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Since the death of Diana almost 10 years ago, and the consequential number of salacious docs on the Windsor family, it’s understandable if the British Monarchy’s first instinct is to mistrust the camera. Even before the infamous Paris crash, it was still rare for documentary filmmakers to gain access into the inner workings of the Royal Family, but London-based copro partners HTI and RDF Television have managed to do it twice in as many years, first with 2005′s The Queen’s Castle and now again with the upcoming The Monarchy (w/t).
When it came time for the first doc to launch on Easter Sunday two years ago, BBC1 was preoccupied with its massive relaunch of Dr. Who to mass promote The Queen’s Castle. Despite little publicity, and to the surprise of the Beeb, 6.5 million (a 27.1% share) tuned in to the first episode of the observational series. During its three-week run, the viewer numbers continued to climb, peaking at 7.6 million during its last episode thanks to an impromptu five-minute insert of exclusive footage from Prince Charles’ and Camilla’s wedding, which had literally happened hours before the broadcast. ‘The production team worked 36 hours straight,’ says HTI MD Andy Goodsir, who has developed and exec produced both projects. (RDF’s Stephen Lambert also serves as ep on the new series.)
Boosted by impressive share numbers and trust from the monarchy, Goodsir pitched a second look at the Royals: this time, about their working lives. He was a little nervous to pitch since an internal restructuring at the BBC had moved The Queen’s Castle‘s original commissioning team to other divisions. Goodsir also came to the table without expressed clearance from the Royal family. The BBC wouldn’t move forward without confirmation of access, but the Royal Household would need to know the BBC would commission the project. ‘It was classic chicken and egg, and we were sandwiched between two institutions,’ says Goodsir. Additionally, there was extra pressure to get the approvals from both sides before the end of 2005 so the production team could start its year-in-the-life look from January.
He says there were a few key points that helped expedite the process on both sides. The BBC granted the documentary ‘Landmark Status,’ meaning significant commitment investment by the Beeb and a leg up to impress the Royal household. ‘In the hierarchy of documentaries, these are the projects where the reputation of the channel rests,’ says Martin Davidson, executive producer of specialist factual at the BBC and a former executive producer representing RDF for The Queen’s Castle.
Another case for the creation of the doc was a change in England’s national curriculum that excluded monarch history. ‘Kids would grow up in the UK without actually understanding the role of the monarchy,’ says Goodsir. One final point that may have sealed the deal was employing the same director and producer of the first doc. Matt Reid and Freya Sampson had spent over a year filming inside Windsor Castle and gained the trust of the monarchy and its employees. Still, Reid was a freelancer in demand, and Goodsir was essentially asking him to sit on a potential 16 month long assignment and not sign up with other offers. ‘It became quite tense as to whether he could do it in the delay of the formal confirmation, but I was lucky to work with people who were prepared to give us the flexibility required and were ultimately committed to the concept,’ he says.
The Royal Household, who tends to think in decades rather than days or weeks, understandably doesn’t work on the same schedule as nets or production entities. Although verbal approval was expressed relatively quickly, Goodsir didn’t get written confirmation from the Royal Household until December 23, which meant the back-office production team turned everything around very quickly in order to start filming on January 8, 2006. ‘This is where coproing with a company like RDF became critical,’ says Goodsir.
The main difference between this project and The Queen’s Castle was sheer number of varying engagements and the amount of travel involved. The Royal Family, both senior and junior members, have about 3,000 events in the UK and overseas each year. Goodsir’s challenge was to choose and film the events at home and abroad that would not only present a true reflection of how the Royals operate, but also give viewers exclusive access to all levels of the family – even members not immediately known by the public.
The Beeb’s Davidson says the BBC initially had a shopping list of high points to cover, but it proved impossible to anticipate which events would be available to film. One of the most impromptu assignments was a highly confidential trip made by Prince Philip to Iraq. The military and the Royal Household required Goodsir to keep the details of the trip confidential until the very last moment. Reid was given relatively short notice that he would be flying out on a military plane to Basra via Bahrain with the Prince.
This was not only challenging for the obvious safety reasons, but also because of production and financial issues, such as covering Reid and his HD camera for war zone filming. ‘We didn’t have insurance for an HD camera entering a war zone in our budget, let alone Matt,’ says Goodsir, but exclusively capturing 85-year-old Prince Philip flying into Iraq to address his regiment was reason enough to loosen the purse strings.
Issues that arise during an international event can affect domestic shoots as well. Audio, for example, proves to be a challenge at every shoot. While some members such as Princes Charles, Andrew and Edward will wear radio microphones, the Queen will not – and using booms can be distracting during an unobtrusive shoot. ‘Our solution is to map out the event and mike the people who will be near the Queen so the team can pick up her audio,’ says Goodsir.
Another key to filming was using a bare bones team – something Goodsir learned from the first doc. To keep crew numbers low, the executive producers are rarely involved in the location filming. Most times it’s just a sound recordist and Reid working the camera. ‘It’s such an advantage that Matt is both director and cameraman. We learned if you keep it lean and mean, it can be advantageous,’ he says.
Each event filmed does require, what Goodsir calls, ‘negotiating access to the access,’ meaning letter exchanges continue well past the initial confirmation. The Royal Household’s press secretary and the Queen’s private secretary write on behalf of the production team to gain access to international events, such as the Queen’s state visit to the States planned for this May. Goodsir says this trip will likely be one entire episode of the six-part, one-hour series, and may include access to a three-day White House visit, and possibly the Queen attending the Kentucky Derby for the first time.
It was this dedication to the Queen’s US trip (or was it Helen Mirren’s winning Oscar?) that may have prompted The Monarchy to secure a coveted primetime slot on ABC in the States. Other pre-sales include Canada’s CBC, Nine Network in Australia and Germany’s ZDF. Fellow RDF Media company RDF Rights will be repping the series at MIPTV.