The sixth of February 2022 marked the 70th anniversary of Her Majesty’s accession to the throne and thus the Platinum Jubilee of the Queen of Canada. Elizabeth II has become the first Sovereign to attain this milestone, and we shall certainly never live to see anything like it again.
To mark this unprecedented Platinum Jubilee, I would like to highlight the documentary that the BBC commissioned to mark Her Majesty’s Ruby Jubilee on 6 February 1992, called Elizabeth R: A Year in the Life of the Queen. The BBC also published a companion book by British historian and playwright Antony Jay called Elizabeth R: The Role of the Monarch Today. In retrospect, if we remember the Ruby Jubilee at all, we recall the Queen’s speech at Guidhall on 24 November where she dubbed 1992 “an annus horribilis.” But the content of this old documentary still remains fascinating and insightful today, thirty years later, and show help put 1992 into perspective.
Filmed from around November 1990 to November 1991, Elizabeth R premiered on Accession Day, 6 February 1992. The cameras captured such notable events as the state visit to the United States in May 1991– including the Royal Yacht Britannia’s reception in Miami and Her Majesty’s speech before a joint session of Congress and another speech with President Bush – and the G7 Summit in London in July 1991. The footage includes other historic moments, such as when the Queen first met Nelson Mandela at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHoGM) in Zimbabwe in October 1991. It begins with the state opening of parliament in November 1990 and ends with some footage at Balmoral in 1991.
Overall, Elizabeth R presented an unusually intimate portrait of the minutia of the Queen’s vocation and duties which no documentary since has matched. It also includes unscripted excerpts of conversations that Elizabeth II had with various public figures in the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, and the world. These amusing exchanges reveal the Queen’s surprisingly playful personality, witty banter, self-deprecating humour, and wry remarks, and hint at a penchant for mimicry. Contrary to the public persona that she has cultivated in reading off official speeches with measured delivery, Her Majesty seems very easily amused and laughs often. No documentary since, and no documentary before with the exception of Royal Family in 1969 (which the Palace has since disowned), has ever captured the personality and character of Elizabeth II so openly. If anything, some of these exchanges and conversations seem too frank and perhaps almost shocking at times. They even take away from the mystery that sustains majesty. But I so thoroughly enjoyed watching Elizabeth R and, indeed, have seen it probably at least a dozen times since first stumbling upon it in 2012.
For instance, during the reception aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia docked in Miami, Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s shows through when he keeps asking the Queen for decaffeinated coffee. “Is that decaf?”, he askes more than once. In another amusing scene at the G7 Summit in London in July 1991, Margaret Thatcher floats around in the background and cuts an almost tragic Shakespearian figure, a colossal prime minister betrayed by her parliamentary party and cut down a few months before. The former Conservative prime minister whom Thatcher herself deposed in 1975, Ted Heath, also made an appearance. The cameras capture an amusing exchange between the Queen, US Secretary of State James Baker, and Ted Heath at 1:32.00:
Baker: “I told Tariq Aziz [Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iraq] that he had six hours – exactly that – and also, we also told him exactly what would happen if they didn’t. And that’s what happened.
The Queen exclaims: “But he [Baker] couldn’t go to Baghdad like you [Heath] could.”
Heath: “Why not, ma’am? I went to Baghdad.”
The Queen laughs and say: “Yes, I know you did, but you’re expendable now! Ha-ha.”
Heath: “Yes, yes, I’m expendable, that’s true.”
The Queen: “You’re expendable. He [Baker] couldn’t go like that at that moment.”
The late Ian Holm (perhaps best known for my peers for his role as Bilbo Baggins) narrates Elizabeth R; however, the document also includes several snippets of the Queen’s own personal narration in which she explains her duties and functions as Sovereign in what amount to the closest that she has come to giving a formal interview. Edward Mizoeff, who directed the production, told newspapers at the time that he spent some six months persuading the Palace to commission the documentary in the first place, and acknowledged that convincing Her Majesty to provide narrating voiceovers proved most difficult:
Eminent 19th-century English commentator Walter Bagehot once wrote, the “magic of monarchy” would be seriously threatened if “light [were] let in on it”; no one apparently understands this better than Queen Elizabeth II. Participating, therefore, in such a behind-the-scenes documentary was, so it seems, not an easy thing to reconcile herself to.
“My impression was that she needed to be convinced it was a good idea,” says Mirzoeff. Perhaps even more momentous, the filmmaker managed – after six months of talks with palace officials – to get her to do voice-over commentary to complement the footage.
“The Queen just doesn’t do that sort of thing,” he notes, “which is why it took so much [persuasion]. And she was nervous about it. But once she started doing it, she became relaxed, which I think comes across in the program. It was a really significant thing to do, and it made a huge amount of difference.”
Quite simply, the Palace would not commission this sort of documentary again today; indeed, subsequent BBC productions like Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work from 2007 and Andrew Marr’s Diamond Queen series from 2012 only include Her Majesty’s scripted and recorded remarks and none of the impromptu dialogue and voiceover narration that made Elizabeth R so natural and real.
The documentary showed how the Queen’s Private Secretaries liaise with Number 10 Downing Street to coordinate the wording of the annual Christmas Broadcast. (We later see the famous naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough working with the Queen at the recording of the message). It then follows Her Majesty on a Royal Tour to the north of England and includes another bit of her narration:
“I don’t think that you can stay in London all the time. You have to visit other parts of the country, either to find out what’s going on or try and encourage people in different areas – some of which have unemployment, some of which have new factories – and I think the possibility of meeting more people is very important. A lot of people don’t come to London very often, so we travel to them instead.”
Ian Holm’s narration explains that the Queen undertakes these royal tours and opens hospitals and names ships and visits with Britons not as head of state but rather as “head of the nation.” The Sovereign undertakes not merely legal-constitutional duties within the State but duties and obligations to civil society outside of the State.
The Dine-and-Sleep from April 1991 illustrated how the Queen can relate to various political parties in the House of Commons, including both her ministers and members of the loyal opposition. The Palace invited both the Conservative cabinet and Labour shadow cabinet to a dinner and reception (in evening wear, or black tie as we would say here) at Windsor Castle in its great banquet hall. Guests would then spend the night. It illustrates that the Sovereign owes fealty to no political party, maintains neutrality, and acts on the advice of ministers, of whichever party or parties happen to form government at the time. As far as I know, no equivalent to the Dine-and-Sleep takes place in Canada, nor presumably in the other Realms either. Sadly, the fire that destroyed large portions of the castle in November 1992 might have halted this tradition.
But I couldn’t help but think that the Queen told Neil Kinnock, leader of the opposition and of the Labour Party, the story of de-Gartered treasonous knights because Kinnock is a republican – a word of warning, perhaps. Whilst entertaining guests in the royal library at Windsor with excerpts of Queen Victoria’s expurgated diary, Her Majesty revealed, “I keep a diary. But it’s not really a diary like Queen Victoria’s, you know?, or as detailed as that.” One wonders if future historians will ever be able to read it and glean anything from it.
Elizabeth R features other such tidbits as a monthly meeting of the Privy Council, where the Queen has continued the tradition of her ancestor Queen Victoria that keeps such meetings short. She forces ministers to stand as she gives her approval to Orders-in-Council verbally. She also jokes here that “Scotland does things in a slightly different way.”
The documentary ends with some scenes from August 1991 at Balmoral where Her Majesty held a weekly audience with her Prime Minister, John Major. She explained her duties here and the constitutional relationship between her and her prime ministers in another bit of narration:
“I have had quite a lot of prime ministers, staring with Winston. And some stayed longer than others. They unburden themselves or tell me what’s going on, or if they’ve got any problems. And sometimes one can help in that way, too. They know that one can be impartial, so to speak. I think that it’s rather nice to feel that one is a sort of sponge, and everyone can come and tell them things. And some things stay there, some things come out the other hear, and some things never come out at all. One just knows about it, y’know? And occasionally, you can be able to put one’s point of view, when perhaps they hadn’t seen it from that angle.”
But Elizabeth R began with perhaps the most poignant and important bit of narration accompanying the footage of the state opening of parliament on 7 November 1990 where Her Majesty laments that she became Queen too early but pledges to continue for the rest of her life.
“In a way, I didn’t have an apprenticeship – my father died much too young – and so it was all a very sudden kind of taking on and making the best job you can. It’s a question of maturing into something that one has got used to doing, and accepting the fact that here you are and that it’s your fate, because I think continuity is very important. It is a job for life.”
Sandringham House issued a press release from Her Majesty the Queen on 5 February 2022, the day before Accession Day, in which she reiterated the same promise: “It gives me pleasure to renew to you the pledge I gave in 1947 that my life will always be devoted to your service.”
Her Majesty has certainly made good on her vow. Long may she continue to reign.
 Antony Jay, Elizabeth R: The Role of the Monarchy Today (London: Crown Copyright, 1992). Jay also co-wrote the scripts for the famous political satires Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.
 Elizabeth II, “A Speech by the Queen on the 40th Anniversary of Her Succession (Annus Horribilis Speech),” 24 November 1992.
 Linda Joffee, “Edward Mirzoeff’s ‘Elizabeth R’ Is an Affectionate Look at the Elusive Monarch,” The Christian Science Monitor, 10 September 1992.
A beautiful tribute, James! Thank you.