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SERVING THE ROYALS
Subtitle: Inside the Firm
Category All , Human Interest , Society
Year: 2012
Country: Canada
Running Time: 50'
Production: Kaos Productions
Director: John Curtin
Official Website: www.kaosfilms.com/KaosFilms.html
Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dB4hXD4bceE
 
Synopsis

The third film in Curtin’s royalty series, AFTER ELIZABETH, CHASING THE ROYALS here is the brand new SERVING THE ROYALS: They iron the Queen’s bed sheets, polish Philip’s riding boots, squeeze Charles’s toothpaste and keep an eye on Harry when he strays into a strip club. They are the 700 men and women of the royal household: servants, consultants, advisers and protectors of the House of Windsor. Privy to the most intimate details of the royal family, they are its biggest asset but also its greatest liability. The spotlight is on their royal highnesses’ long suffering helpers: from lowly valets and chamber maids to more privileged chefs, protection officers and private secretaries. Round the clock they toil, often thanklessly, to keep the monarchy humming… but they see and hear almost everything. Here are some of their stories...

More on Film

They iron the Queen’s bed sheets, polish Philip’s riding boots, squeeze Charles’s toothpaste and keep an eye on Harry when he strays into a strip club. They tread through opulent palaces and courtyards in the shadows of their masters. They are the 700 men and women of the royal household: servants, consultants, advisers and protectors of the House of Windsor. Privy to the most intimate details of the royal family, they are its biggest asset and greatest liability.

The Windsors’ employees are sworn to secrecy but are not above betraying their masters for cash. Diana’s butler, Paul Burrell, sold more than half a million copies of his tell-all memoir, A Royal Duty. The book describes the bizarre and sometimes humiliating tasks assigned to palace domestics. Such as picking up one of Di’s lovers from his hiding spot at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and smuggling him through royal security in the trunk of a car. Assorted underlings have had more modest pay days peddling racy tidbits to the tabloids: Like the time they spilled gravy down the Queen Mother’s cleavage or witnessed an apoplectic Prince Charles tear a wash basin off the wall.

It’s all in a day’s work for the “below-the-stairs” staff who prize face time with the royals as compensation for paltry wages and often cramped living quarters. In fact, the royals barely notice most of their employees, believing that servants should be neither seen nor heard. “Good morning, Sir,” said an ill-advised valet to a still slumbering Duke of York.  Prince Andrew’s reply: “Fuck off!”

This documentary turns the spotlight on their royal highnesses’ long suffering helpers: from lowly valets and chamber maids to more privileged chefs, protection officers and private secretaries. Round the clock they toil, often thanklessly, to keep the monarchy humming. “Mums the word” … but they see and hear almost everything. Serving the Royals tells some of their stories.

Using a combination of colourful anecdotes, stock footage and recreations - shot in a stately British mansion where some of the finest butlers get their training – this film will give viewers an unusual glimpse into what royal servants do and see behind closed doors. It also takes a tough look at how the palace treats them.

As a young man, Darren McGrady apprenticed in the palace kitchens, peeling carrots for the Queen’s horses before having them put in the pocket of Her Majesty’s riding jacket. “The Queen thought they grew there,” he says, only half jokingly. Later McGrady graduated to pastry chef, serving royal pudding to presidents and potentates. The chef got on the good side of Princes William and Harry with his cream-filled banana flans. Their overweight Aunt Fergie imprudently wolfed down his yogurt brulée with caramelized apples.

Serving the Queen her twice-daily “cuppa” is the dangerous assignment of the “Coffee Room Assistant”. Her Majesty usually takes her tea with Emma, Linnet, Monty, Holly and Willow. “It sounds like a nice cozy job but those corgis' bite is worse than their bark,” says one dog-bitten royal tea maker. “Servants hate them, but they can do no wrong in the Queen’s eyes.”

The salary is about $20,000 per annum and requires applicants who know their Breakfast Tea from their Earl Grey and make sure “drinks and food items are presented to the highest standards.” The job description says nothing about dog handling.

Heir to the throne, Prince Charles, employs more than 80 full-time staff, often described as hangers-on. “The only times you see them is on royal tours,” says one observer. “They are terribly grand and tend to become more royal than the royals. Generally, they come from lowly backgrounds, but pretty soon they’re on the Dom Perignon with the rest of them.”

Psychologist David Simons asks “What sort of person would allow themselves to be called ‘servants’ in the 21st century?” (Thereby associating themselves with former menial palace positions like wet nurse, food taster and even maid of the chamber pot.) “There seems to be something about the power, privilege and glamour rubbing off on them.”

With a new generation of royals, the times are changing …somewhat. Prince William and Kate caused a stir last year when – still spending most of their time at a farmhouse in a remote corner of Wales - they announced they had no need of servants and would do their own shopping, cooking and housework. William, terrified of the insider leaks that destroyed his mother, didn’t want to risk employees who might talk to the tabloids.

But only weeks after their spectacular wedding this spring, the newly anointed Duke and Duchess of Cambridge caved in to tradition and advertised for a housekeeper and dresser to help them at Kensington Palace. It was described as “a balancing act” – getting new servants without letting them get too close to them.

A valet, it was argued, would be useful on the day when Prince William went from the Trooping the Colour  in London to the horse races at Epsom Downs. Without help, he would be hard pressed to change promptly from an elaborate guard’s uniform into top hat and tails.

Kate, meanwhile, is looking for a dresser with “impeccable fashion sense” to help maintain her new role as style icon. Applicants likely hope to follow in the footsteps of the Queen’s retired dresser, Angela Kelly, a working-class woman who was awarded the Royal Victorian Order and lives rent-free in a “grace and favor” house at Windsor.

But a life of faithful service to the royals has more chance of ending with the boot than a golden handshake. When the Queen Mother passed away in 2002, servants who had spent decades pandering to her every whim were set adrift without a penny.

“When any member of the royal family dies, their staff become redundant,” said a palace spokesman, coldly. That meant 40 people – mistresses of the robe, ladies of the bedchamber, housekeepers, butlers, gardeners, maids and watchmen – were out of a job without pension or cash. Many had no savings to fall back on.

A royal servant’s lot is a pitiful one. Bound by confidentiality agreements, they can rarely talk publicly about their paltry lot. Wendy Berry, who wrote an engrossing account of her servitude, had to flee to America after Prince Charles took out an injunction on her book.

But Berry’s tales of palace misdeeds only confirm the bruising memoirs of Paul Burrell and more senior royal insiders, like Diana’s secretary, Patrick Jephson, and Scotland Yard protection officer Ken Wharfe.

Former palace security chief David Davies made some startling revelations about gay escapades and abuse at the royal palaces amid accusations that they are run by a “gay mafia.”

The Queen Mother certainly had no illusions about the proclivities of her hired help. “When one of you old queens has finished,” she once reportedly told a group of loitering valets and butlers “this old Queen would like a drink.”

There are obvious advantages to having gay servants, notes one royal observer.  These men are unthreatening to their mistresses and, having no family responsibilities,  can devote themselves almost entirely to their employer.

William (Billy) Tallon, who served the royal court for half-century,  was the most famous of the Queen Mother’s servants and her personal favourite. He was a fixture in court circles. But the public Billy – the charmer so loved by “upstairs” people - was not the same man remembered by his “downstairs” subordinates.

Former royal footman Liam Cullen-Brooks recalls him as a nasty drunk driven by predatory sexual instincts. “William would invite new male members over to his cottage at Clarence House,” where he and fellow page Reg Wilcock would force themselves on the young men.

On weekends, Tallon would show up at the palace with a large laundry bag and fill it with wine and food from the royal kitchen. “We called it his Supermarket Sweep,” said Cullen-Brooks. “There were some very expensive wines there, along with food and spirits, and the bag would be bulging by the time he was finished.”

Tallon was let go by the palace shortly after the Queen Mother’s death, which affected him badly and drove him deeper into drink. A few years later, he  died of AIDS, a broken man.

It wasn’t an unusual trajectory for royal staff whose palace days are behind them. Even employees who exploited their positions to the hilt and turned a tidy profit selling their stories to the media have drawn some sympathy, lately, in the British press.

Citing an unfortunate valet who helped the Prince of Wales’ give a urine sample, Guardian columnist Catherine Bennett recently wrote a diatribe against the Windsors’ “execrable treatment of their servants”. “How,” she asked, “have they got away with it for so long?

Probably because the servants have put up with it for so long. Who can blame them? There are certainly some  perks to their menial jobs that no other employer can provide: the best home address in the UK, two free meals a day cooked in the royal kitchens, Schadenfreude galore courtesy of the bumbling heir to the throne…and enough amazing stories  to last a lifetime.

More about Director

John Curtin

John Curtin is a Montreal filmmaker and journalist with 30 years of experience in television, radio and print. He has a Gemini Award and four Gemini nominations to his credit.

John has produced and directed 20 one-hour documentaries which have been broadcast on the CBC, CTV, BBC, PBS, ARD, NHK, National Geographic, ARTE, Discovery Channel and others. Curtin freelanced for CBC Radio, National Public Radio and The New York Times in Paris and West Berlin for five years and was a staff reporter at CBC TV in Montreal for seven years.

He has a Master’s degree in English from the University of Toronto and also speaks French and German. Curtin is a former national-caliber distance runner with a marathon best of 2hr 22m 54s.

Press & Reviews

"Downton Abbey on steroids looks at palace life from servants’ point of view."
Bill Brownstein, THE GAZETTE

Interview with filmmaker John Curtin.
Emily Pratt, CBC News