On the day before he died, the Duke of Edinburgh was in good form, joshing with his eldest son over the telephone.
‘We’re talking about your birthday,’ said the Prince of Wales as he broached the delicate subject of a party to mark the Duke’s forthcoming centenary. He knew his father was not terribly keen on the idea.
The Duke was a little hard of hearing so the Prince said it again, more loudly. ‘We’re talking about your birthday! And whether there’s going to be a reception!’
The Duke was underwhelmed. ‘Well, I’ve got to be alive for it, haven’t I?’
‘I knew you’d say that!’ his son shot back.
That little exchange is etched in Prince Charles’s mind. ‘It’s a happy memory,’ he adds with a gentle smile as he tells me the story.
It is one of so many happy memories in what is surely the most poignant royal documentary in a long time.
Coming to BBC One on Wednesday night, Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers is also, to use that well-worn phrase, genuinely unprecedented. For it includes contributions from more members of the Royal Family than any programme ever made – 15 of them all told.
Coming to BBC One on Wednesday night, Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers is also, to use that well-worn phrase, genuinely unprecedented. For it includes contributions from more members of the Royal Family than any programme ever made – 15 of them all told. Pictured, the Queen and Prince Philip with their children in 1972
They have all gladly sat down to share their memories of the Duke, reflections that are tender, at times emotional, often hilarious and always insightful.
From the Duke’s teenage entrepreneurial leanings to his art, his crusades, his passion for (and struggles with) gadgets and, above all, his love of family life, this is the ultimate portrait of the longest-lived consort in British royal history.
For this cast of characters – most of them instantly recognisable – are talking about their father, grandfather, great-uncle, father-in-law or a very popular boss.
With the honourable exception of the Queen (who does not give television interviews), this is a full house of those who knew the Duke better than anyone. There are no royal commentators or dim and distant ‘friends’ in this film. As for a presenter, there isn’t one. The whole Royal Family is our narrator.
They have all gladly sat down to share their memories of the Duke, reflections that are tender, at times emotional, often hilarious and always insightful. Pictured, Robert interviews Prince Charles for the show
The Duke of Edinburgh with Prince Andrew at Christmas 1964
We hear the Duke’s children discuss what his own childhood must have been like. Others talk of how he inspired or pushed them in a certain direction – or deliberately avoided getting involved at all. What is abundantly clear is that life around the Duke was enormous fun.
Bedtime stories every night
The Duke of Edinburgh’s love of literature is not only reflected in his extensive library but in the number of books he wrote himself. They include works on theology, the environment and selected speeches. One of the most popular was inspired by his voyages in the Royal Yacht, called Birds From Britannia and published in 1962. He took the photographs himself and we found some of the originals in his study at Buckingham Palace.
Philip at Gordonstoun in the early 30s
He was also punctilious about telling his children bedtime stories, as all of them remember fondly. ‘He always made the point of coming up of an evening to read,’ the Princess Royal tells me. The Duke was particularly fond of children’s classics.
Prince Charles can still recite whole chunks by heart. ‘An incredibly special memory was when he read the poet Longfellow’s Hiawatha. For some reason or other it has always remained with me,’ he says. ‘It always conjured up the most incredible images in my mind. My father did that wonderfully.’
The Duke Of Cambridge shares the priceless tale of the day he and other members of the family were driving with Prince Philip across a remote part of the Balmoral estate. Suddenly, they encountered a subject close to his grandfather’s heart.
‘We came across what was very obviously some Duke of Edinburgh Award people with their rucksacks on,’ Prince William explains. ‘He stopped and wound down his window and said, “Good morning. How are you getting on?” To which the smallest young chap at the back turned round and effectively said, “Jog on Grandpa!”’
The Duke of Edinburgh then wound up the window, drove on and turned to his family saying, ‘The youth of today!’
Guffawing at the memory of it at his Norfolk home, Prince William lets slip that the youngster actually said something very much ruder (and unprintable). ‘But for the purposes of this film, I thought “jog on” was a more appropriate way of saying it!’ The Duke of Edinburgh, needless to say, found the whole episode hilarious.
As the Duke of Sussex explains, his grandfather never took himself too seriously. ‘What you see is what you got with my grandfather and that’s what I love more than anything else,’ Prince Harry says. ‘He was unapologetically him at all times no matter where he was, no matter who he was speaking to.’
There are some especially touching moments. Princess Eugenie takes a deep breath as she relives the moment when she introduced the Duke to the new great-grandson who carries his name.
There have been reports that Prince Philip never met August Philip Hawke Brooksbank, who was born in February. Not so.
‘I brought little August to come and meet him,’ says Princess Eugenie, blinking hard at the recollection. ‘I told him that we’d named him after him. It was such a lovely moment. We were very lucky to do that.’
It was around this time last year that I first approached Buckingham Palace with the idea of making a film to mark the Duke’s 100th birthday.
Some years before, I had interviewed the Duke for the BBC (The Duke: In His Own Words is now on iPlayer) and it included a very memorable and enjoyable tour of Windsor Castle and its estate.
The Duke of Edinburgh sharing a joke with Prince William in 2016, as they opened the new East Anglian Air Ambulance Base at Cambridge Airport
Back came word from the Palace. The Duke had no wish at all to be involved in any birthday film but nor would he stand in our way. So, with a small team from Oxford Films, we set about asking various members of the Royal Family if they would take part.
Role model for royal newcomers
Marrying into the most famous family in the world is not easy.
Having learned the ropes himself more than 70 years ago, the Duke of Edinburgh would go on to act as a role model for those who followed.
The Duchess of Cornwall certainly studied his example after her marriage to the Prince of Wales in 2005.
The Duchess of Cornwall (pictured) certainly studied his example after her marriage to the Prince of Wales in 2005
‘I saw the way he supported the Queen,’ she says, ‘not in a flashy sort of way but just by doing it quietly. You know, following along behind. It’s something that I’ve learnt by watching him.’
The Duke of Cambridge is full of admiration for the way his grandfather adjusted to his new role. ‘It was very much a man’s world back then. And so for a man to give up his career to support a woman, albeit the Queen, was still quite a big step.’
Prince Philip with the Duchess of Cambridge in 2017
Such is the universal love for the Duke that everyone said that they would. I went to Gatcombe Park to interview the Princess Royal and Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence about the Duke’s love of the sea, among other things.
Having learned to sail with her father, Princess Anne always found that he excelled ‘when things start to get a bit hairy’ but was less content when things were calm. ‘The worst, as far as he was concerned, was when there wasn’t enough wind. That always caused a certain amount of aggravation.’
Sir Tim looks through the Duke’s handwritten midshipman’s log of going into battle during the war and is impressed as he examines the King’s Dirk – the prize for best cadet at Dartmouth Royal Naval College, which was awarded to the Duke in 1939.
‘Most people who go to Dartmouth are just very glad to get through it,’ Sir Tim observes. ‘If you can do well enough to get their top prize, then you’re something a bit special.’
At Bagshot Park, I sat down with the Earl and Countess of Wessex to look through pictures and reports from the Duke’s Gordonstoun schooldays and to talk about that famous ‘DofE’ Award scheme.
‘He always joked that they set up this little pilot project back in 1956,’ says the Earl, ‘and as far as he’s concerned that pilot’s never stopped.’
What’s more, the Duke would never regard it as his own award. As Prince Edward would say to people, ‘Never ask the Duke of Edinburgh to blow his own trumpet. He will not. He’ll talk about anything else.’
In the programme, the Wessexes are joined by their 17-year-old daughter, Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor, who gives us a delightful interview, her first on television. She happened to be working towards her first Duke of Edinburgh Award at the time. ‘There was certainly an element of making my grandfather proud – and honouring him by taking part,’ she says.
At Windsor, the Duke of York sat down in front of a camera for the first time since speaking to Newsnight in 2019. This would be a programme solely about Prince Philip and nothing else. The Duke talks of how his hands-on father taught him all about sport, how to swim and even how to drive.
Prince Andrew’s elder daughter, Princess Beatrice, explains how her grandfather’s celebrated one-liners were a means of getting people to feel at ease by ‘breaking the ice’. (The Princess Royal makes an important point on the same subject: ‘He could be a bit sharp with his wit. But I always felt that he was never cruel.’)
inside the Duke’s HQ: This Pine Room was home to his private secretary and assistants. Books, curios, amphora and mementos from his travels cover the shelves
BLUEBOTTLE in miniature: This is a model of the 26ft Dragon class racing yacht Bluebottle, built in 1948 by Camper and Nicholsons at Gosport, Hampshire, and presented to the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh in 1952 by members of the Island Sailing Club at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Charles got to sail in it with his father in the 50s (above)
Desk Job: Philip at his hexagonal desk in the Library in 2001 (above). His statuettes of prime ministers are behind him
Among the eclectic collection of books sits a copy of The Honourable Schoolboy, the second in John le Carres’ Karia triology
Princess Beatrice remembers the Duke of Edinburgh’s artistic eye, showing me his design for an eye-catching lotus flower fountain on Windsor’s East Terrace.
We had already filmed several interviews when the Duke’s death was announced on 9 April. Obviously, work on the project then ceased as the world paid its respects to a man who had been at the centre of public life for the best part of a century.
Over the subsequent days, Britain and the wider world discovered many things they never knew about a prince who was born into one monarchy and devoted his life to another.
Once the funeral was over, we reviewed what we had already filmed. Along with the BBC’s commissioning editor Simon Young and executive producer Nick Kent, we realised that these were important reflections for posterity, not just for a 100th birthday which was no longer going to happen. Members of the Royal Family agreed. They wanted to ensure that everyone had their say in a project that is now, finally, complete.
His study, the inner sanctum, which he designed himself on the bridge of a ship. Switches operated the blinds and the intercom, and the desk was custom-built.
His archivist Alexandra McCreery showed Robert around the rooms
A heated black pudding debate!
The Duke had a long-running, good-natured debate with another national treasure famous for his pithy one-liners: Les Dawson.
The Duke with Les Dawson at a Variety Club event in 1983
Sir Tim Laurence recalls that the two were at a dinner where they fell into conversation about the correct way to cook black pudding. ‘Prince Philip declared that the correct way was to fry it and Les Dawson said, “Absolutely not! The correct way is to boil it.” Eventually the evening ended and they parted friends but disagreeing on this important point.’
Some time later, Les appeared at the Royal Variety Performance, and even sang a song about black pudding. Afterwards there was a royal introduction to all the cast. As the royal party came down the line they reached Dawson. He thrust out his hand and declared, ‘Boiled!’ The Duke shook it warmly, said ‘Fried!’ and walked on.
We resumed our interviews during the summer, starting with the Prince of Wales, whom I interviewed at his Highgrove home in Gloucestershire. Covid, time differences and royal timetables did not make things easy.
There were relatives in Germany. An American crew would need to film Prince Harry in Los Angeles. He offers unalloyed praise for the way his grandfather has supported all the family, especially the Queen.
‘From my grandmother’s perspective, to have someone like that on your shoulder for 73 years of marriage – it doesn’t get better than that.’
There was an element of urgency about it all, too. Buckingham Palace is currently undergoing a major refurbishment and, following the Duke’s death, the builders were about to strip out his quarters.
Ever since the Queen came to the throne, this grand and gloriously quirky suite of tall, north-facing first-floor rooms – crammed with the Duke’s 15,000 books, his paintings, his private papers, glass cases of medals, coins and curios, small statuettes of birds, of animals and even of prime ministers – had been the Duke’s HQ.
Before the current reign, these had been the King’s rooms, the place where George VI would often plot the direction of the Second World War with Winston Churchill. Heaven knows what these walls could say.
All this was still as it was – but not for much longer. Our directors, Faye Hamilton and Matt Hill, wanted to capture the essence of the man before this historic collection was removed.
The Duke’s archivist, Alexandra McCreery, was our guide, starting in the Pine Room, home to his office staff – his Private Secretary and a team of five assistants, known as ‘the girls’. Alexandra started here herself, working her way up from ‘fifth girl’.
She describes how everyone was included in discussions and they all adored working for the Duke. ‘He was a very fair boss and there was tremendous love for him, love for the office, loyalty to the private secretaries. It was a good ship to be in.’
I learnt first-hand from him
One of the most striking moments at the Duke’s funeral was the sight of his carriage and ponies saluting their former master. The Duke did not just enjoy carriage-driving. He wrote the rulebook and made it a sport.
One of the most striking moments at the Duke’s funeral was the sight of his carriage and ponies saluting their former master (pictured)
Now it is his granddaughter, Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor, supported by her mother, the Countess of Wessex, who is continuing the royal link. Down at Windsor’s Royal Mews, she gives us a demonstration of a challenging sport she approaches with much the same gusto as the Duke.
‘It’s incredible to have learned first-hand from him. It’s definitely made us closer,’ says Lady Louise, 17, during a polished television debut. ‘After a competition he’d always ask how it went. His eyes would light up, because he’d get so excited. He is honestly one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.’
Now it is his granddaughter, Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor (pictured), supported by her mother, the Countess of Wessex, who is continuing the royal link
The Duke found Lady Louise a more promising pupil than his eldest son. The Prince of Wales bursts out laughing as he tells me what happened when he had a go. ‘He tried to teach me to drive a carriage pair but that didn’t last very long. I got complete hysterics driving up the Long Walk, with him getting more and more annoyed that I wasn’t concentrating properly!’
Alexandra leads us through to the Library, a bright conference room with a hexagonal conference table beneath the bulk of his library collection. There are shelves of cookery books, a large section on Antarctica, what appears to be almost everything ever written on horses (The White Stallions Of Vienna, The Heavy Horse Manual…).
There are whole cases filled with books on the Second World War, others crammed with ornithology (I spot two separate editions of Birds Of Pakistan), dictionaries of Gaelic, Greek and Spanish…
Even though she is now a Palace veteran, Alexandra is still unearthing fresh discoveries. Flicking through his carefully compiled flight logs, she suddenly chances upon the day in 1972 when the Duke flew Concorde. She has never seen it before. ‘Gosh, that’s really lovely. You see, I told you I learned something new every day!’
Finally, we go through to the inner sanctum, the Duke’s study, which he designed himself (‘along the same lines as the bridge of a ship’, says the Duke of York). There are old-fashioned switches for operating blinds and intercoms and a custom-built desk. It must have been very cutting-edge back in the 50s. The Duke would later have one of the Palace’s first computers in here, though modernity could be a trial.
‘He loved technology, he loved gadgets,’ says Peter Phillips. ‘They didn’t always work,’ chuckles sister Zara. Peter does a delightful impression of his grandfather coming to terms with some new device. ‘Why is it doing this? Why is it doing this?’
Peter would explain, ‘Well, Grandpa, that’s what it’s supposed to be doing because it helps you.’
Back came the response: ‘Well, that’s just bloody stupid!’
Even at the age of 99, the Duke’s death still came as something of a shock to everyone. ‘He was getting older and he absolutely hated it,’ says Zara. ‘He was the worst patient in the world! But, actually, you never really prepare yourself for losing him because he was always there.’
The Duke of Sussex goes back to one of his grandfather’s favourite sports. ‘He had a fantastic innings. It’s almost as though, at 99, he came running out of the crease, went for a massive six, scored the six but didn’t actually want to get to a century.’
As the Duchess of Cornwall tells me, he was one of the last of the greats. ‘It felt like the end of an era. They’re a very difficult generation to live up to but I’m very proud and very pleased that I knew him.’
The last word goes to a wistful Prince of Wales. ‘We were lucky to have him for nearly 100 years.’
Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers will be shown on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC One.
Philip’s family photo album