In a fortnight the Queen will set a remarkable record. On 21 December, she will overtake Queen Victoria (81 years and 243 days) to become the oldest British monarch in history. Do not expect any fanfares, not from royal quarters at any rate. The Queen will be at Sandringham and there will be no official recognition of this milestone. As far as she is concerned, last month’s Diamond Wedding anniversary was quite enough celebration for one year. In any case, she is not one for getting competitive with the ancestors.
But the rest of us are entitled to ruminate on this achievement. Of Britain’s three octogenarian monarchs, the other two — Victoria and George III — were barely capable of standing up. Since her 80th birthday, the Queen has undertaken some 500 official engagements and made five state visits overseas, most recently to Uganda. Some might seek to put her stamina down to genes and modern medicine. But her achievement goes far beyond mere longevity. At an age when all of her contemporaries have long since retired, she has, very quietly, been something of a royal rebel.
For the last 18 months, I have been part of a small production team following the work of the Queen, her family and her staff for the current BBC1 documentary series, Monarchy: The Royal Family At Work. As well as writing the series, I have written a new book alongside it. Viewers have already been treated to the inside story of a White House welcome, the domestic dramas behind a Palace banquet and the emotional impact of a royal investiture.
What is less visible, but even more striking, is the quiet change of pace that has taken place at the Palace over the last ten years. And the real surprise is that things are actually speeding up.
You might imagine that an institution governed by a woman of 81 (and with a husband of 86) would either be slowing down or handing on. The Monarchy is doing neither. The Prince of Wales continues to support the Queen when required and he knows the ropes better than anyone (next year, he sets a record of his own when he overtakes Edward VII to become the longest-serving heir apparent in history).
But transition is not a topic of discussion at headquarters. In any case, there is quite enough change going on as it is. In the last few years, there has been a conscious move towards reshaping the royal approach to everything. It’s neither tokenism nor a belated knee-jerk response to the criticisms which followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. It is level-headed adaptation. And the lead comes from the top. On royal ‘away-days’, for example, there is now a deliberate policy of slashing back the ranks of officialdom to a minimum. When I followed a Palace recce party down to Brighton earlier this year, in advance of the Queen’s first visit to the city in six years, the request was very clear. This time, the Queen would rather not meet a succession of civic worthies and councillors. To the dismay of several local dignitaries, there was no room for them in the royal programme at all. The guest list for the civic reception included organisations which would never have made it on to the guest list in previous years — a local swimming club, the Gay Elderly Men’s Society and so on.
At a Palace garden party, I learnt a useful tip for anyone plotting a royal introduction: play down your importance. There are roughly 8,000 guests at every garden party, all of them invited for some sort of contribution to society. A team of retired military men called Gentlemen Ushers meander through the crowd making small talk and picking out people who will be invited to have a chat with the Queen. These wily old birds apply two criteria. The first is variety. ‘If one clergyman turns up and two down the lane is another clergyman, he’s out of luck,’ the senior Gentleman Usher told me. But the second is VIP status — it is a positive handicap. ‘We do avoid those who, in their normal lives, had a better opportunity to meet the royal family — mayors and people like that.’
Before the Queen’s reign, the only people who would be invited to these events were nobility, debutantes and senior politicians. Now, the pyramid has been inverted. Until the mid-Nineties, there was still a rule that guests could only bring a spouse and/or unmarried daughters under the age of 25 (a throwback to the deb days). Then that changed, too. Everyone could bring a guest of whatever ilk and either sex. ‘The Queen said that every guest invited on their own should have the opportunity to bring along a member of the family, a neighbour, a friend,’ explained one of the Garden Party Ladies, the dedicated team of part-timers who spend months writing 40,000 invitations. ‘It’s always lovely to talk about something you’re enjoying if you’ve come all the way from Northern Ireland or Leeds or Truro and you’re wandering round these lovely gardens.’
At an age when all of her contemporaries have long since retired, the Queen is evidently happy to jettison many of the conventions of her own class and generation.
Does any of this matter? Aren’t these rather trivial points in relation to a head of state? Actually, they are indicative of a changing mindset which pervades an institution commonly perceived to be utterly impervious to novelty of any kind. The man who has supervised a lot of this quiet innovation is Lord Luce, the former Lord Chamberlain, who recently retired after six years in a post which could best be summed up as non-executive chairman of the Royal Household. ‘The Monarchy cannot just exist. It depends on popular support to survive, and that means adapting,’ said the former Tory arts minister (he went on to be governor of Gibraltar) when I went to see him in his London flat. His favourite phrase during his Palace years was the line from Lampedusa’s The Leopard: ‘If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change.’
And, in many ways, nothing much had changed for the first 40 years of the Queen’s reign. Reforms were overdue and already in the pipeline by the start of the annus horribilis of 1992. The collapse of two royal marriages and the Windsor fire hastened an overhaul of the royal finances. The Queen was taxed, accounts were opened up and the Palace began admitting the paying public. Critics in political circles and the press took the credit but the plans had long been prepared by the Lord Chamberlain of the day, the Earl of Airlie. If his achievement was to change the financial structure, Lord Luce’s has been to change entrenched attitudes — with the blessing of his boss.
Right up to the millennium, the idea of turning over the gardens to a pop concert (2002) or a children’s theme park (2006) would have been greeted with derision by senior courtiers (the term ‘courtier’, by the way, is no longer recognised by the Palace). These days, the staff will turn their hand to most things, within reason. Another innovation is the ‘themed day’ to salute a deserving area of British life. A recent example was ‘Science Day’. The Palace was converted into a science park for children and, in the evening, the Queen held a reception for everyone from Professor Stephen Hawking to the county moth inspector for Bedfordshire. When I arrived to watch the preparations, I found two academics from Portsmouth University drilling holes in the ballroom ceiling in order to hang up a 37-foot pterosaur. A few years back, they would have been arrested.
The ballroom itself is unlikely to hold another ball. The Queen has decided it is better suited to modern mass-entertainment. Ballroom dancing is enjoying a comeback on the telly but not at the Palace, where the dance floor is now being covered with functional (though very decorative) carpet tiles. Upstairs, the old Palace hospital wing has just been converted into extra gue
st suites. Strange as it may seem, the 650-room building has always lacked proper accommodation for the entourage of the modern state visitor (so as not to alarm her guests, the Queen has renamed the hospital wing the ‘Ambassadors’ Floor’). And so it goes on. The royal warrants now even extend to the portable loos at the garden parties. The Palace is devising the first state-recognised qualification for the aspiring Jeeves — the new NVQ in butling.
It’s not quite up there with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. But this reign shows no signs whatsoever of the gentle withdrawal and stagnation one might have expected after 55 years. The Diamond Jubilee is less than five years away. More pop concerts in the garden? How about a Grand Prix round the lake? Don’t rule it out.
Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work by Robert Hardman, Ebury Press, £20; BBC1 Mondays, 9 p.m. Robert Hardman writes for the Daily Mail.