Not since the befuddled twilight of George III has a monarch been confined to Windsor Castle for such a duration. Unlike her great-great-great-great grandfather, however, the Queen has been in full command of everything. Now Balmoral beckons. Last year’s Deeside retreat was interrupted by the great prorogation crisis (how swiftly that episode has been relegated from constitutional apocalypse to half-remembered footnote). Since then, the implosion of the Duke of York, the flight of the Sussexes and Covid have made for a bleak royal winter and spring. The prospect of the Highlands should have the Queen’s spirits soaring. Except the Union has never been in graver danger, as James Forsyth spelled out in The Spectator last week. And the Scottish government’s latest rules must be obeyed: ‘A maximum of eight people from up to three different households can meet indoors.’ So who will be in this select few? Top of the list, surely, will be that ardent champion of all things Scottish, the Princess Royal. Three days after the Glorious Twelfth, she celebrates her glorious 70th.
For the past year, I have been following the Princess as part of an ITV birthday documentary. I have interviewed her both pre- and post-lockdown and can sense no change to her energy levels. She’s been meeting her charities by video link and spends any spare moments on the Gatcombe Park farm. However, we were unable to witness one of her enduring (and endearing) passions. For many years, she’s been patron of the Northern Lighthouse Board, the custodian of Scotland’s 206 lighthouses, and loves her bracing trips to barely accessible beacons like Muckle Flugga or Ailsa Craig. Not on our watch, though. Talking to her at Gatcombe last month, my eye was drawn towards the royal ankle. Dressed in trousers, the Princess had chosen some rather lively socks. It turned out they were covered in lighthouses. Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau often uses his socks to make a point. Boris Johnson has done the same. I’ve never seen it done by a princess before.
Boris and the Princess know each other of old, having worked on the 2012 Olympics together. He sings her praises in our film. She, in turn, is tickled to see him — in bronze. Arriving for a sitting with the sculptor Frances Segelman, the Princess inspects a selection of the artist’s previous subjects, including a bust of Boris. She expresses her sympathy for the artist: ‘The hairdo’s tricky.’ Her own, it transpires, is not. As she reveals, she likes to do it herself — ‘it’s quicker’ -— and it takes her no more than ten to 15 minutes.
The Princess is not only marking her 70th but, in the case of some of her 300-plus organisations, a golden jubilee. While her brothers all had pre-royal careers, she began official duties more than 50 years ago, fresh from school. One of her first appointments, at 18, was as Colonel-in-Chief of the 14th/20th Hussars (now the King’s Royal Hussars). Flicking through the regimental scrapbook, Lt Col Angus Tilney MC marvels at old photos of the young Princess driving a tank without a helmet and firing a gun without ear defenders. Were she to do that today, he says, ‘it would be the end of me’. Looking back, the health and safety (or lack of) is as striking as the hats. We had a delightful day interviewing Valerie Singleton, who made Blue Peter’s great 1971 film with the Princess in Kenya. At one point, they are both seen galloping headlong through the bush — without helmets. Valerie revealed what happened next, off-camera. She suffered a nasty fall which left her in great pain and it took a search party hours to find her runaway horse. Today’s royal documentary-makers have it easy.
The Princess’s 1973 marriage to Captain Mark Phillips was colour TV’s first royal wedding, viewed by 500 million across the world. Nineteen years later, her wedding to Commander Tim Laurence was watched by a few dozen inside Crathie Kirk, followed by sandwiches at Balmoral. Having set the benchmark for a no-frills royal wedding, the couple have now sailed through their silver wedding anniversary and are approaching their pearl, a point surely not lost on Princess Beatrice and Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi. Their wedding at Windsor last week was an even smaller affair. The omission of the parents from the official photos has dominated all the coverage. Yet something else is missing. For the first time since that 1992 affair at Crathie, a royal wedding has passed without a single republican bleat about the cost.
We hear much about ‘Covidiots’, less about ‘Covinertia’. However much we claim to be fully productive at our kitchen tables, the PM is right to urge us back to our desks now before corporate rigor mortis sets in. Thanks to Covid, I cannot watch my own programme. Our telly signal comes via the Sky dish, which blew off its rooftop perch in March. Sky have twice refused to mend it because it needs a tall ladder with two people to hold it — and this, they say, breaches distancing rules. We’ll just have to gather round the iPhone instead.
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Robert Hardman writes for the Daily Mail. Anne: The Princess Royal at 70 is on ITV at 9 p.m. on 29 July.
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