The Queen we know: royal writers reflect for the platinum jubilee

Charles Rae

Royal correspondent for Today (1986 to 1995) and the Sun (1995 to 2003) and author of The Queen Mum: Her First 100 Years

Rae will never forget a conversation he had with the Queen that revealed a little-seen mischievous side to her. It happened during the Queen’s official welcome to South Africa in 1999.

“There was a 10- or 21-gun salute and all the guns turned out to be underneath us, opposite where the Queen was being officially welcomed,” he remembers.

Charles Rae.
Charles Rae

The ensuing bangs made the entire press corps jump out of their skins and, worst of all, he says, “we couldn’t see the Queen, the photographers couldn’t get pictures … it was just fog”. The Queen came over later and asked the correspondents if they had enjoyed the event. “Before any of us could say anything, she said: ‘I knew what was going to happen. I watched the rehearsal from my room yesterday. I knew that the smoke from the guns was going to just cover that whole area.’” She asked them if they had been surprised, and then confided: “I’ve often wondered what it would be like to make you all disappear in a puff of smoke. And that’s what’s happened today.”

He also remembers how friendly she and Nelson Mandela were during that tour. At one point, Mandela came over to chat to Rae, as the Queen greeted some dignitaries in front of them. “He said to me: ‘Isn’t Elizabeth marvellous?’”

Rae couldn’t think who he meant. “‘Elizabeth?’ I said. And he looked at me as if I’d come from Mars. ‘I’m talking about the Queen.’”

Looking back now, he says Mandela is the only person he ever heard refer to the Queen as Elizabeth. “And she called him Nelson. He had great affection for her – and she for him.”

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh view the floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales, at Buckingham Palace.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh view the floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales, at Buckingham Palace in 1997. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

One of the most touching moments he recalls observing had occurred a few years earlier, when the Queen returned home to Buckingham Palace after the death of Princess Diana.

“It was a hard time for the royals, then, and as she and the Duke walked up to the flowers at the railings, there was silence from the crowd. You could hear a pin drop. No one said a word.”

The Queen noticed a little girl standing there, holding a bunch of flowers, and offered to put the bouquet with the other flowers that had been laid for the memory of Diana. “And the little girl said: ‘No, no. These flowers are for you.’”

He thinks that touched the Queen deeply. “It showed, completely, on her face.”

Michael Cole

Court correspondent for the BBC (1985 to 1988)

Michael Cole.
Michael Cole. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex

It was on a sunny autumn day, more than 30 years after she came to the throne, that the Queen was finally told how to make cement.

She had just opened a big new cement works in Barbados, recalls former broadcaster Cole. For 40 minutes she stood perfectly still in front of the press corps, listening “intently” as the manufacturing process was explained to her in great detail, with diagrams and graphics.

Eventually, the earnest young man talking to her stopped. “It was a warm morning. And everybody, me included, started to think, well, it would be nice to have a drink before lunch.” But it was not to be: “‘And then, of course,’” Cole recalls the young man telling her, “‘there’s the other way of making cement’. And so the Queen then had to learn the other way of making cement.”

He could not help admiring her greatly at that moment. “She did not move. She did not show impatience, boredom or any of the other human characteristics that perhaps somebody like myself might have expressed.” She is a punctilious woman, he says, with “immense patience” – who is quite aware that 50% of her job is making sure she is seen, by members of the public, fulfilling her duties.

Nicholas Owen

Royal correspondent for ITN (1994 to 2000)

Nicholas Owen.
Nicholas Owen. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

There are certain rules that the palace expects royal correspondents to abide by – and one of them is that you are not supposed to initiate a conversation with the Queen.

“The understanding is that you don’t speak to the Queen until she speaks to you,” says Owen. “Well, I always thought that was rot. The job of a journalist is to be inquisitive and to talk to people wherever possible.”

As well as routinely disobeying that rule when he was the ITN royal correspondent in the 1990s, he also tried his very best not to bow to the Queen. “I’m not one of those people who thinks bowing is a very good idea in any circumstances. But the problem is, the Queen’s rather short. So, when she approaches you, you can’t do anything other than tip your head down to her.”

It was even more difficult with the Queen Mother, he says. “She was even shorter.”

He will always remember “nattering away” to the Queen on board the royal yacht Britannia in 1995, shortly after Nelson Mandela had become president. “We just talked so excitedly about that experience of being in South Africa at such an amazing time, the sights we’d seen and the people we’d met.”

He also remembers attending the 50th birthday of Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace in 1998 and hearing the Queen say to the Queen Mother, as they walked up to greet him: “You know who this is, Mother, don’t you?” And he recalls the Queen Mother replying with a long, drawn-out “Ye-e-es.”

He still isn’t sure what she or the Queen thought of him: “I suppose they were just saying, there’s that bloke off the telly – what a nuisance he can be.”

Peter Hunt

BBC royal correspondent (2003 to 2017)

Peter Hunt.
Peter Hunt. Photograph: Twitter

“Critically, she’s got a sense of the absurd, which I think you have to have in that role,” says Hunt, who had a chance to observe the Queen on more occasions than most.

On one occasion, he was standing on a table in a crowded room with his cameraman to film the Queen’s visit to an exhibition of children’s paintings. “And we suddenly discovered, while we were standing there, that we were obscuring the display she was meant to be looking at. So when she came by to look at the paintings, all she could look at was our legs.”

The Queen, however, took it all in her stride. “Her reaction was: ‘Oh. You are tall, up there.’”

The Queen throws in the puck to start an ice hockey match on 24 October 2008 in Bratislava, Slovakia.
The Queen throws in the puck to start an ice hockey match on 24 October 2008 in Bratislava, Slovakia. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

He also remembers an exhibition ice hockey game in Slovakia in 2008, where a red carpet had been laid on the ice for the Queen to walk on, so that she could drop the puck.

“She walked out and my memory is the stadium erupted into a cacophony of sound. The players started banging their sticks and the fans started banging the metal surrounds – they gave her that sort of rock star welcome.”

He watched her face break out of a mildly severe expression into this extraordinary grin. “And I just remember thinking: you’re human, and who doesn’t like a bit of adulation? It was a very striking moment,” he says. “I saw a different side to her.”

Katie Nicholl

Royal correspondent for Vanity Fair and author of Her Majesty The Queen: The Official Platinum Jubilee Pageant Commemorative Album

Katie Nicholl.
Katie Nicholl. Photograph: Lou Rocco/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images

It was while waiting for a meeting of Commonwealth heads of government in Malta that the former royal editor for the Mail on Sunday, Kate Nicholl, saw the Queen’s human side. “The Queen was on time for the engagement at the palace, with Charles. But all of the other world leaders had been held up in a terrible traffic jam – and they were late.”

If there is one thing all the royal correspondents agree on, it’s that the Queen is an extremely punctual person and likes to keep to her schedule.

“She had a face like thunder. She was terribly cross at being kept waiting – it’s just a big no-no,” remembers Nicholl.

And then she saw Charles whispering something in the Queen’s ear. “Her face lit up. He’d obviously told her a joke or quipped something funny, and she immediately relaxed. And all that tension melted away. It was a wonderful moment.”


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