The COI Collection Volume Seven: The Queen on Tour Review
The seventh volume in the BFI’s ongoing COI Collection also serves as a sequel to their A Royal Occasion. That disc, timed like this one to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, focused on the first half of the 20th century. It opened just before, with Queen Victoria’s own Diamond Jubilee in 1897, before taking the viewer through the reigns of three Kings and the coronation of Elizabeth II. The Queen on Tour picks up the baton at this point, beginning with a whirlwind tour through the life of Princess Elizabeth prior to becoming a monarch, before spending almost four hours in her company as she goes about her duties over the next two decades.
The opener, Royal Destiny from 1953, sets the tone nicely. It was produced by British Movietone, scripted by the company’s editor-in-chief, and narrated by Leslie Mitchell, the BBC’s first ever television announcement. In other words, we’re dealing with a deferential approach, worlds apart from any hint of satire or irreverence. The film was intended as a promotional item, as indeed were all of those to find a place on The Queen on Tour. The subjects for endorsement were the Royal Family themselves and their outreaching effect on the Commonwealth. Occasionally this volume will offer little ‘catch up’ films like Royal Destiny filling the viewer in on recent events - Life of a Queen from 1960 compiles a host of Pathé newsreels; Royal Children from the following year relates the childhoods of Charles, Anne and Andrew. But for the most part the focus is overseas, taking in visits to Antarctica, the Falkland Islands, Iran, Pakistan and so forth.
Understandably, many of these films serve as travelogues as well as promotional pieces for the monarchy. Sierra Leone Greets the Queen opens with a panning shot across an exotic landscape and it’s far from the only one to do so. In much the same manner A State Visit to Turkey by Queen Elizabeth II finds room for ancient ruins whilst The Queen’s State Visit to Iran is sure to venture into Persepolis. Needless to say, the Antarctic passage of Southward with Prince Philip satisfies its penguin quota. All of which unfolds in full colour, of course, and of which looks rather splendid on these two discs. Furthermore, these little documentaries have the advantage over standard travelogue fare inasmuch as the royal presence brings out the extravagant greetings, parades, etc. And so, on top of the expected sights, we also get a stunning torchlight tattoo in Pakistan, a tribal pageant in Kenya, not to mention the immensity of the Royal Yacht Britannia herself always making an impressive entrance/exit.
It is during the pageants, especially, that we gain an insight an insight into the colonial attitudes of the time. Time and again their performers are referred to as warriors-turned-farmers, the implicit suggestion being that the Commonwealth has helped to tame them. Of course, colonial powers were also dying out and it lends many of these films a certain one-off quality. The snapshot they provide could never be captured again; some of the stopovers visited in Princess Margaret in Mauritius and East Africa would declare their independence within months. Conversely, The Queen’s State Visit to Iran remains a one-off for other reasons. Relations between Iran and Great Britain would sour considerably in the years which followed making a repeat visit seemingly impossible.
Hindsight plays a massive part, then, lending many of these films an extra edge or frisson that couldn’t always be foreseen at the time of production. In the Iranian piece, for example, we get a visit to the Institute of Nuclear Science in Tehran. More often than not, however, it’s the things we don’t see or the things that the commentators don’t say which standout. The BFI have done a sterling job with the booklet here, filling in the gaps that have gone missing in these ‘official’ versions. Again from the Iran film we find no mention of the coup d’état of 1953 in which Britain had a hand thus overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh. Or, closer to home, in Britain Welcomes the Emperor and Empress of Japan, there is nothing to confirm or deny reports that POWs turned their backs on Hirohito during a procession.
Alongside the Emperor of Japan, Britain also receives official visits from the Presidents of India (in 1963) and Pakistan (in 1966). These titles would later be dubbed in numerous languages - Bengali, Tamil, Hindi and so on - and screened abroad. In effect, the UK becomes the subject of the travelogue with the sites of London, plus the likes of Oxford and Gleneagles, taking the place of Caribbean exotica or a river trip along the Ganges. They are afforded the same loving cinematographer, the same fawning voice-over and the same level of propagandising. The President of Pakistan’s tour of Britain, for example, prompts endorsements of ‘new town’ developments in Scotland and the world’s first power station at Calder Hall.
All of which is a fairly longwinded way of saying, whether royalist or republican, The Queen on Tour has a great deal to offer. As with A Royal Occasion and its two discs of docs out of the archive, this volume also has plenty to interest from both an historical and a cinematic perspective. There may not be any big names attached to any of these productions (whereas other COI collections have offered up films from Hugh Hudson, say, or John Mackenzie), but the filmmaking is resolutely dependable. There’s a complete lack of fuss to each of these titles: brisk, no-nonsense, the point. Just as you would expect given Pathé’s and British Movietone’s involvement in so many. This is a solid a COI collection as any of the previous six volumes and, one would hope, any due to appear in the near future.
As with previous COI volumes, The Queen on Tour splits its films over two discs. Seven are included on the first, with six appearing on the second. The average length per film is between the 15 and 20 minute mark (see below for titles and running times) meaning each disc copes well with its contents. All of the films have been sourced from the BFI National Archive and Central Office of Information collections and all are in mostly excellent condition. Of course quality wavers from title to title, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the generally high standard. Colours are never drab, the image is always crisp and the soundtracks perfectly clear. All come in their original aspect ratios, with original mono soundtracks and with optional English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing. No on-disc extras for this latest COI volume, but the accompanying booklet is excellent. Each film gets its own credits and notes, all of which are as thorough - and honest in their judgements - as you would hope.
Royal Destiny (1953, 17 mins)
Southward with Prince Philip (1957, 12 mins)
Princess Margaret in Mauritius and East Africa (1959, 16 mins)
Life of a Queen (1960, 15 mins)
The Queen’s State Visit to Iran (1961, 13 mins)
Royal Children (1961, 19 mins)
Queen Elizabeth II in Pakistan (1961, 23 mins)
Sierra Leone Greets the Queen (1962, 21 mins)
Britain Welcomes the President of India (1963, 15 mins)
The Royal Tour of the Caribbean (1966, 28 mins)
Britain Welcomes the President of Pakistan (1966, 15 mins)
A State Visit to Turkey by Queen Elizabeth II (1971, 23 mins)
Britain Welcomes the Emperor and Empress of Japan (1971, 12 mins)