Common touch: How Queen Elizabeth learned to smile
A turning point for the queen, according to a royal watcher, was her Golden Jubilee in 2002
On the day of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, the royal press corps only got details of the bride’s dress moments before she arrived.
“We had all been tearing our hair out waiting for it,” recalls royal watcher Robert Hardman, for a quarter of a century a leading member of what he refers to as the “royal anoraks”.
For many, the big reveal was that Meghan’s dress was by Givenchy, but for 53-year-old Hardman, “the really interesting detail” was tucked away in the small print. The Duchess of Sussex’s veil was embroidered with the wildflowers of all 53 Commonwealth nations.
“Their inclusion was very classy on her part,” he reflects, as we meet within a stone’s throw of Kensington Palace. “It was a surprise for Harry, and for the Queen. Though Her Majesty may not have spotted them immediately, she is probably the only person in the world who could name all 53 Commonwealth wildflowers.”
In the first of Hardman’s two-part series, Queen of the World, 18 months in the making and now in the UK, he charts Elizabeth II’s bond with the Commonwealth – 20% of the world’s land mass and 2.4 billion members of the global population.
“I have never heard her use the word ‘legacy’,” he argues, “but that’s what we are talking about.”
On the death of her father, George VI, in 1952, the post-colonial “family of nations” was in its infancy. The new queen’s coronation robe the following year contained the emblems of its then just eight members.”
“Everything else was inherited – the Crown, the jewels, the army, the Church of England – but,” says Hardman, “the one thing that wasn’t inherited was the Commonwealth. Her appointment as its head wasn’t, and over 70 years she has earned it. That’s the key to understanding how she feels about it.”
In the documentaries, Hardman and his team are given exclusive behind-the-scenes access, including the moment when the Duchess of Sussex sees her wedding dress again for the first time since her nuptials in May. As Meghan reflects on her day, she also speaks of her excitement and nerves about the couple’s first official overseas visit next month, to the Commonwealth nations of Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga.
That visit will mark a new beginning in a special relationship that, at 92, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch continues to hand-nurture. In his films, the Queen is often seen laughing. “She laughs more now,” notes Hardman. “When I first donned the royal cagoule in 1992, they were gloomier times. She was definitely more serious.”
The turning point, he believes, was her Golden Jubilee in 2002. “It was such a public reaffirmation of everyone’s fondness and belief in her.”
The new-look, the more easily amused queen is also on display as she records her Christmas message. “It is the only speech she makes each year that is her speech, not something done on the advice of ministers,” says Hardman.
“She has a reputation as ‘One-Take-Windsor’ – and it is all going fine until the sound engineer starts flinching.
“Could we maybe go again from the top?” he asks apologetically, explaining there is bird noise outside. For a moment, she looks very serious, but then she breaks into a laugh, as if: ‘Oh well, never mind’.”
In her 10th decade, the queen apparently no longer lets anything faze her. At another moment during filming, at the Commonwealth Leaders’ Summit in London earlier this year, the then foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, turns up late for a royal receiving line. “The people around the queen got terribly anxious and annoyed, and she had to be steered round to meet him in an extra receiving line of one. He was busy tousling his hair, but she was very relaxed. She has seen it all before.”
It is these small details that make these portraits of the royal family so compelling. In Queen of the World, Hardman has a conversation with the Princess Royal as she watches old cine film of her early excursions with her parents – or “the Queen and the Duke” as she refers to them.
Princess Anne bemoans how many members of the public today greet her holding their smartphone or iPad. She tells them to choose between talking or taking her picture. She doesn’t allow both.
“She won’t shake their hands, either,” adds Hardman.
“The rest of the royals all do it now, but she’s old-school.”
One of his happiest memories of when formality can fade away concerns the Duke of Edinburgh.
For his series on Windsor Castle, Hardman had requested a meeting with the duke as Chief Warden of Windsor Great Park (the Queen herself, by royal protocol, never gives interviews). Palace staff set up a 15-minute informal chat with the duke, dangling the faint hope of him agreeing to a five-minute segment on camera. But once there, the duke quickly ended up escorting Hardman and his cameraman round the Great Park.
“He just stood up and said: ‘Your car or mine?’ Of course, we went in his and ended up spending a whole day with him driving, and me asking questions. If he felt like talking about stuff, he did – anything from how to plant an oak tree to the problem of ‘tree-huggers’.”
The duke has now, of course, retired from public duties, but the queen continues tirelessly. There have, though, been some adjustments made for age.
She no longer, for example, travels the Commonwealth. Taking her place these past eight years has been the Prince of Wales, who was earlier this year agreed as the next head of the Commonwealth by its leaders.
But those flowers on Meghan’s wedding dress, and the recent appointment of the Duke of Sussex by his grandmother as Commonwealth Youth Ambassador, give another glimpse of the future, estimates Hardman.
“The Commonwealth is clearly going to be important in their lives. It is there that Harry is going to be able to help his brother, William, with a lot of the heavy lifting.”
– © The Daily Telegraph