“Do you know the Queen?” people always asked. “No, but he knows me,” I would reply. It’s not arrogance, it’s an obvious fact. The Queen must know who is reporting on her for BBC television because, as former press secretary Michael Shea said: “Fifty percent of the Queen’s work is visible.”
I saw him weave his magical, very personal magic from Kathmandu in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, to the frozen wastes of Saskatchewan, Canada, to the idyllic Bahamas, to a subtropical swamp on the North Island. New Zealand, someone decided to get up early for the Queen’s official inauguration one morning in 1987.
Wherever she was, whatever the program of the day, two things were constant: the Queen and her kind, encouraging smile, her interest in everything and the way she made people feel special for being with her.
What is the essence of good morals? Putting others at ease by not doing or saying anything that might make them uncomfortable or upset. For 70 years, in 114 countries, the Queen has done just that. He conveyed an air of what I can only describe as pure benevolence—kindness, generosity of spirit, goodwill embodied.
Can virtue be strong? So it was with the Queen. So I had a hard time reconciling the sight of the casket draped in her personal standard at her funeral with the little woman with the bright blue eyes I’d been watching all over the world. A woman who has seen everything – the best and the worst of time and people – and never doubts that all will be well in the end thanks to her unwavering faith in God.
I was eight years old when he ascended the throne. I wrote my first royal story in 1962, when I was 19, and he was only 10 years out of his 70 years on the throne.
As the BBC’s court reporter, I followed the Queen where she went, with the Buckingham Palace pass that allowed me to park in the courtyard and enter the Privy Purse door when I needed it, watching her work and how she did it.
Did I know him? No, very few did, just family and trusted friends. I never interviewed him because he never gave one. But I had a distinct impression of the late Queen.
She was a countrywoman at heart, a Sandringham squire or a Balmoral laird, never happier than riding at the Royal Stud near Anmer Hall wearing jodhpurs and an Hermès scarf tied under her chin.
There he would observe the stallions covering the mares. There was nothing in the breeding of thoroughbreds that the Queen did not know or have a reputation for.
He was naturally intelligent and humble, and when his duties allowed him to be at home, he thought of personally feeding and walking his dogs before returning home at night.
A particularly handsome child and strikingly beautiful young woman, she was completely vain and never aspired to be a fashion statement, regarding dresses, hats and jewels as necessary props for the public performance she perfected over the decades.
The work was great. He wasn’t. I enjoyed occasional glimpses of the real Queen: leaning on the rail of the Royal Yacht, watching every move of Britannia’s Royal Marines’ Beating Retreat, bouncing on the balls of her feet to every beat of the music.
Only occasionally did the mask of perfection fall off. When the Bahamian prime minister took some Commonwealth leaders on a boozy cruise around Nassau in 1985, they arrived too late for a family photo aboard the Britannia, the frustrated monarch finally snapped. His press secretary stood between the group and the cameras: “Michael, you’re on your way. Get out of the way!”
He gave us the widest and most majestic smiles as he suddenly realized we were being filmed. He let himself be caught off guard, but he really enjoyed it.
What an extraordinary life. He observed and recorded her every waking moment. Something most of us would not welcome. He never went to school. When he joined the Brownies, the package came to him. Although she undoubtedly vetoed the idea, history should recognize her as “Elizabeth the Great.”
He didn’t think it was amazing, but it was. Here is an example:
In my first week as a court reporter for BBC TV, a newspaper appeared under the headline ‘The Queen’s heart scare’. The story said he consulted doctors.
“Is that true?” my editor asked. “Can you bear the story?”
The Queen killed the story before calling a friendly cardiologist on Harley Street. He sprinted up the 92 steps at the lighthouse in Aberdeen, leaving half a dozen gasping men behind.
It was his way of painting a story that was not true. The lady, who could not answer directly, expressed her opinion by demonstrating that it was a lie.
To drive home the message, the next year he climbed the Great Wall of China like a daisy to take photographs on a gold-plated Leica.
In some places the wall is extremely steep. One by one, his servants left behind. The Queen was heading in the general direction of Mongolia when her private secretary waved her back.
In 1986, he patiently stood for hours to give others their moment of glory, demonstrating that he was fitter than most and well suited to the physical demands of long days.
The Queen got along reasonably well with Her Majesty’s Corps of Writers and Snappers, but was particular about details, especially when it came to the Commonwealth.
BBC Radio’s Stephen Claypole, covering the 1978 tour of Canada, reported that a dispute had arisen between the federal government and the provinces. The Queen heard his report while on board, thought it was a mistake, and went to look for Claypole at the reception in Newfoundland.
He became intimately interested in his perfectly accurate report until John Downing, the renowned royal photographer of the Daily Express, came to his rescue by changing the subject to the noise of the Vickers VC-10 he was flying. “Not as noisy as BAC 11s and Tridents covering Windsor Castle,” the Queen said. “They are knocking on our windows.”
Claypole recently recalled: “The Queen certainly knew more about the Canadian Constitution than I did. He asked me for a copy of my script, which I quickly sent to the wastebasket.
A rare disobedient to the King’s order.
When a junior royal whined to me about negative stories, I told him that the time for the royal family to worry about the media is when the media no longer cares.
We were always interested in the Queen from beginning to end.