Sunday, 15 November on National Geographic (DStv 181) at 21:00
Sunday, 15 November on National Geographic (DStv 181) at 21:00

A lifetime in an hour: how they made Being The Queen

Tom Jennings talks about the trials and challenges of making National Geographic (DStv 181) documentary Being The Queen

National Geographic’s (DStv 181) new documentary Being The Queen is around an hour long, but it represents months of painstaking research and sourcing of archival interview, recordings, film recordings, images and editing on the part of American documentary filmmaker Tom Jennings and his team at 1895 Films, including writers Laura Verklan and Tobiah Black.

“When National Geographic said, ‘Hey, Diana did so well [referring to Tom’s 2017 documentary, Diana: In Her Own Words], let’s do the Queen,’ my first reaction was, uh, well, horror might be too strong a word, but… Not because I didn’t want to do it, but because she is probably one of the most photographed people in the history of the world. She’s been around for 7 decades as a monarch and longer as a human being. Where do we start? As you can imagine with the Queen, it was a tsunami of material,” Tom admits while laughing.

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Finding the story

With a vast project like this, Tom started by casting his net wide. “We can find lots of great pictures, but we need someone at the time who’s speaking, whether it’s on radio or television or giving an interview to an author. We need their words to push the narrative of the story. We spent a lot of time working with various authors to go through audio recordings that they’d made in the ’80s and ’90s of people that were very familiar with the Queen in the early years. And after 4 or 5 months, it was probably the hardest thing we’ve ever done, just because the amount of material was so vast and the amount of time covered was so vast,” Tom explains.

But it was by listening to all that material that Tom found the story. “We came across a sentence – and it’s the first sentence you hear in the film – from a royal historian who was recorded several years ago, named Robert Lacey. He says, ‘Look at how the great problems of the Queen and the monarchy in her lifetime have all been about love and marriage and sex.’ And when I heard that, I was like, ‘That’s interesting.’ And the more I thought about, the more I thought, ‘That’s really true.’”

“That’s a spine that I could follow, where we could tell other ancillary stories of her history. It really clicked for me when I realised that her father, George, had become King because his brother abdicated the throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Then we could get rid of all the other stuff that didn’t support that narrative. It gave us a breath of fresh air because we had a path to follow.” Reigns shaped by love, sex and marriage? How on-brand for the British monarchy!

The hunt is on

With a story in mind, the team needed to get their hands on images, footage and interviews that would best support the tale. And they weren’t going for the low-hanging fruit we’ve all seen before. Part of what makes Being The Queen so intriguing is that while the basic story might be vaguely familiar to us all, the documentary is pieced together from material that hasn’t seen the light of day since it was first recorded. It’s a fascinating look at the media pre-internet.

“It’s hard to say goodbye to something that’s so perfect – the reason we know these iconic images is because they’re perfect. But it’s been broadcast 1,500 times. We don’t want that,” says Tom. “We often go out and try to find lesser-known archives. We’ll go to royal photographers. Back in the day, before digital, they would use contact sheets, where they’d line up all their negatives, then they’d use their loupe and go through and say, ‘Oh, that’s the picture for me!’ They’d circle it with their grease pencil and then that would be the one printed in the newspaper or magazine. One of the things that we try and do when we do track these people down, is to say, ‘We don’t want the one with the grease pencil around it, we want the one that’s 18 shots later.’ It’s a shot from the same event, so the event is familiar, but to the viewer, the image is brand new because it was never published,” explains Tom. “Often finding these photographers after all these years can be extraordinarily difficult. But when we do find them, they're thrilled. They’re like, ‘Oh, so you want to use some of the others?!’”

“I always tell my researchers and producers that if you can think of it, regarding archive [material], it’s probably out there somewhere. Somebody probably took that image or recorded that sound. If you can think of it, it probably exists. Now if I were that piece of footage, where would I live? That’s the hardest part. For rare home movies of the Queen’s visit to Aberfan [for example], we had to go to Aberfan and find people who had taken images of the Queen at the time. That was quite something.”

1 life, 1 hour

After going to all that effort (and more), Tom and his team then had to get rid of most of their painstakingly sourced material to fit their runtime of 1 hour. “Not to oversell it, but I liken it to Michelangelo’s (Renaissance statue) David. You start with a big block of marble – our block of marble is 3,000 hours of archival footage and images. And then we start to chip away. This is an hour of television. Well, our first cut was 4 hours long. So we looked at the 4 hours and said, ‘What’s redundant? What’s not as good as this? Can we shorten something? How can we get this down to something more manageable?’ And then our next pass was probably around 2 hours, and that’s where it gets very hard,” Tom admits.

“We look around the room and go, ‘Okay, who goes first?’ And someone will say, ‘I think we should cut this,’ someone else will say, ‘You can’t cut that!’” Tom laughs. “We had a spirited debate, and for us, that’s fun. It goes around and around and around like that for several weeks and we’ll get it down to 20% too long. And sometimes we’ll just send it to the network and say, ‘We don’t know what else to do. Help us!’ And they do, thankfully. That’s how it works.”

An endless fascination

Working on Being The Queen helped Tom to scratch that itch of curiosity we all have about the lives of high-profile people. “I am always fascinated by people who are under tremendous pressure in their public lives. How do they deal with the stress of it and how do they live their lives?” Tom asks. “This is something that didn’t get into the film, but it was from the 1983 California trip. We found an interview with Michael Deaver (White House Deputy Chief of Staff and Reagan’s personal secretary) who was helping lead the Queen and Prince Philip around California. They were in San Francisco, and Michael Deaver said to the Queen, ‘We’ve made reservations for you at a very famous San Francisco restaurant here called Trader Vic’s.’ He recounted that the Queen turned to Philip and said, ‘Philip, Michael Deaver has made reservations for us at a restaurant!’ And Philip said, ‘A restaurant? How wonderful!’ Deaver was confused by this and he asked, ‘It’s a good restaurant and all, but why are you so thrilled?’ The Queen turned to him and said, ‘We’ve not been in a restaurant in 17 years.’ That to me was like, ‘So that’s how they live their lives!’ They live their lives that most normal people would not understand,” Tom explains enthusiastically.

Watch Being The Queen on Sunday, 15 November on National Geographic (DStv 181) at 21:00

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