It’s the Ultimate TV Prize: An Unscripted Queen Elizabeth

It’s the Ultimate TV Prize: An Unscripted Queen Elizabeth

The argument came at an auspicious time, ahead of the tide of cotton-candy 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 said, and were looking for ways to focus attention on the more solemn aspects of the monarchy.


The Queen Does Not Care for Her Carriage

“Horrible,” Queen Elizabeth II recalls in a clip from “The Coronation.” She adds: “Not very comfortable.”

Publish Date January 12, 2018.

Photo by ITV Archive.

Nothing could be as solemn as the coronation, in which the monarch is anointed with oil and is believed to be brought into direct contact with God.

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

“They didn’t want you to really stand above them at all,” he said. “You’ve got to realize, the crowns are considered quite sacred, and even filming them is seen as if it could devalue them in some way.”

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


See the Crown Jewels

“The Coronation” marks the first time the crown jewels, a collection of regalia used in British coronations, have been filmed.

Publish Date January 12, 2018.

Photo by Pool photo by Eddie Mulholland.

For decades, Britain’s royal family has measured out media access with teaspoons.

Queen Elizabeth led this approach at the age of 26, siding with palace traditionalists who feared that allowing cameras into her coronation would erode the monarchy’s mystique. The decision provoked such public outrage that she then backpedaled, 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.

A 15-page contract leaked to The Independent, a daily newspaper, in 2015, laid out an eye-popping list of conditions for interviewing Prince Charles, including the right to preapprove the wording of questions, and to review the film at the “rough cut” and “fine cut” stages, with the option to withdraw the interview at any point.


Queen Elizabeth with her maids of honor at her coronation on June 2, 1953.


Alienating the royal family, meanwhile, has proved damaging to broadcast careers.

In 2007, a trailer for a BBC documentary was edited, inaccurately, to make it appear that the queen had angrily left a photo session with Annie Leibovitz. (The footage had actually shown her walking into the session.) The corporation waited until the next day to publish a correction, allowing the story to proliferate in tabloids and stoking such resentment that the head of one of the BBC’s TV networks, Peter Fincham, was forced to resign.

A reminder of that hazard came this week, when Rigby & Peller, a bra manufacturer that had designed undergarments for the royal family since 1960, lost its royal warrant, a coveted designation, after its director, in her autobiography, “Storm in a D-Cup,” described interacting with the queen. Buckingham Palace gave no reason for the decision.

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


Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth trying on the Imperial State Crown in the Netflix series “The Crown”

Netflix, via Associated Press

“The broadcaster is essentially going to play ball,” he said. “They know they have got 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 revealing, unscripted moments.

In preparation for the shoot, two crowns were removed from the Tower of London and transported, under secretive conditions, 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.”


The Queen Inspects Her Crown

Queen Elizabeth II discusses the Imperial State Crown in a clip from “The Coronation.”

Publish Date January 12, 2018.

Photo by Royal Collection Trust, via Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

“You can’t look down to read the speech,” she remarks. “Because if you did, your neck would break.”

Mr. Geffen, whose previous subjects have included Barack Obama and 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 on earth — along with the archbishop of Canterbury and the crown jeweler — who are allowed to touch it, he said.

“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.”


Queen Elizabeth, carrying the orb and the scepter, returns to Buckingham Palace after the coronation ceremony.

Pool photo

The impression is one of a woman considering her legacy, but Mr. Geffen warned against reading too much into that.

“Some people thought, ‘Gosh, now that she’s done that, she’s going to resign,’” he said. “But from what I gathered, from everything in that room and from that day, there was absolutely never an intention of that.”

He added, though, that the next monarch is almost certain to simplify and shorten the ceremony. Mr. Geffen, whose lineage can be traced to Anne Boleyn, a queen beheaded by her husband, Henry VIII, stopped there, noting jokingly that Tudor-era statutes made it a crime to plan the next coronation.

“You’re not allowed to talk about the next coronation, you know,” he said. “It’s treason. So you have to be careful.”

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