Michael Cole reflects on his royal career

“Do you know the queen? people have always asked. “No, but she knows me,” I would reply. Not arrogance but a simple fact. The Queen needed to know who was reporting on her for BBC television because, as her former press officer Michael Shea said, “Fifty percent of the Queen’s work gets seen.”

And I have seen her, weaving her magical and very personal charm, from Kathmandu in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, to the balmy Bahamas, through the frozen deserts of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, to a subtropical swamp in the New Zealand’s North Island that someone decided the Queen had to get up early to officially open one morning in 1987.

Wherever she was, whatever the schedule for the day, two things were constant: the Queen and her kind, encouraging smile, taking an interest in everything and making people feel special because they were in Her presence.

The Queen and Prince Philip visiting Ranworth Broad in 1976
– Credit: Archant

What is the essence of good manners? Put others at ease by never doing or saying anything that might make them feel uncomfortable or upset. For 70 years, in 114 countries, the Queen has done just that. She exuded an air that I can only describe as pure goodness – kindness, generosity of spirit, goodwill personified.

Can virtue be powerful? With the queen, it was. That’s why I had such a hard time at his funeral to reconcile the sight of the coffin draped with his personal standard, with the small, bright blue-eyed woman I’ve followed around the world. A woman who has seen it all – the best and the worst of times and people – and never doubted that all would be well in the end because of her unwavering faith in God.

I was eight years old when she ascended the throne. I wrote my first royal history in 1962, when I was 19 and she was only 10 after her unprecedented 70 years on the throne.

As a BBC court correspondent, with a Buckingham Palace pass that allowed me to park in the courtyard and enter through the door of the private purse whenever I needed, I followed the queen wherever she went, observing her work and how she did it.

Did I know her? No, very few people did, just his family and a close group of trusted friends. I never interviewed her because she never gave interviews. But I formed a clear impression of the late queen.

The Queen attends a morning service at her beloved Sandringham church

The Queen attends a morning service at her beloved Sandringham church
– Credit: IAN BURT

Deep down she was a peasant girl, the squire of Sandringham or the laird of Balmoral, never happier than when she was dressed in a jodhpur and a pirate jacket, the Hermes scarf tied under her chin, reaching down at the Royal Stud near Anmer Hall.

There she observed the stallions covering the mares. There was nothing in the breeding of Thoroughbreds that the Queen did not know or prided herself on knowing.

She was naturally down to earth and straightforward, making it a point to personally feed her dogs and walk them before bed at night whenever duty allowed her to be home.

A particularly pretty child and a strikingly beautiful young woman, she was completely without vanity and never aspired to be a fashion plate, regarding clothes, hats and jewelry as necessary accessories for the public performance she has perfected over the decades.

The work was grand. She was not. I enjoyed the occasional glimpses of the real queen: leaning on the rail of the royal yacht, watching every move of Britannia’s Royal Marines band ‘Beating Retreat’, bouncing on the soles of her feet with every beat of the music.

The mask of perfection fell only occasionally. When the Prime Minister of the Bahamas took Commonwealth leaders on a cruise around Nassau in 1985 to arrive very late for the family photo on deck of Britannia, the frustrated monarch finally broke down. His publicist stood between the group and the cameras: “Michael, you’re on the way. Get out of here!”

Suddenly realizing that we were filming, she then gave us the widest and most glorious of smiles. She had let herself be caught off guard, but she had really enjoyed herself.

Queen and Queen Mother with Sandringham WI in 1968

Queen and Queen Mother with Sandringham WI in 1968
– Credit: Archant

What an extraordinary life. Each of his waking moments observed and noted. It’s not something most of us would appreciate. She never went to school. When she joined the Brownies, the pack came to her. Although she would certainly have vetoed the idea, history should know her as “Elizabeth the Great.”

She didn’t think she was wonderful but she was. Here is an example :

In my first week as a BBC TV justice correspondent, a newspaper headline read: ‘Queen heart scare’. The story said that she had consulted doctors.

“Is it true?” asked my editor. “Can you stand the story?”

Before I could call a sympathetic cardiologist from Harley Street, the queen killed the story. She sprinted 92 steps up a lighthouse in Aberdeen, leaving half a dozen men panting behind her.

It was his way of covering up a false story. Unable to answer directly, she made her point by demonstrating her falsity.

To get the message home, the following year she scaled the Great Wall of China like a chamois, snapping photos on her gold-plated Leica as she went.

In places the wall is extremely steep. One by one, his courtiers fell behind. The queen was heading towards the general direction of Mongolia, when her private secretary beckoned her to return.

By 1986 she was showing that she was in better shape than most and well up to the physical demands of long days, with hours and hours of patient standing to allow others their moment of glory.

The Queen got along quite well with Her Majesty’s corps of scribes and snappers, but she was very detail-oriented, especially when it came to the Commonwealth.

Covering a tour of Canada in 1978, BBC Radio’s Stephen Claypole reported on a feud that had broken out between the federal government and the provinces. The Queen heard his report while on her plane, thought it was fake, and picked up Claypole at a reception in Newfoundland.

She questioned him closely about his perfectly accurate report until famed Royal Daily Express photographer John Downing came to her rescue, changing the subject to the noise of the Vickers VC-10 she was flying in. “Not as loud as the BAC 11s and Tridents that surround Windsor Castle,” the Queen said. “They are shaking our windows”.

Claypole recently recalled, “The Queen certainly knew more about the Canadian Constitution than I did. She asked me for a copy of my script which I quickly threw in the wastebasket”.

A rare royal order that has not been obeyed.

When a minor royal complained about negative stories, I told him that the time when the royal family needed to worry about the media was when the media stopped caring.

With the Queen, from first to last, we have always been interested.

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