The Windsors finally get their Kardashian moment in the new season of The Crown, where, nestled in the fourth episode, “Bubbikins,” an intriguing reality-television subplot takes shape: Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), sensing the royal family is losing favor with the common folk in the Swinging Sixties, decides to commission a documentary in an attempt to humanize them. (And also, uh, to maybe secure some more tax money for the family.) No acting, no artifice, just the real thing — nothing is off-limits, even the corgi-filled barbecues! “We’re being filmed watching television,” Princess Margaret deadpans. “People might watch us watching television on their own television sets at home. This is really plumbing new depths of banality.”
The reception was … brutal, both in the purview of The Crown’s fictionalized realm and in real life. A joint ITV-BBC documentary, Royal Family, was indeed spearheaded by the Windsors (and their royal press secretary at the time, William Heseltine) and released in 1969. The concept was fairly simple as reality-show conceits go: The family allowed a film crew to follow them at agreed-upon times for a year, which, in turn, gave the public unprecedented access to what happens behind closed doors at Buckingham Palace. There’s a picnic, some dinner-table talk, and even an ice-cream trip. Perhaps the most scandalous thing is Princess Anne calling a lunch spread an “absolute failure.” Some 75 percent of the U.K. was estimated to have tuned in, but it received such significant backlash that it’s been banned from broadcast since 1972. (This is due to Queen Elizabeth II maintaining the copyright of the film.)
Interestingly, the only way someone can legally view the documentary in 2019 is by (1) being a credited researcher or historian, (2) obtaining written permission by Buckingham Palace, and (3) paying a cool £35 fee. Vulture would have absolutely gone through these reasonable steps to watch it, but, in a cruel twist of fate, you must physically trek to the BBC headquarters in London for access. So, we’re left with a decent replacement: A few Royal Family clips that have been dispersed throughout the years in other documentaries, which gives us a taste of what exactly the big fuss was about.
It — and we can’t stress this enough — isn’t particularly compelling TV.
But the royals don’t want us to watch it and we can actually see the queen smiling a few times, which makes it pretty good by default, innit?