Behind Queen Elizabeth's regal facade - filmmaker Tom Jennings reveals the heartbreaking truth

accreditation
0:00
play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Queen Elizabeth (Photo: Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth (Photo: Getty Images)
  • Channel24's Royal Editor, Bashiera Parker, recently sat down with Emmy and Peabody Award-Winning filmmaker Tom Jennings.
  • Here, Tom discusses his new documentary, Being the Queen (read our review here) and breaks down how Queen Elizabeth's managed to "Keep Calm and Carry On" throughout her nearly 70-year reign. 
  • He talks of her resilience and strength during the worst of times, including Diana's tragic death, and comments on her decision when it came to Harry and Meghan leaving the royal firm: "She plays it very close to the vest, as they say..."

By the end of 2019, royal experts were convinced the queen had found herself a new annus horribilis. After a string of scandals in 1992 including the aftermath of Prince Andrew's separation from Sarah Ferguson, Princess Anne's divorce, a devastating fire at Windsor Castle and Princess Diana's split from Prince Charles, the Latin term, which translates to "horrible year", was considered the monarchy's worst yet.

Now, I'd say 2019's not looking too bad, after Harry and Meghan's exit from the royal firm this year, an entire pandemic bringing life to a standstill in the UK and across the globe and both Prince Charles and Prince William contracting Covid-19. To say 2020's been challenging for the queen would be an understatement, but Tom Jennings, the Emmy and Peabody Award-Winning filmmaker behind National Geographic's new documentary, Being The Queen, tells me the secret behind Her Majesty's relentless "Keep Calm and Carry On" attitude: her closeness to her father, King George, who, just like her, was suddenly thrust into a position of power.

Tom explains Princess Elizabeth, as she was known at the time, watched her father ascend the throne when King Edward abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcée - an unspeakable act at the time - something she too had to do when he died at a very young age.

"Now Elizabeth was in her early 20s, and as one of the people that we found recordings of said, you know, we expected her to be princess for another 30 or 40 years. No one expected her to become queen, because the king was young when he passed away.

"In my opinion, that's where she got it from, this enduring ability to keep going. If you look at the pictures of her with her father when she's a little girl, you can see how much she adored him and he her. And I'm sure as he made his way through, becoming king, the lessons, whether they were overt or covert, the lessons she learnt from her father - she watched and understood what he was going through, and he, George, knew that one day she would become queen. My guess is he handed down a lot of knowledge about who you are as someone with tremendous responsibility."

Princess Elizabeth, King George VI
Princess Elizabeth talking to her father, King George VI whilst he goes through the Royal boxes in a study at Windsor Castle, Berkshire.

Being the Queen is made up entirely of found footage, never-before-seen home movies and never-before-heard interviews - some with a few of Her Majesty's closest confidantes. He calls it "the matrix of archives" during our Zoom call. There is one photo in particular that stands out in the film though, that Tom believes perfectly encapsulates Her Majesty's dedication to royal duty.

The queen has often been depicted as cold, stoic and unbending, so much so that upon Diana's death, because she hadn't immediately released a statement "Show us you care", was splashed across the front pages of British tabloids directed at the queen, whom many forgot was also grieving.

But this one photo, of someone in the crowd outside the palace, handing the queen a bouquet of flowers is the "needle in the haystack".

"We started going through all the coverage and footage of when she showed up at Buckingham Palace for the first time. Remember there were all the flowers at Kensington and Buckingham. And it was kind of like she got out of the car, and you could hear the crowd saying 'It's about time you showed up'. And I'm sure it was extraordinarily difficult for her personally..."

"I had not seen this moment before, and I had looked at a lot of Diana funeral footage. And we love to get audio that can marry exactly with an image - and in this case, we were able to do that by hearing this interview recorded long ago with one of the queen's confidantes. And then finding the exact picture that she's talking about which is the bouquet of flowers."

"One of my editors called me in - this was pre-pandemic - he said, 'Look at this', and he had taken that audio and put it with the picture. And it's a great moment for us when we can take two pieces of media that are recorded at very different times and put them together and have it seem as if the person actually narrated the film, even though that's not the case. That recording was made 20 years ago.

"For me, I was not aware of that moment. In some ways, it sums up the whole film because she was taught by her father to serve. You know, that was the important role of the monarch, that was a theme throughout her entire career. And she's being almost kind of booed by the crowd, or there's this rustling going on, but she's walking along, and as you know, a woman gives her a bouquet of flowers and the first thing the queen says is: 'Would you like me to place them for you?' There's this notion of I serve. And the woman says: 'No ma'am, it's for you'. And that was the moment, you know."

He adds: "Think of her what you will, but her mantra has always been: 'I serve'."

Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth accepts a bouquet of flowers as the public mourns the death of Princess Diana.

The documentary touches on the very many tough decisions the queen's had to make throughout her nearly 70-year reign, even touching on her 1992 annus horribilis.

"We could now be witnessing the end of the monarchy, and the reigning queen could possibly be the last," you'll hear in the hour-long portrait of Her Majesty.

A year on from the queen's "new annus horribilis" I can't help but ask Tom his expert opinion on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle - and the decision made to have them relinquish their royal status in an official capacity.

"I think the queen is all about ensuring that the monarchy functions as intended. It is a vital part of the British government and monarchy, that it leads by example, that it does good work in the world," Tom says.

"I'm sure in some way, knowing after seeing those images we were just talking about where she's with young Harry and young William, trying to comfort them after the death of Diana, and then to see Harry go off and do his own thing - and this is only my personal opinion having studied all of this - I'm sure it must pain her in some ways, as just a grandmother. To have gone through so much with Harry and to see him basically walk away, for whatever his reasons are."

He adds: "But she's also been very cautious and slow-moving as to how the monarchy as a whole reacts to what's going on with Harry. You occasionally see these behind-the-scenes stories about what's really going on at the palace. But you haven't heard much out of the queen. She plays it very close to the vest, as they say."

"It's not quite like Diana, when Diana and Charles divorced... it's unchartered water for the queen. I mean she's been a monarch for almost seven decades. You'd think she'd seen every bit of troubled water the planet could throw at her. But I think this is a new one."

"But from what I know of her from going through her entire life, I'm sure she's greatly pained, but at the same time, she's suffered through a lot. And, she carried on.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.

LEARN MORE