From the archive: George Melly on the documentary Royal Family, 1969

What with “Private Eye” Muggeridge and John “gold filling in a mouthful of decay” Osborne, The Royal Family Show has had a bad press during its last 20-year run. Of course, they still pull in the coach parties but only middle-aged coach parties and when they tried to get more with it by writing a scene where they gave the Beatles their MBEs all they did was offend some of their older fans. The audiences were still slipping and, as every impresario knows, the thing to do then is to try to get an extract shown on television. Well, they’ve done it.

The showbiz parallel is not too far-fetched. Royal Family does give the impression of a lavish back-stage musical. Richard Cawston’s brilliant film is perfectly attuned to its age; Antony Jay’s commentary a very subtle piece of work. The mystique of the crown, its religious significance, are played down. In the jargon of advertising, it relies on “identification” for the suburbs and “negative selling” for the intellectuals. The Queen going into a shop to buy her child an ice lolly is an example of the first technique. The second is spelt out.

Almost at the end, Jay delivers the punchline. The justification for our system is “not the power it gives the sovereign, but in the power it denies everyone else”. In a world of thugs and brutes it’s an attractive argument, too. Isn’t it worth putting up with all the bowing and “Ma’aming” if it keeps out the generals and the gangsters? Aren’t the Queen and her family, more attractive than President Nixon? (on the evidence here, yes, they are!)

The general line is that it may be a lot of nonsense but it’s probably a necessity and I’ve no doubt that this film will help persuade a surprising number of people that this is the case. But to quote Osborne again “… the crown simply represents a substitute of “values”. Still, as they say, “I wouldn’t have her job.”

Jazz musician and art lecturer George Melly was the Observer’s film and TV critic from 1965 to 1973

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