And for an enthralling 110 minutes, with a two-minute interval, the nation was spell-bound. For a generation brought up to view the Queen and her family as remote figures, what unfolded was nothing short of a sensation.
The royals were shown as a real family, eating, chatting and laughing, while dispelling some of the myths that had grown around them.
Viewers saw the Queen in a village store buying an ice cream for five-year-old Prince Edward and handing over a half crown — 12 and a half pence — in payment. So much for a monarch reputed not to carry money.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Andrew are pictured decorating the Christmas tree at Windsor Castle on Christmas Eve in 1968
There was Princess Anne, glamorous and leggy, grilling sausages on a barbecue, and Prince Charles making a salad dressing at a family picnic with his mother telling him it was too oily and needed ‘a bit more vinegar’.
By showing them both at work and play, the film promoted the idea that the royals were ordinary people doing an extraordinary job. It was a bold move designed to revive public interest in the Royal Family at a time when it was deemed to be out of touch.
The programme was repeated a week later on ITV and again in 1972 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Queen’s accession and then, apparently on Palace orders, it was locked away and it has never been seen in full since — until now.
Earlier this month Royal Family was uploaded to YouTube — it is unclear by whom — where it has been seen thousands of times. And even though more than half a century has passed since it was first broadcast, Buckingham Palace’s stance on it has remained unchanged.
Viewers saw the Queen in a village store buying an ice cream for five-year-old Prince Edward and handing over a half crown — 12 and a half pence — in payment. So much for a monarch reputed not to carry money
The Queen visits George Strachan Ltd General store with son Edward to buy sweets and ice cream in Balmoral
Why after all these years should such sensitivity about the film endure? It was, after all, seen by 30 million people here and by an estimated 350 million around the world
Aides spoke of how ‘things pop up on the internet that should not be there’ and assumed ‘it’s going to be taken down’. Sure enough, by late yesterday it was gone, replaced by a message that stated it was no longer available ‘due to a copyright claim by [the] BBC’.
Critics warned it let too much ‘daylight in on the magic’ of royalty
But why after all these years should such sensitivity about the film endure? It was, after all, seen by 30 million people here and by an estimated 350 million around the world.
Its impact was huge and its ground-breaking, informal style — although now looking rather dated — helped win over a legion of new fans for the monarchy.
But its critics believed that it let too much ‘daylight in on magic’ and not only ushered in the end of a deferential age, but drove ever- increasing media interest in the private lives of the royals.
Others argued that would have happened anyway and that the transformative moment was not the documentary, but the arrival on the scene just over a decade later of Lady Diana Spencer.
Prince Philip and Prince Edward during a family BBQ at Balmoral by the lake. There is a clip of Philip and Edward setting off across a lake in a rowing boat, with neither father nor son wearing a life jacket
Even at the time there was not universal appreciation. Sir David Attenborough, then a high-ranking BBC administrator, observed that Royal Family was ‘killing the monarchy’.
Later on there was even criticism from within the family. Princess Anne made her disdain clear, once saying: ‘I never liked the idea of Royal Family. I thought it was a rotten idea. The attention which had been brought upon one ever since one was a child . . . you just didn’t need any more.’
The distinguished Daily Mail television critic Peter Black put his finger on it when he wrote that people want ‘the royals to be seen doing what everyone else does and to remain quasi-religious totem poles as well’.
Is that the dilemma the Queen recognised and thus acted as she did to ban it from being viewed?
At the time of filming she was clearly in favour of it. A month before it was broadcast, she watched it in its entirety and the contents were finalised by an advisory committee chaired by Prince Philip.
The distinguished Daily Mail television critic Peter Black put his finger on it when he wrote that people want ‘the royals to be seen doing what everyone else does and to remain quasi-religious totem poles as well’. Pictured, watching television at Sandringham
Indeed Philip, together with Earl Mountbatten’s film maker son-in-law Lord Brabourne, had been the driving force behind the film.
He believed that the family needed to embrace the age of television which, because of its reach, could reinvigorate the royal brand.
And he supported the idea of a behind-the-scenes documentary because he felt there was ‘nothing between the court circular and the gossip columns’. When the discussions became serious, he insisted the Queen should be consulted.
She had one condition to which the BBC had to agree: if she didn’t like the film, it would be scrapped.
Richard Cawston, the BBC’s head of documentaries, was chosen as director and it was decided that the camera crew would be allowed to spend a year recording the activities of the family at home and abroad, including unrehearsed conversations.
Prince Charles teaches Prince Edward the cello. The 43 hours of film were eventually edited down to under two, and it was wild success with the public
It was a remarkable breakthrough, with Philip not only advising on the filming but chairing the joint BBC-ITV committee monitoring the programme.
His proposal was that the film would create a favourable impression of the monarchy and give the illusion of being less mysterious by merging private family moments with public performances.
The 43 hours of film were eventually edited down to under two, and it was wild success with the public. As royal biographer Hugo Vickers says: ‘There was huge excitement at the time because people had never seen the Queen in conversation, apart from the odd speech and Christmas broadcast.’
This was altogether something different. The Queen and Philip emerged as a crisply professional couple doing very efficiently the job they were trained to do. But it also showed them as human, hardworking and good humoured.
The Queen, in particular, comes across from the film as a decisive figure and very much in charge, whether it is which room a lunch should be held in, what outfits to wear or how a speech should be arranged.
Prince Andrew and Edward have a snowball fight. Lord Snowdon, who by then had been married to Princess Margaret for nine years, is seen in conversation with his mother-in-law, the Queen Mother. How does he address her? As ‘ma’am’
It also illustrated both the informality and rigid convention that rules royal lives. There is a clip of Philip and Edward setting off across a lake in a rowing boat, with neither father nor son wearing a life jacket.
Christmas, then held at Windsor Castle, is a gathering of the wider family.
Lord Snowdon, who by then had been married to Princess Margaret for nine years, is seen in conversation with his mother-in-law, the Queen Mother. How does he address her? As ‘ma’am’.
The documentary was broadcast ten days before Charles’s investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle and was designed to show what his future as monarch would be and how it is the crown that unites the United Kingdom.
Indeed, the film opens with Charles water-skiing in Malta, cycling and fishing, before cutting to the Queen feeding her horse carrots after Trooping the Colour, then opening letters at her desk.
Routine royal events, from presenting a medal to the poet Robert Graves to receiving Prime Minister Harold Wilson and holding a Privy Council, are interspersed with footage of Philip’s jet-setting life flying himself to engagements.
Prince Philip painting. The minutiae of royal life is especially noted. From the number of hands they have to shake on a South American tour — 2,500 each — to the nine speeches the Queen makes, the four wreathes she lays and 79 road journeys she takes
Several scenes show the royal couple in transit, reading newspapers on the Royal Train — and admiring a cartoon in one of them — as well as lamenting their lack of Portuguese on the way home from a tour of Brazil and Chile.
Some traditions are reassuringly familiar, such as the garden parties which have barely changed. At one point, Philip asks a decorated war veteran with typical blunt humour: ‘What’s that tie? Alcoholics Anonymous?’
The minutiae of royal life is especially noted. From the number of hands they have to shake on a South American tour — 2,500 each — to the nine speeches the Queen makes, the four wreathes she lays and 79 road journeys she takes.
But it is the family moments that made the film the success it was, from decorating the Christmas tree to Anne and Charles being winched from the deck of the Royal Yacht Britannia to an accompanying destroyer while both ships are at full pelt — and Andrew and Edward enjoying a snowball fight.
Watching it again yesterday, the film seems endearingly harmless but at the same time revealingly fascinating. It certainly does not appear intrusive, but there were two episodes which might explain the royal ban on it.
One focused on a cameo appearance by the newly arrived American ambassador Walter Annenberg presenting his credentials to the Queen when he bafflingly spoke of his official residence needing ‘elements of refurbishment and rehabilitation’.
When they were broadcast in the documentary his remarks made him a target of mockery for his apparent gaucheness.
Snobbish columnists attacked him and he was described as ‘the laughing stock of London’. Embarrassed, Annenberg offered his resignation over the matter.
His critics did not know he suffered from a lifelong speech impediment.
The royals later regretted not cutting that episode from the documentary and felt guilty that they had allowed him to become the butt of jokes.
The second incident came as the family gossiped over a cup of tea and the Queen explained how difficult it was to sometimes keep a straight face during engagements. She then related how the Home Secretary had said to her: ‘There’s a gorilla coming in.’
‘So I said: “What an extraordinary remark to make about someone — very unkind”. I stood in the middle of the room and pressed the bell and the doors opened and there was a gorilla. He had a short body and long arms. I had the most appalling trouble [not laughing].’
It is not known whom the Queen was referring to. The Home Secretary in 1969 was future Labour PM James Callaghan but it could, of course, have been an episode from years earlier.
Might this, though, be the reason why the documentary has remained under wraps?
Through the prism of modern life it does seem an uncharacteristically insensitive conversation, but at the time the comments barely raised an eyebrow.
Instead the public delighted in the Queen telling stories around the dining table about her everyday life.
Fifty years ago she had her reasons for not wanting this film to be broadcast again. Of one thing we can be sure after its rapid removal from YouTube — nothing has changed her mind since.