‘The man who got the Queen to tell the real story of The Crown’ – Anthony Geffen and The Coronation featured in the Times
January 13, 2018
Ahead of the broadcast of our latest documentary The Coronation on BBC 1, Atlantic’s founder and CEO Anthony Geffen was interviewed by Times journalist Damien Whitworth. In the article Anthony reveals exclusive details on how he achieved incredible access to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and The Crown Jewels – an astonishing 22 year journey.
Atlantic are renowned for our unprecedented access, having previously been granted permission to take cameras to places normally off limits in the documentary series Inside the Commons, and gained exclusive access to Barack Obama in the documentary special David Attenborough meets President Obama, which was filmed inside the Whitehouse.
The full article is copied below, you can also read it online here
The Coronation will air on BBC 1 tomorrow, Sunday 14th January at 8pm and on Smithsonian Channel on the same day at 8pm local time. It will then broadcast on ABC Australia on 4th February and is being distributed worldwide by FremantleMedia.
The Coronation: the real story of The Crown
The film-maker Anthony Geffen explains how he came to make the astonishing film in which the Queen shares her memories of that day for the first time
When Anthony Geffen finished his new documentary about the Queen and her coronation a courtier took him aside. “He said, ‘Do you realise you have the real Crown?’ And I said, ‘I do realise that. That was exactly what I was hoping to get.’ When you watch The Crown Claire Foy does an amazing job playing the Queen,” Geffen says, “but I think this film is the real human story.”
The Coronation tells the story of the events of 1953 in a way that evenThe Crown’s lavish production values can’t match. In an astonishing coup it has the Queen herself talking for the first time on camera about the day she was crowned, sharing personal reminiscences and offering candid insights into her experiences at the dawn of the new Elizabethan age.
The Queen, famously, has never given an interview, but after 22 years of patient plotting, Geffen and Alastair Bruce, a royal expert, persuaded her to sit down with Bruce at Buckingham Palace. “I would call it a conversation,” says Geffen. “She talks freely about everything to do with the Coronation.”
The Queen told Bruce: “I’ve seen one coronation and been the recipient in the other. Which is pretty remarkable.” She was reunited with St Edward’s Crown, which she had not seen since her coronation, and the Imperial State Crown, which she wears for state openings of parliament. She took delight in recounting stories about the jewels in the crowns and watched footage of her coronation. This archive film, which she was seeing for the first time, fascinated her because she explained that when you are at the centre of a ceremony like that it is impossible to see it.
In the course of researching the film Bruce finally got to the bottom of the mystery of what happened to the Crown Jewels during the Second World War. The most important stones were hidden in a Bath Oliver biscuit tin at Windsor Castle.
There has been speculation in recent years that the treasures were hidden at Windsor, but no one knew for sure. Even the Queen didn’t know.
Bruce unearthed an “electric set of letters” in the Royal Collection from Sir Owen Morshead, the royal librarian, to Queen Mary, the mother of George VI, in which he described how the jewels were hidden.
After digging deep into the grounds at Windsor beneath a sally port, two chambers were constructed with steel doors. The excavations had to be screened from the Luftwaffe at night with tarpaulins. Once the two rooms were built the Crown Jewels were locked inside and the area grassed over, but access was possible through a trapdoor, which still exists.
However, Morshead wrote in a letter how the most precious gems were taken out of the Imperial State Crown and concealed in the Bath Oliver biscuit tin. He described how he had prised the Black Prince’s Ruby and St Edward’s Sapphire out of the little clasps that were holding them on the Imperial State Crown. Bruce says: “He just gouged them out, recognising there would be plenty of chances to put them back in again, wrapped them up and put them in the Bath Oliver tin so should anything happen — just as when Oliver Cromwell ordered the Crown Jewels to be smashed up — they could ferry these away and could rebuild it in due course.”
Bruce, who explored the dank chambers for the film, told the Queen what had happened. She asked if the royal librarian had told anyone else as a precaution in case he died in the middle of the war. Bruce explained that the king had known.
“I think it’s gripping how personally involved George VI was and how secretive he was about it,” Bruce says. “I think like father, like daughter, this sense of how utterly important the Crown Jewels are to the country is very much felt by Elizabeth II. I think that is one of the reasons why she has chosen in the 65th anniversary [of her coronation] to allow us this extraordinary unique access to the Crown Jewels and for her to take part in helping to bring them to life.”
The Queen was intrigued to see if the St Edward’s Crown, which is kept at the Tower of London, was still as heavy as she remembered it being when it was placed on her head at the Coronation.
“What most moved me was the way she looked at the St Edward’s Crown,” Bruce says. “She was just 27 when she was crowned and there is a strong tradition in the history of the English coronation that if anything goes wrong it is seen as an ill omen. Imagine what it must have been like having given permission to allow the film cameras to cover live every element of it. And also imagine the prospect of having a 5lb crown of gold designed for somebody who was wearing a huge wig — that being Charles II — placed on your 27-year-old head. When [for the documentary] she leant forward and tapped that crown and lifted it up and said, ‘Gosh, this is as heavy as it always was,’ I think what is going on there is she is remembering that profound moment of challenge to her when she had to absolutely hold it together for the nation.”
The Queen explained the difficulties of wearing the Imperial State Crown at the opening of parliament. “You can’t look down to read the speech, you have to take the speech up. Because if you did your neck would break, it would fall off. So there are some disadvantages to crowns, but otherwise they are quite important things.” She added: “Fortunately my father and I have about the same sort of shaped head.”
Bruce — a royal television commentator, herald at the College of Arms, godfather to Viscount Severn, the son of Prince Edward, and an expert on the Crown Jewels and royal ceremony — is known to the Queen. In clips released yesterday she talks to him in a relaxed way that has rarely been seen before on television.
She describes the journey to Westminster Abbey in the gold state coach. “Horrible! It’s not meant for travelling in at all. I mean it’s only sprung on leather . . . not very comfortable.” Asked if she was in it long, she says: “Halfway round London.” The film-makers found that at 91 the Queen remains razor sharp and possessed of a quick and dry wit. “She’s got this very wry sense of humour,” says Geffen.
When he and Bruce had the idea for the film more than two decades ago, there was no chance of the Palace agreeing to a documentary about the Coronation and the Crown Jewels, let alone one in which the Queen featured.
Three or four years ago, however, the Palace view began to change. “There was a new guard coming in that could see this film as helping people to make sense of the role and meaning of the monarchy. It is saying: ‘What are these Crown Jewels? How do they relate to the monarchy and how does the Coronation relate?”
The documentary is part of a series of BBC programmes on the Royal Collection and ultimately the Queen decided that it was something she would do. The involvement of Bruce was important. His parents were in Malta when Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, was there with Prince Philip, who was stationed on the island when he was in the Royal Navy. “Alastair is somebody she knows reasonably well and she knows he knows what he’s talking about,” Geffen says. “There is no way the Queen is going to sit with someone she doesn’t know and talk openly.”
It probably also helped that Geffen has often worked with David Attenborough, who is admired by the Queen. Geffen, the founder of the Bafta award-winning Atlantic Productions, made the documentary in which President Obama interviewed Attenborough at the White House. It is also understood that the fly-on-the-wall BBC series about parliament, Inside the Commons, which Geffen made, was well received at Buckingham Palace.
“It’s remarkable she did it because she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to now and it took a long time to get it to happen,” Geffen says. “She is the longest-serving monarch and I think she realised that she could shed some light on what the Coronation and the Crown Jewels mean. For her to talk about it is pretty significant and I think in doing so she has humanised herself in a really nice way.”
The documentary includes some of the Queen’s home movies as well as archive footage of the Coronation, which she said she had not seen before. “The Coronation is a long way away in her reign. It meant a lot to her, but she hadn’t visited it in her mind for 65 years. Isn’t that amazing? She hadn’t watched the footage. She was fascinated. Can you imagine looking at the Coronation having never seen it before?” says Geffen. “You forget these are real human beings. What was it like for the Queen to walk into the Abbey for the first major televised event? It’s scary. I think people will say, ‘God, I have never seen the Queen like that.’ ”
The Queen describes the Coronation as “a sort of beginning of one’s life, really, as a sovereign. It’s a sort of pageant of chivalry and old-fashioned way of doing things, I think really.” As she watches the footage she adds: “It’s quite interesting to have it, you know, done again.”
While watching her 27-year-old self walking in the Abbey in her heavy coronation robes, she recalls how hard it was to move. “I remember one moment when I was going against the pile of the carpet and I couldn’t move at all . . . they hadn’t thought of that.”
In another clip Prince Charles and Princess Anne are seen playing with the train of her robes. When Bruce suggests that it was fun for the children, the Queen replies: “Not what they’re meant to do.”
The Queen tells a story about two pearls in the Imperial State Crown that are said to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots before Elizabeth I owned them. “They were meant to be Queen Elizabeth’s earrings, but they are not very happy,” the Queen says. “They don’t look very happy now. Most pearls like to be living creatures, so they have been just hanging out here for years, it’s rather sad.”
A security operation was mounted to move the two crowns from the Tower to Buckingham Palace, where the film crew spent most of a day filming the Queen. “What was extraordinary and what unfolded that I didn’t expect was the personal element of it,” Geffen says. “I thought we’d get some facts, but suddenly she was just open and wanted to pick things up and get involved. That’s the Queen we hadn’t seen before. I had to pinch myself to think this was happening. It’s a very different portrait; she never talks about her personal life.” There were certain differences from most other documentaries. “There were no retakes, for a start. You can’t do retakes with the Queen.”
For three nights a crew was given access to the Crown Jewels in the Tower, where they were removed from their cases and filmed in close-up by high-definition and miniature cameras so that the cut of diamonds and even specks of dust can be seen. There were some logistical problems involved in filming crowns, which cannot be shot from directly overhead, because only God should be above a crown.
However magnificent the jewels look, it is likely that when the full film is shown on Sunday what will stick in the mind is the Queen being filmed at home talking about one of the key moments of her reign.
“This wasn’t something she had rehearsed,” Geffen says. “You could see her being taken back to the 27-year-old. That’s pretty powerful. You can get great writers on The Crown, but this is the true stuff.”