A Royal Occasion: From Victoria to Elizabeth II Review
A Royal Occasion represents the latest themed collection from the BFI to trawl through their National Archive. Over the course of two discs and almost five hours of filmed materials it sets out to encompass just over a half century of the British Royal Family. Beginning with the very first time Queen Victoria was captured on film and ending with the Coronation Day of Elizabeth II, we are witness to numerous arrivals, departures, launches, jubilees, Delhi Durbars, births, marriages and deaths. The time span is such that is also encompasses two World Wars, the 1948 London Olympics and the 1951 Festival of Britain; all make themselves known on this compilation, all through this very particular lens.
The prime audience for A Royal Occasion is an obvious one. This set and the latest COI collection from the BFI, The Queen on Tour, have been released in time for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and both are clearly hoping to benefit from the wealth of attention it has been (and will be) receiving. Yet there is no requirement that potential buyers must be the most fervent of royalists. Certainly, these discs tick all the right boxes in that respect - all of the key events of the first half of the 20th century are covered and there is a genuine wealth of rare footage. But there is also plenty of interest regardless of the chosen theme. Indeed, just as the BFI’s Tales of the Shipyard compilation also served as a crash course in the various methods of British documentary filmmaking from the turn of the last century through to the seventies, so too A Royal Occasion can be enjoyed purely from a cinematic perspective. In this case we have a record of how the coverage of news events evolved over the years, from silent minute-long actualities and newsreels to full colour amateur efforts made by local cine clubs.
Queen Victoria opens proceedings with a newly restored ‘home movie’ from 1896. This one-minute film, entitled Scenes at Balmoral, was a private commission and never intended for public consumption. Despite this its ‘behind the scenes’ quality is a prescient one. Over the course of the next century such ‘insider’ glimpses would become increasingly commonplace and made with the full intention of reaching the general public. (The most famous was arguably Richard Cawstons’s 1969 documentary for the BBC, Royal Family, reportedly seen by three quarters of the population during that year.) As you make your way through A Royal Occasion it’s impossible not to notice how the official cameras seem to get ever closer. The actualities of 1897 capturing Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee all keep a distance, preferring to find their best vantage points up high or amidst the crowds. Fourteen years later and there’s a camera on the King and Queen’s balcony for the Durbar of 1911, mere feet away from its subjects. By the time of the reign of George VI and the coronation of Elizabeth II we have an amateur cameraman who is also the former Governor of New South Wales. Such a position has its privileges when it comes to obtaining advantageous angles.
Not that the earliest of the actualities should be considered in someway second best. Of course the Diamond Jubilee of 1897 was covered in a massively different manner to the continual multi-channel coverage we can expect in 2012, but the men and the companies behind these films - fourteen of which find a place on A Royal Occasion - knew what they needed to capture and set about doing so. Their efforts would screen across and the country and the commonwealth such was the public interest and so they had to capture the most important aspects of the day: the arrival of carriages; the procession through key London landmarks, and so on. (This set’s booklet comes with a handy map to show where the various cameras were positioned throughout the capital.) This they do and as a result these films, even if some are only mere seconds in length, remain excellent historical documents.
For all the competing companies and cameramen - Gaumont and R.W. Paul’s Animatograph Works among them - there is little to differentiate one film from the next. Each shares the same approach and reverence which we see continue over the next few years. Whether it’s other key pioneers as Cecil M. Hepworth (A Royal Occasion utilises his compilation film Through Three Reins a great deal) or the American Charles Urban, this same straightforward, static and respectful approach to capturing the news events of the day is prevalent. With the arrival of the Topical Budget newsreel company in 1911, however, we begin to see a shift in tone. During its 20-year existence their films would naturally take in all manner of events and stories. But not everything demanded such firm reverence. Their chosen subjects were just as likely to be to comical as they were serious and as much concerned with the minor as they were the major. With that comes a more human perspective to the various onscreen royal events and engagements. We get to spend a few seconds in the company of flower girls on ‘Rose Day’ or learn how Buckingham Palace was used to grow turnips during the Great War. Understandably such scenes are far more intimate and relatable than endless processions. Even the titles - The Queen and the Land Lassies, How to Hold Baby - make them feel more approachable.
There are sixteen Topical Budgets in all across A Royal Occasion and it’s great to be able to have a proper sampling at our disposal. Some of their other newsreels have appeared on previous BFI releases - Visions of Light, The Great White Silence and the Tales from the Shipyard set have all housed one or two apiece - but never to this extent. Topical Budget were the sole purely British newsreel company in existence during the silent era and as such hold an important place in the history of British cinema. (The booklet acknowledges as much with an essay providing valuable background and context.) Their presence is just one of the ways in which this set proves its worth beyond being a record of early 20th century royal moments.
Much the same is also true of the early colour documents to be included. British Movietone News - “the first colour newsreel” and also the longest surviving, continuing until 1979 - was on hand to provide full colour coverage of the 1935 Silver Jubilee and so too were others making use of the lesser known Dufaycolor system. If you purchased the first volume of the BFI’s Complete Humphrey Jennings then you’ll have seen it in action. (Three of Jennings’ early shorts utilised the progress as did a number of Len Lye’s animations and the Will Hay feature Radio Parade of 1935 for two sequences.) A Royal Occasion’s booklet goes into full detail over how it all works so I’ll just state that it looks and feels somewhat different to the early colour processes we are usually faced with. Nonetheless images such as George VI posing in front of a battleship or the Union Jack look wonderful, whilst the makers of Trooping the Colour in 1937 were obviously very happy with the results. As our commentator states: “You’re there now.”
Dufaycolor was popular among amateur filmmakers, some of whose efforts make an appearance here. In fact as we progress through the reign of George VI we find more and more homemade productions putting in an appearance. As well as scenes of the Silver Jubilee, there are also those of the London Olympics, the Festival of Britain and, eventually, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II - all from the cameras of non-professionals. Arguably the mute footage of the Royal Family’s tour of South Africa in 1947 could be classified as such too; it was made by the Daimler Car Company but maintains the unpolished appearance of an amateur effort. It just goes to show how things had changed over the course of fifty or so years. Whereas this kind of thing was solely for the cameras of an R.W. Paul or a Cecil M. Hepworth, now it could be captured by anyone with the right equipment and a bit of enthusiasm. Furthermore, their status as historical documents is much the same - they are just as valid as any official record - as their place on these discs, and in the BFI’s National Archive itself, surely testifies.
One of the last films on A Royal Occasion is a very brief 17-second snippet of yet more amateur footage. It shows a hall in Lambeth and various locals heading in to watch the coronation on television. Looking back nowadays it’s tempting to read this tiny snippet as a watershed moment. Royal coverage had moved to another medium, one where the newsreels and the local cine clubs were no longer quite so necessary. Of course, the big screen would attempt to curb the transition with Castleton Knight’s feature-length and Laurence Oliver-narrated Technicolor record of the coronation, A Queen is Crowned (which, incidentally, has just been newly released onto Blu-ray this month). But television would soon become king. This weekend’s silver jubilee will be watched entirely on the flat screens of the British population rather than on the cinema screens in a few weeks’ time - the cinematic record is squarely a thing of the past. Which arguably makes A Royal Occasion all the more appealing. Indeed, this isn’t just a record of the Royal Family down the years, but also a fascinating survey of how filmmakers brought them to a cinema-going audience.
A Royal Occasion splits its (near) five-hour running time over two discs. The first is dedicated to the reigns of Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V, with the second concerned with George VI and Elizabeth II. The full contents list - and individual running times - can be found at the bottom of this review. In all cases the films were sourced from the BFI’s National Archive with the likelihood being that these are the only materials in existence. Some have undergone restoration work before making it to disc (Scenes from Balmoral also gets a before-and-after featurette) and have received fresh transfers. Of course the age and range of the films present on these two discs means that their image quality fluctuates from the superb to the somewhat ropey, but in each and every case we are seeing them as best we can. I was more often impressed than not - some of these titles, even at over a century old, possess a terrific level of detail, whilst much of the colour footage is terrifically rich.
The majority of A Royal Occasion, given its time span as well as its use of amateur footage, consists of silent material. Those films which previously featured on the BFI’s R.W. Paul The Collected Films 1895-1908 compilation retain their Stephen Horne accompaniment. The rest have been set to library music which, in the majority of cases, works extremely well. Our King Emperor and Queen Empress Hold a Durbar in Delhi, in particular, stands out in this respect. The few sound productions from the thirties, forties and fifties retain their original mono soundtracks.
Extras include the aforementioned restoration featurette for Scenes of Balmoral and the hugely valuable 40-page booklet full of contextualising essays, illustrations and notes. Also present is a bonus Topical Budget on the Buckingham Palace allotment plus a pair of fundraising films for the National Fields Association. Perverse though such an opinion might be, it was these latter two shorts which proved to be my favourites across the entire set. Each begins with a group of children either playing football or cricket in unsuitable areas - the result being broken windows and, in one case, a broken limb. The kids seek out Prince Philip as a result who delivers a to-camera explanation of the Associations work. Wilfred Pickles, Kenneth More and even Bob Hope also put in campaigning cameos. The combination of tiny narratives and unexpected guest spots proves oddly endearing and makes you wonder how many similarly offbeat royal-themed films are out there. Enough for another compilation perhaps?
• Scenes at Balmoral (1896, 1 min)
• Head of Procession Including Bluejackets (1897, 45 secs)
• Head of Colonial Procession (1897, 40 secs)
• Royal Carriages Passing Westminster (1897, 38 secs)
• Cape Mounted Riflemen Passing St Paul's (1897, 19 secs)
• Dragoons Passing St Paul's (1897, 37 secs)
• Royal Carriage Arriving at St Paul's (1897, 34 secs)
• Royal Princes in St Paul's Cathedral (1897, 23 secs)
• Queen's Carriage and Indian Escort (1897, 23 secs)
• Life Guards and Princes North of St Paul's (1897, 41 secs)
• Parliament Square (1897, 43 secs)
• Queen's Carriage in Parliament Square (1897, 1 min)
• Diamond Jubilee Procession Taken from Apsley House (1897, 1 min)
• Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (1897, 5 mins)
• Queen Victoria's Carriage (1897, 40 secs)
• Queen's Garden Party at Buckingham Palace (1897, 2 mins)
• The Late Queen's Visit to Dublin (1900, 3 mins)
Edward VII & Queen Alexandra
• Edward VII at Queen Victoria's Funeral (1901, 1 min)
• Delayed Coronation (1902, 2 mins)
• Coronation Procession (1902, 1 min)
• The King and Queen Drive Through Parts of London Not on the Procession Route (1902, 1 min)
• King and Queen Visit Ireland (1903, 1 min)
• Coronation Durbar at Delhi (1903, 2 mins)
• The Delhi Durbar (1903, 4 mins)
• State Entry Into Delhi of Lord Curzon the Viceroy (1903, 3 mins)
• King Edward VII Launches HMS Dreadnought from Portsmouth Dockyard (1906, 2 mins)
• Queen Alexandra's Drive through London (1916, 1 min)
• Roses for the Rose Queen (1917, 35 secs)
George V & Queen Mary
• Coronation of George V (1911, 4 mins)
• King George Fifth's Durbar (1912, 8 mins)
• Our King Emperor and Queen Empress Hold a Durbar in Delhi (1912, 11 mins)
• With the Queen at Woolwich (1917, 1 min)
• Visit of their Majesties the King and Queen to the North East Coast Shipbuilding & Engineering Works (1917, 13 mins)
• Queen Among the Tanks (1917, 1 min)
• The King's Greeting (1917, 1 min)
• Queen's Visit to the East End (1917, 1 min)
• The Queen and the Land Lassies (1918, 1 min)
• How to Hold Baby (1921, 1 min)
• Through India and Burma with HRH the Prince of Wales (1922, 19 mins)
• Return of the Prince (1922, 5 mins)
• Jubilee Day 6th May 1935 (1935, 18 mins)
• 1935 Royal Jubilee Celebration (1935, 9 mins)
• Glimpses of 1935 (1935, 3 mins)
George VI & Queen Elizabeth
• Our Airman Prince Engaged (1923, 1 min)
• Wedding Cake for Duke of York's Bride (1923, 1 min)
• The Royal Wedding (1923, 5 mins)
• Duke and Bride off for Honeymoon (1923, 1 min)
• Britain's Baby Princess (1926, 2 mins)
• God Speed! The Duke and Duchess of York Leave on HMS Renown for their Six Months Empire Tour (1927, 2 mins)
• The Homecoming of the Duke and Duchess of York (1927, 3 mins)
• Coronation of their Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (1937, 8 mins)
• Trooping the Colour (1937, 10 mins)
• King George VI at Plymouth (1939, 4 mins)
• Royal Road (1941, 11 mins)
• Royal Tour of South Africa (1947, 55 mins)
• Erection of the Dome of Discovery (1950, 9 mins)
• Long to Reign Over Us (1953, 20 mins)
• Lambeth Rejoices: Coronation Television (1953, 17 secs)
• The Royal Occasion (1953, 9 mins)