On March 14, 1966, Hollywood royalty, including Cary Grant, Natalie Wood and Gregory Peck, was out in full force at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. They were there to celebrate a real royal — His Royal Highness Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, who died on April 9 at age 99 — at a charity ball held in his honor. “The contemporary ‘spell’ from his charm and wit was even cast over experts of charm, top Hollywood personalities,” The Los Angeles Times swooned.
The night was a rousing success. Louis Armstrong greeted the Prince (then 44 years old) with a spirited performance of “Hello Philip” to the tune of “Hello Dolly.” Prince Philip himself, seated next to a beaming Shirley MacLaine, laughed uproariously at the comedic stylings of Joey Bishop and muttered asides that tickled the seasoned comedian. “I can’t tell you,” Bishop said, “what a thrill it is to be heckled by the prince.”
It’s not surprising that Philip felt so at home in Hollywood. Upon his marriage to then-Princess Elizabeth in 1947, Philip was intent on stage-managing and modernizing the archaic, creaky monarchy, using new media to bring the royal family into the 20th century. An avid tinkerer who worshiped engineers and modern technology, Philip often screened films (action for him, comedies for the wife) in the basement of their first home. An enthusiastic photographer, he always had the latest camera, and had one of the first car-phones in his custom-made Aston Martin.
He helped choreograph the televised coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, determined nothing should go wrong. According to his biographer Ingrid Seward, author of Prince Philip Revealed, while riding in the parade in Queen Elizabeth’s coach, he held onto his very own walkie-talkie, hissing instructions when a footman headed the wrong way. Later that day, he annoyed the legendary photographer Cecil Beaton during the official photoshoot, attempting to stage manage every detail. “The Duke of Edinburgh stood by making wry jokes, his lips pursed in a smile that put the fear of God into me. I believe he doesn’t like or approve of me,” Beaton wrote, per Seward. “He was adopting a rather ragging attitude to the proceedings.”
Philip also knew the importance of modern celebrity. According to Seward, in 1951 he asked Frank Sinatra (with whom he would become friends) and Ava Gardner to perform and appear at a fundraiser for the National Playing Fields Association, which raised 14,000 pounds in a single evening. More than anything, the Prince realized that the growing television industry could help the royal family speak directly to their subjects. In 1957, he narrated his own TV special, The Restless Sphere: The Story of the International Geophysical Year. That same year, he encouraged Elizabeth to switch her annual Christmas message from radio to television. According to Seward, Philip worked tirelessly on the Queen’s early scripts, making sure they were written in her voice.
When the Queen entered the library at Sandringham, where the live broadcast was to take place, he remained in the room throughout, watching on a spare camera on the reserve circuit. He told a silly joke, and the Queen at last relaxed and managed to do what Dimmock had been trying to get her to do for weeks — smile naturally for the cameras.
In 1961, Philip went one step further. According to biographer Robert Jobson, author of the upcoming Prince Philip’s Century, in 1961 the Prince became the first British royal to ever sit down for a TV interview, appearing on the BBC staple Panorama.
But despite the Prince’s best efforts (often negated by his own legendary temper and gaffes), by the late 1960s the royals were increasingly seen as staid and out of touch. Philip believed that for the royals to survive they must change their image, and be seen as a modern family. In 1968, encouraged by his uncle Lord Mountbatten, and Mountbatten’s son-in-law Lord Brabourne, he convinced the Queen to participate in a BBC documentary to be titled Royal Family. He also hoped it would help endear the British public to then 21-year-old Prince Charles, who was seen as the future of the monarchy.
“Philip liked the idea since he knew there was ‘nothing between the court circular and the gossip columns’ and felt it was time for the monarchy to meet the medium of television on its own terms,” Seward explains in Prince Philip Revealed. He even chaired the BBC-ITV advisory committee overseeing the project.
All in all, 43-hours of unscripted material was filmed of the royal family over the course of 18 months. As depicted in season 3 of The Crown, they ate dinner, grilled sausages and performed their duties while the cameras rolled, catching human moments that would have normally been heavily censored. Filming did not always go smoothly — at one point an irate Philip, seemingly forgetting the project was his doing — yelled, “Get away from the Queen with your bloody cameras!”
Philip’s irritation with being an early reality star was eventually outweighed by his pleasure with the finished product. “I think it is quite wrong that there should be a sense of remoteness about majesty,” Philip said when asked about the documentary, per Seward. “If people see, whoever it happens to be, whatever head of state, as individuals. I think it makes it much easier for them to accept the system or to feel part of the system.”
The public agreed, with over 30 million Britons watching the Royal Family when it aired June 21, 1969.
However, many royal watchers believe that this unvarnished look at the rather dour Windsors forever took away the luster and mystique of England’s monarchy, ushering in the tabloid frenzy of later decades. Suddenly they were just celebrities, no more sacred than the Hollywood stars that curtsied and bowed to them at premieres.
Towards the end of his life, it appeared that Prince Philip was increasingly fed up with the ongoing fascination with the modern media-savvy monarchy he had helped create. At a reception in 2015 commemorating The Battle Of Britain, he commanded a photographer to “just take the fucking picture,” leaving his grandson Prince William unable to suppress a camera-ready chuckle.