr Geffen, whose previous subjects have included former United States president Barack Obama and the late Iraqi strongman 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 - along with the archbishop of Canterbury and the crown jeweller - who can touch it.

"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."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2018, with the headline 'An unscripted Queen Elizabeth'. Print Edition | Subscribe