“This is supposed to be like a secret door” said a palace functionary, pulling open the panelling of a Buckingham Palace reception room to reveal an ante-chamber. The hint was obvious. Our Queen, ITV’s feature-length documentary about the Diamond Jubilee Year, was going to grant us special access to the back rooms of monarchy.
About an hour and a half later we got the wider context from which that insinuating clip had been taken. So, what lay behind the secret door? Another bland palace ante-room. And in the far corner, the portal to the Queen’s private residence, unmistakably out of bounds. By then it will have dawned on even the most hopeful monarchist that Our Queen was going to offer nothing in the way of startling revelation – more a glossily illustrated souvenir brochure to mark a high-water mark of public affection. Nothing here that anyone was likely to lose their jobs over, as happened when the BBC conducted a similar exercise six years ago.
Look closely though and you could occasionally spot the director Michael Waldman slipping in details that glanced in the direction of something more questioning – local colour that was also a nudge towards reflection.
As she waited for the Prime Minister to arrive for his weekly audience, the Queen pushed a one-bar electric fire into place on a grand and elaborate fireplace. It seemed like the perfect metaphor for a modern constitutional monarchy, a modestly functional object dwarfed by spectacular, historical ornamentation.
At Balmoral, Waldman focused on a red squirrel, and you wondered whether he intended you to think of the Royals too as an endangered native species too, only able to survive in a protected enclave. There was one bona-fide scoop, the only problem being that it’s embargoed for 30 years. The Marquess of Salisbury revealed that at least one of those asked to donate funds for the Jubilee River pageant had asked whether a peerage might be forthcoming in return. The Marquess declined but implied that names would be named in 2042.
Elsewhere though Our Queen offered an utterly familiar account of the monarchy at work. We followed her on several visits as she demonstrated her almost unerring power to reduce people to a simpering daze and watched as she performed her ceremonial duties with steady stoicism. Her regular audiences with her First Ministers involve, we were told, “very frank conversation”. But if she said anything off-message in reply to Mr Cameron’s thrilling report that he’d just visited “a tractor factory in Basildon” we didn’t get to hear it. And only a cheeky heckle from Dennis Skinner at the State Opening of Parliament – now as much part of constitutional ritual as Black Rod’s thumping – broke the reverence.
What you had a lot of time to think about was what the Queen is actually for, a question explicitly answered by some contributors. Boris Johnson thought the monarchy was “one of the big, big selling points of this country”. “You can’t stop these people”, he said, praising the royals’ workload, “and by judiciously removing bits of their clothing from time to time they sell Britain abroad in the most extraordinary way”. Two Northern Ireland clerics talked of her as a kind of living glue, able to help mend a fractured community simply by crossing an Armagh street from a Protestant to a Catholic church. Others mentioned, as someone always does, “continuity” – as if it was a virtue in itself.
But it was actually the celebrities that got closest to her current magic. “She’s, like, one of the most famous people alive today”, said the boxer Anthony Ogogo, at a Buckingham Palace reception for British Olympians. “She never breaks out of character. She’s method,” said Robbie Williams admiringly at a Royal Variety Performance, unflustered by the fact that she’d just mistaken him for David Walliams. The A-lister of A-listers, in short – never available for money, but, we like to think, sometimes on call for love. Of country, perhaps. And just possibly, as the Our Queen title hinted, of us.