The unseen Queen: Sir Trevor McDonald on insights he gleaned about Her Majesty while making a documentary for Diamond Jubilee
22:29 GMT, 4 May 2012
During my career as a television journalist I’ve been privileged to meet the Queen on many occasions and it has often struck me that, behind her formal public persona, she is kind and thoughtful on a very practical level.
I remember talking to her in 2007 in Uganda, where she had come to meet the Commonwealth Heads Of Government, and she told me she had arrived at Kampala airport just as daylight had given way to impenetrable darkness.
Night falls like a curtain in the tropics. There is no dusk. And as she was driven out of the airport, Her Majesty peered into the blackness of the African night to see the route lined with shadowy forms waving flags.
Royal encounters: Sir Trevor and the Queen in 2001 when she visited the ITN studios at Gray's Inn Road
‘I suddenly realised that all these people had taken the trouble to come and greet me, so I put the light on in the car so I could wave back,’ she told me. These small acts of consideration typify her. We know the Queen has huge affection for the Commonwealth – she regards herself as head of a family of nations. But less well-documented is the almost maternal sense of hospitality she invests in the role.
The Canadian diplomat Arnold Smith was the first Commonwealth Secretary-General and when he visited London in 1965, the Queen asked, ‘Have you got somewhere to stay’ When he said he hadn’t, she offered him Marlborough House in Pall Mall. So Mr Smith got a grand billet thanks to the generosity of the Queen, and Marlborough House has been the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat ever since.
Similar concern prompted an exchange between our monarch and the late Prime Minister of Dominica, Dame Eugenia Charles. Dame Eugenia was explaining to the Queen that London had become so expensive she’d had to close the Dominican High Commission. ‘Frankly, even the hotels in London cost too much for our little nation,’ she lamented, and instantly the Queen offered to put her up at Buckingham Palace. ‘Next time you come over, you must stay here,’ she insisted.
Call of duty: The Queen at the 2009 Swan Upping (left) and in 1941, 11 years before she took to the throne
The Queen has never given an interview and convention dictates you do not divulge the content of conversations with her. But over the years, as Palace protocol has become less stuffy, we have learned she is a good listener and an excellent mimic with a great sense of humour. So there are two sides to our modern monarchy: although we are given glimpses into its relaxed side, it preserves its ancient traditions and ceremonies.
It is these Royal traditions and institutions that I explore in a new four-part series on Sky 3D and the History channel to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – and despite the knowledge I’ve accrued over the years, I’ve learned some new things too. I discovered that the Queen, who owns most of the swans on the Thames, has a Royal Swan Marker who accounts for them every year in an ancient ritual known as Swan Upping.
I do not believe our Queen should become a whit more informal or more accessible.
As the Victorian commentator Walter Bagehot observed, the mystery of
the monarchy is its life, ‘We must not let daylight in upon the magic.’
And that the Channel Islands are called Peculiars of the Crown and the Queen is known there as the Duke of Normandy. The title traces its roots to the Duchy of Normandy and whether the reigning sovereign is male or female, the title remains Duke of Normandy. I also looked at 3D footage from Westminster Abbey of the Coronation procession in 1953.
It’s extraordinary to think that such modern technology was used, and to see the clarity of the images of the Gold State Coach coming down the Mall. There is fascinating and rare archive footage, too, which shows a young Queen unveiling a statue of her father, George VI, at Carlton Gardens in 1955. The footage marks one of the few occasions when she reveals her feelings – on this occasion for her beloved father.
It is hard to imagine, then, the grief
she subdued three years earlier as she flew back to London from a tour
of Kenya; her official visit cut short by news of her father’s death at
Sandringham. She was 25 when her aircraft received a radio message from
the Queen Mother. Its protocol was precise: ‘Urgent, Her Majesty the
Queen,’ but it carried the loving message, ‘All my thoughts and prayers
are with you, Mummie.’
A stewardess I interviewed recalled the
sombre mood on the plane which ferried the new monarch home. She said
that the Queen didn’t cry but despite her sorrow, her charm and good
manners did not desert her: she thanked all the crew before she
disembarked. Ever since she has discharged her duties to perfection, and I feel honoured to have met her.
Sir Trevor says as a boy, growing up in the British Colony of Trinidad in the 1940s and 50s, he never imagined that he'd one day have lunch with the Queen
It was the Queen who presented me with my OBE in 1993 – Prince Charles knighted me six years later – and when she visited the ITN studios at Gray’s Inn Road in 2001 I was among those showing her round. We were looking forward to showing her the new green screen against which we newsreaders sat. Imagine our dismay, then, when she arrived wearing an all-green ensemble, and melded into the background when she stood in front of it, almost disappearing from view altogether.
The Queen, we know, has a prodigious memory; once she has met someone she rarely forgets them. I can vouch for this. Having been introduced to her for a second time, she said, ‘Oh, there’s no need to tell me who he is. We’ve already met.’ She also has a wealth of political knowledge and experience – can anyone else claim to have had conversations with every Prime Minister since Churchill – although she always remains scrupulously impartial.
When I was a boy, growing up in the British Colony of Trinidad in the 1940s and 50s, we believed London was the axis round which the whole world pivoted. I recall waving my Union Flag and singing calypsos in honour of Royal visitors. But I never imagined then that I’d have lunch with the Queen – as I was invited to do at Buckingham Palace in 1986 – nor did I expect I’d be able to boast to friends in the pub, ‘I don’t like to name-drop, but as I was saying to the Queen…’ I’m joking, of course.
Although I do feel huge pride every time I walk through the imposing gates of Buckingham Palace – you can’t help but puff your chest out and stand just a fraction taller – I do not believe our Queen should become a whit more informal or more accessible. As the Victorian commentator Walter Bagehot observed, the mystery of the monarchy is its life, ‘We must not let daylight in upon the magic.’ If we do it will evaporate and our lives would be infinitely poorer and duller.
Trevor McDonald’s Queen & Country, Sunday 13 May, 7pm, Sky 3D and the History channel.
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