behind the scenes

Meet The Crown’s Royal Protocol Adviser

“God Save the Queen” better be playing in its entirety right now. Photo: Courtesy of Des Willie/Netflix

One of the most vital roles on Netflix’s The Crown is held by someone audiences never get to see. David Rankin-Hunt, fondly referred to by most of The Crown’s crew as “Major Dave,” has worked for the royal family for 33 years, and now serves as the show’s royal protocol adviser. For every official state dinner, every public event, every speech and trip and ceremony the show depicts, Major Dave is there to make sure all the details are absolutely correct.

When I spoke with him, Rankin-Hunt first patiently explained to me the many positions he’s held for the royal family over the last three decades. His first role was as registrar of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, a position that involved overseeing all of the royal family’s ceremonial responsibilities, things like state visits, royal funerals, investitures, and public parties. He then became the administrator of the Royal Collection (the royal family’s art collection is the largest privately held art collection in the world!), and has been appointed to a special committee that plans for the Queen’s funeral. In the ’90s, Rankin-Hunt was named the Norfolk Herald of Arms Extraordinary. This last one, he told me, means that “on certain occasions I wear a funny uniform.”

Much of Rankin-Hunt’s input on The Crown happens before any filming takes place. “I get all the scripts well in advance, and I annotate them all well in advance, and I have a meeting with all the directors and go through line by line and make points about what is being said, what is being worn, and the theme of the story,” he said. Not all of his suggestions are implemented, he told me. “It’s up to them to say, ‘Yes, that’s fine but we want to do it [another] way,’ because I’m an adviser and I don’t have an executive authority.” Still, he said, “very often, they will listen, they will change things.”

When his suggestions are not implemented, Rankin-Hunt told me, it’s often because he doesn’t have a background in film, so he’ll point out correct ceremonial protocol that’s just not plausible for storytelling or technical purposes. If the royal family walks out of the palace and a band plays “God Save the Queen,” for instance, obviously the band should play the entire anthem before anyone says anything or the scene moves forward. But a minute-long anthem is a long time for a scene, much too long for a small moment that’s meant to be more about some dialogue between the Queen and Prince Philip. Instead, The Crown might have the band play only a snippet of the anthem before the story moves along. Still, Major Dave lets the production know about those kinds of departures from protocol, just in case they want to correct it.

Major Dave’s contributions to The Crown do not end with preproduction advice, either. On the day I visited the set, I watched a small kerfuffle take place when Rankin-Hunt realized the staff attending the royal family at a public event were all wearing roses on their lapels. This was extremely incorrect, he told me; they should all be wearing carnations. The roses were shuffled away and replacement carnations quickly brought in.

In a scene later in the day, the royal family greeted members of the public, and PAs contacted Rankin-Hunt over the crew walkie-talkies. Should the public all take off their hats when the royals first come into view, The Crown production wanted to know? Regardless of whether they should, Rankin-Hunt told production staff, in reality many members of the public would be confused about what to do. Some would take their hats off and some wouldn’t. Crew members nodded and radioed back to a group of extras, telling half of them to remove their hats.

Rankin-Hunt’s presence on The Crown is a testament to the show’s immense attention to detail, just one piece of its overall commitment to verisimilitude. You can see it in the show’s costume and hair choices, its meticulous settings, and in the way it weaves careful research into its storytelling. Rankin-Hunt travels with the production when they shoot any scene where his advice might be necessary — he told me he’d soon be going to Spain to help with scenes they’d be shooting there later in the week.

Aside from his unique usefulness, many members of The Crown’s production staff are clearly also very fond of Rankin-Hunt. While chatting with the crew, more than one person responded with a happy “Major Dave!” when I mentioned I’d spoken with him. And his immense well of knowledge is endlessly fascinating, even for people who spend months and years of their lives immersed in The Crown and the particular ins and outs of the royal family’s life. Between some necessary but unexciting crowd-setting shots, I listened while members of the crew hung out and just asked Rankin-Hunt questions about the palace and the royal staff, apparently just out of sheer curiosity. Are members of the Yeoman Guards allowed to be married? they asked him. What about footmen? Are footmen allowed to wear wedding rings? Where do footmen live? Are there requirements about how tall a Yeoman Guard should be? 

Yes, Major Dave told them. Footmen are allowed to be married, and married footmen are given a flat in the Royal Mews. He was not sure about the wedding rings question, but certainly not during the time period The Crown was currently filming. Yeomen Guards can be any height, but they are matched into different companies so that each company’s height will be relatively uniform. With that, the director called action again, and Rankin-Hunt turned back to watch the monitors. Philip was holding an umbrella in this sequence, and there were some questions about whether he was allowed to actually open it.

Meet The Crown’s Royal Protocol Adviser