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The Royals: Queen Elizabeth - A Diamond Reign

Aired June 2, 2012 - 14:30   ET


NICK GLASS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Once upon a time, in case we had forgotten or never knew, there was a beautiful young princess, a fairy tale princess. At the age of just 27, she was crowned a queen in a glittering fairy tale ceremony filmed in Technicolor.

Long before anyone had heard of Kate or Diana, there was Elizabeth, a star from the very beginning, and a regal, unflagging presence in our lives ever since.

DAVID CANNADINE, HISTORIAN: I think she's the most visually represented human being ever to have existed ever in the entire history of the world. I cannot think who the rival is. So that in itself is utterly extraordinary.

GLASS: This is only the second royal diamond jubilee in British history after Queen Victoria's way back in 1987. There's much to celebrate and remember. A lot of smile it's, a lot of laughter, and all that pageantry, and, of course, the occasional revelation that it's raining outside.


GLASS: I'm going to try to tell the queen's story in a special and original way. We're going to delve into the old photographic archives of the Victorian Albert museum at the National Portrait Gallery. We're going to look at old scrapbook, the once owned by Cecil, the court photographer, and by her dressmaker Hardy Amos. We are going to turn back the pages and take a closer look at the first royal celebrity of post-war Britain.

MARGARET RHODES, QUEEN'S FIRST COUSIN: I think sometimes she's better looking at 80-something, sometimes, than when she was 18.

GLASS: And we're going to talk to one of her oldest friends.

RHODES: When she's at home and just being a wife and a mother with her family, she's -- she's -- not grand at all.

GLASS: Baby Lilibeth was shown off to the cameras at just a few months old, wrapped apparently in urman. At three she made front cover of "TIME" magazine. Lilibeth set the babe fashion for yellow. In the basement of military barracks in London, we found photos of a shy but smiling teenage princess. Papa, George VI, made her honorary colonel at age 16, her first job. The idea of a fairy tale princess was much to Cecil Beaton. Beaton, a photographer of all the Hollywood beauties, was enchanted. "Incandescent complexion," he wrote, "brilliant thrush-like eyes."

SUSANNA BROWN, CURATOR, VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM: He was very keen to place her in that long and great tradition of fairytale queens and princesses, and so he uses these beautiful backdrops based on well- known paintings.

GLASS: Beaton quickly fill add scrapbook as his romantic vision was reproduced in papers and magazines. "The Little Princess" by the royal governess, Marian Crawford, became a sensational best-seller. Lilibeth is in yellow again. "TIME" magazine put her on the front cover for a second time in 1947, a diamond princess about to turn 21.

PAUL MOORHOUSE, CURATOR, NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY: There was an awful lot of attention on her. We associate this with Princess Diana, we associate it with Kate Middleton now, but we forget that our queen went through exactly the same process. It's surprisingly informal, and there's just so little freeze on of sex appeal.

GLASS: Sexy, sensible Elizabeth was about to become even starrier. The coronation in 1953 was her defining moment. After three men either old or old before their time, a bright-eyed handsome young woman, it was the greatest ceremonial incident in Britain in the 20th century, the first coronation ever to be televised. This was its simple climax, a heavy 350-year-old crown of jewels and gold placed carefully on her head. She gives just a hint of a smile.

DAVID STARKEY, HISTORIAN: I was a boy of eight. It was the first time I had ever seen the television set let alone a coronation. I've never forgotten it. The queen, she was extraordinarily young. We'd forgotten, she was very pretty, and she was alone, because, of course, she wasn't crowned with Philip. He's only a consul. It was an act of ritual dedication. She swore oaths then which she to the best of her ability has kept and will never break. It's the coronation displays why she would never, ever contemplate abdication. This is a lifetime's commitment.

GLASS: The queen made the front cover of "Picture Goer" as did a young starlet calmed Joan Collins. Here was proof if anyone needed that Elizabeth had glamour. The magazine went into graphic detail about plans for a coronation movie. You could say the queen starred in three movies, all of them documentaries, all of them made for the cinema. The Canadians made "Royal Journey." The Australians made "The Queen Australia." And, of course, the British made, "A Queen is Crowned."

We joined older cinemagoers for a screening in a north London cinema. The movie was shown in cinemas within days of the coronation. During the intermission, we all had tea and cakes.

PHYLLIS MANNING: We had been married a week, but nevertheless, we slept on the pavement the night before, and I saw the queen. We saw the queen, everything. You name it, we saw it, in the coronation. It was a hell of a procession.

SYLVESTER EMILE: I was 10 years old, and I was -- we had a little drinking pool on the realm, you know, three drinks, Cheri-aids and lemonades and cream sodas, three things that stays in life, always. It was saddest thing in life and the most happiest things in life, and this was one of the most happiest things in mine.

GLASS: Every one of an age will have a memory of the coronation. A few may still have a memento. But the museum in London's Notting Hill, every one you could ever want -- tins for cocoa, biscuits, toffees. This was a triumphant moment for the royal brand. Everyone wanted to share in the fairytale.

One of the bestselling toys of 1953 was a matchbox size version of the coronation coach. They sold a million of them when a million was still a figure to conjure with. International magazines had special coronation editions, and, to no one the surprise, she was "TIME's" woman of the year. Had any English rose ever been this fated?

In the flight from austerity, Elizabeth and Philip were a golden couple, sweeping into town as if after a storm. New York gave them a huge ticker tape parade. And at a film premiere in London, Marilyn Monroe waited in the receiving line, both women within 30. It was fair ask who was the lovelier, one destined for early death and popular iconography, or the other, dazzling in black, just a few years into a long, long reign.


GLASS: When the queen was born the map was still substantially in imperial pink. That changed irrevocably after 1945. With the end of empire came a new role, head of the commonwealth, and she has absolutely reveled in it.

CANNADINE: I think she has always believed in this elaborate fraternal association which when she was growing up was an empire and has gradually morphed into a commonwealth. That gives her an authentically global role in way that that no other monarchy today has. She can kind of speak for a huge part of the world across the oceans and around the globe.

QUEEN ELIZABETH II: I declare before you all that my whole life shall be devoted to your service and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.

RHODES: To me, the culminating moment was the speech she made in South Africa at 21, when she dedicated her life. And in 60 years, she's kept that vow to the letter. And few people can say that they've done that.

QUEEN ELIZABETH II: When I was 21, I pledged my life to the service of our people, and I asked for god's help to make good that vow. Although that vow was made in my salad days when I was green in judgment, I do not regret no nowhere retract one word of it.


GLASS: Elegant in pink, another of her favorite colors, the Hardy Amos design was much admired at her jubilee in 1977. But let's get back to the beginning and the coronation again. The dress was designed by Norman Hardenal. Look closely and the embroidery has an obvious symbolism. The queen approved a sampling, an English rose at the center. A lotus flower for India, the New Zealand fern, the Canadian maple leaf, the South African protea, every one of them a commonwealth emblem. There's a whole generation out there who used to collect commonwealth stamps. Many people still do. The stamps help tell the story. Elizabeth's reign began with a marathon royal tour lasting six months, Gibraltar, Salon, Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And here they are at last amongst us, moving in triumphal progress through each city.

GLASS: Nothing will ever surpass the fervor that greeted them on that first visit by a reigning monarch. Australians didn't have television then. It's estimated three quarters of the entire population turned out to see them. The queen is simply the most traveled head of state in history. As her private secretary once said, she sleeps well, she's got very good legs, and she can stand for a long time. In short, she's as strong as a yak. She's need stamina and a strong stomach.

The Queen been in Fiji before and know what's to expect, dinner served in a coconut shell. This is a trying moment for any visitor, for it's looking like muddy water and tasting like -- tasting like -- well, it's not exactly to a queen's taste.

JOHN MAJOR, FORMER BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: When the queen ascended the throne, the commonwealth comprised about eight nations. It now comprises 54. The commonwealth and the queen have grown up together. She knows the commonwealth extremely well. She's very, very fond of it. You only have to see the queen on the commonwealth tour to see the empathy that exists between her and everybody in those 54 countries. It really is quite remarkable to see.

GLASS: The royal yacht Britannia was always a great place for a party. The queen and the duke played host in 1989. The mood is relaxed, almost exuberant, but in '63, girlishly excited. Who's that coming onboard now?

KAMALESH SHARMA, COMMONWEALTH SECRETARY-GENERAL: The queen is inseparable from the modern commonwealth. It is because she's been her own person throughout that the integrity and authenticity in everything that she does, and which people sense, because it's not simply possible to keep up an act for 60 years.

GLASS: The queen has always championed the commonwealth. It's a passion. Her prime ministers, and she's had 12 of them, have tended to focus more on Europe and the United States.

QUEEN ELIZABETH II: I have very personal reasons for feeling a special affection for Africa, for it was in Cape Town in 1947 on my 21st birthday that I committed my life to the service of the commonwealth, and it was in Kenya that where it reached me the death of my father and of the responsibilities I then assumed as queen and as head of the commonwealth in 1952.

GLASS: Where, if anywhere in Africa, hasn't she been? With the emperor in Ethiopia in 1965, dancing with the president of Ghana in 1961. Afrikaners in Apartheid South Africa didn't like that much. A London mini-cab driver remembers her visit to Ghana vividly. He was then a 17-year-old schoolboy.

When you marched past, did you look at her?

JOHN EVANS-APPLAH, LONDON MINI-CAB DRIVER: Of course I did. I had a very good look at her. She was radiant, smiling, waving. The fat bellies made an indelible impression on me, meaning I enjoyed that day very much.

QUEEN ELIZABETH II: Perhaps Nelson Mandela put it best when he said education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. To everyone throughout the commonwealth who is working towards this worthy goal, I extend my heartfelt thanks.

GLASS: The queen opened the most recent gathering of commonwealth heads of government in Perth last year. Her words that day seemed unusually poignant, almost valedictory. She ended her speech with an aboriginal saying.

QUEEN ELIZABETH II: We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love and then we return home. Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to declare April, this 21st meeting of the commonwealth heads of government.


GLASS: Some of her audience wondered whether she'll ever visit Australia again.


GLASS: The photographs have been on the side table for a while. Here is someone who is, as they say, royally connected, an old friend and neighbor in Windsor.

RHODES: I do see the queen as we go to the same little church in the park here for -- on Sunday. And she comes in and has a drink after. So it sort of keeps up the relationship.

GLASS: A gin and tonic or what?

RHODES: Gin and Dubonnet. It helps her moves in the morning.

GLASS: Margaret Rhodes is 10 months older than the queen. They're cousins and have been friends since childhood. She's just written a memoir. Naturally we get to see a few photos we hadn't seen before. Margaret is on the princess' side in a tug-of-war during a summer holiday in Scotland. On V-E Day in 1945, Victory in Europe Day, the friends celebrated together out on the freeze. RHODES: It was a wonderful moment. They were out in the clouds with everybody. We were out -- everybody was kissing everybody and putting policemen's helmets on their heads. You came back and -- to the king. The king and queen came out on the balcony, including daughters, which were yelling. It's the first time we'd seen the balcony from down below. It was magical moment, anyway, you know.

GLASS: The wedding photograph. You're on the left?

RHODES: Quite right.

GLASS: It's a lovely photograph.

RHODES: Yes, it's a nice photograph, and -- yes.

GLASS: Her choice of man?

RHODES: Prince Philip, well, I think she fell in love when she was 13. I mean, god, he was good looking. And he was inviting. And I think she really, truly has been a rock.

GLASS: That famous image, her first as queen, alone, coming off the plane back from Kenya in 1952 after the king's death. Margaret Rhodes sent a letter of condolence.

RHODES: I said that it must have been awful to have been so far away when it happened, in the middle of the bush in Kenya, and I think that she -- when she answered, I think she wrote and said that that was the awfulest part of it, because she had so wanted to be there to comfort mummy and Margaret.

GLASS: Margaret Rhodes talked to us for an hour or so. Hard not to think she said pretty much what her friend would have said were she to give interviews. She clearly has an empathy for the queen.

RHODES: I've got four children. She's got four children. Three of them managed to make unhappy marriages. It's terribly sad-making.

GLASS: And she would have done much the same as the queen did after Princess Diana's death in 1997.

RHODES: She was castigated by probably a lot of you for staying up in Balmorals with the two little boys. She was being a proper granny. What was the point of bringing the boys down to London with nothing to do but sit there feeling sad about mum? Personally I think I'd have acted exactly the same way. She made it all right in the end by coming down and looking at all the flowers, didn't she?

GLASS: All of them gold sovereigns, Queen Victoria and the kings that followed her, the Edwards and the Georges. Continuing the narrative, Elizabeth has assured a clear line of succession. Britannia, symbol of Britain since the Romans, was the face on British bank notes until Elizabeth whether replaced her. The queen has aged gracefully, just five different portraits. She hasn't changed on the notes at all since 1990. STARKEY: It's no accident that the symbols of countries are women -- Britannia, Maria and so on. The queen has been symbol of stability and changelessness, as everything, including her other than family and the monarchy, have altered around and some would say have fallen down.

CANNADINE: G.M. Young, the Victorian historian had a wonderful description in 1987. There are certain moments of concentrated emotion which seem to gather up the purpose of an entire generation. While I think that was true in 1897, it may be true in 2012. We'll have to see.

RHODES: I think you have to play up to your role model if you're queen. You've got to be queenly. On her own, she's just like one of us. You know, laughs at the same jokes, and -- just -- I mean, if she didn't happen to be born as queen, she would be in, hopefully, a rather nice country estate with she had lots and lots and lots of dogs and horses, and she'd be happy.

MAJOR: I think in the last few years she's been iconic. She has become a national treasure. We live in a world that is changing faster, I think, than most people find comfortable. There is a stability about the British crown, a stability about the queen who's been there so long.

As Princess Elizabeth, she pledged herself to the service of her country for the rest of her life. And I don't think anyone doubts that she has kept that pledge absolutely over the last 60-odd years.