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Movietone at War: Movietone and the Royal Family

April 6th 1944 –  Movietone had been commissioned, in December 1943, to make a short film for the Empire Division of the Ministry of Information on “The Life of Princess Elizabeth”.   Little or nothing had been done since receiving the commission probably due to the inability of the officials at The Palace to organize things.  Any thought of getting the film ready for the Princess’s birthday had to be dismissed because her birthday was now less than two weeks away and not a single foot had been shot.

Gerald Sanger, Movietone’s Editor was to produce the film.  He and Jack Ramsden, cameraman, went to Windsor Castle to see what could be done.   There they were met by Colonel Kavanagh who was in charge of the royal horses and who had been teaching the two royal Princesses to ride.  He, however, would only be responsible for setting up the exterior shots.
For the interiors, they were conducted round by equerry-in-waiting Captain Grant.  After speaking with Sanger and Ramsden, he wrote a memorandum to The Queen in which he laid out their requirements.

The Movietone pair retired to The White Hart in Windsor for a quiet lunch.  While there, they received a message from the Castle saying that The Queen had ruled out all interiors and, therefore, they need not return to the Castle.

They were due to shoot the exteriors the next day.  These would include, of course, shots of the two Princesses on horseback.  Sanger received a call the following morning to say that The Queen had said that Princess Elizabeth had a slight cold.   For this reason, the shooting would have to be put off until the following Monday.

On the following Monday, the Movietone crew arrived at 11.15, the appointed time; the crew comprised Gerald Sanger, cameramen Jack Ramsden, Graham Thompson, Dick Harris and soundman Pat Wyand.

The Royal Family arrive at midday.  The Princesses rode their horses behind the royal car driven by The King.

When the car stopped, Gerald Sanger opened the car door for The Queen.

He recorded:

I got to the door and opened it for the Queen, who was dressed in a blue coat and skirt with large buttons and a blue Alpine hat with a feather stuck in it.  I noticed that her complexion seemed to have been laid on badly and her hair screwed into an untidy bun at the back, and I confirmed the impression of photographs that she had put on more weight.

Graham Thompson, who, by now was the Royal Rota cameraman, persuaded the Queen to allow the interior shots saying that the King had offered some suggestions.

The filming of the two Princess continued.  Graham Thompson wanted a swing shot.

Gerald Sanger recorded:

The Princesses went forth again to give Graham a swing shot.  “He says he wants a swing shot” grumbled the King “I don’t know what a swing shot is, but he says he wants it”;  and waving his stick he stumped off with his daughters to direct them in a shot which he did not understand.

It is a wonder that the crew obtained anything.


18th April 1944 – The King and Queen went to the Ministry of Information at Senate House, Manet Street, to view the film that had so far been shot for the Princess Elizabeth film.   Also present was Mr. Jack Bennington, Director of Films at the M.O.I., Sir Edward Villiers, of the M.O.I., and Brendan Bracken, Minister of Information.

There seemed to be general approval of the film.   The men from the Ministry had to show that they were making a contribution.   Apropos of nothing, Bracken said that he had no control over censors, while Sir Edward Villiers said that in India the Princesses could not be shown in Jodhpurs.

Gerald Sanger wrote:

The upshot was that the King and Queen promised to think up some ideas during the next two or three weeks which we could put into effect on their return from – wherever they were going.  The destination wasn’t disclosed.

“And if we do” said the Queen rising and addressing me “it will be you who come and er- do it, won’t it ?” … “Because your men” continued the Queen, “do know what we like”.

“They are nice men”, I replied.

One can imagine that the completion of the film was a long drawn out affair.

20th April 1944 – Gerald Sanger and Graham Thompson were back at Windsor to shoot material for the film on Princess Elizabeth.  They gave a lift to Sir Edward Villiers of the Ministry of Information.  Pat Wyand was there to record any sound that might be needed.


Once again it seemed that The Queen was present to see fair play and to decide what was to be done.  The King was absent.   Now the Movietone crew were to shoot interiors in the private apartment of Windsor Castle with scenes including the two Princesses doing something.  It was what they were to do that was the subject under discussion for most of the day.

It seems incredible to me that such decisions were being made on the day of shooting, they all had some months to discuss the film and its contents.  Gerald Sanger was equipped with a shooting script.

Gerald Sanger wrote:

At ten minutes to twelve, the Queen and Princesses entered the room – the Queen in an afternoon frock of apricot colour, Princess Elizabeth in light blue.   “She’s in a bad temper”. Whispered Mr. Williams (Superintendent of the Castle) to me while the bowing and introductions were proceeding.   “The Queen ?”, I asked.  “No, the Princess” he said, and indeed she was the picture of sulks.  The last thing she apparently wanted was to have her picture taken.

The Queen was saying, “We thought” – a not unusual opening phrase in her mouth.  “We thought”, she said, “it would be nice if you took the Princess playing at the piano”.  To this suggestions we accorded enthusiasm, and Pat Wyand was asked about the sound.

Movietone had taken along two make-up artists described by Gerald Sanger as “attired in the manner of Marie Lloyd or Nellie Wallace. What a dainty dish thought I to set before the King”.  However, he would not be there.

There was great discussion as to whether the Princesses should be made up.  It was finally agreed that they should.   Enter Nellie Wallace.

Gerald Sanger wrote:

Mr. Williams was shaking with suppressed mirth.  “You’d get away with anything: he said – which I took as a compliment.  “We can conveniently forget about the piano, can’t we ?” I said.  “There won’t be time before lunch”.

No wonder it all took so long.

While shooting a scene of Princess Elizabeth at her desk, the Queen spoke to Gerald Sanger.

“Why”, said the Queen to me suddenly, “don’t the newsreels do more to show this country’s wonderful war effort ?”  Taken aback by the suddenness of this accusation and its source, I stammered out something about the restriction in film stock. Then I said that people had got so used to “action pictures” that factories, shipyards and preparation stories generally seemed weak beside them. (“Oh, yes”, mused the Queen ingenuously, “the war is important, dreadfully important”, meaning, I suppose, action pictures of the war).

Sanger went on to explain that the authorities (I guess he meant the Ministry of Information and the Armed Services) did not encourage filming of war events.

He wrote:

The air attack on the Tirpitz” I instanced – “if the Americans had carried out that operation, they would have multiplied cameramen on it. We did it, and there are no good pictures of it – only a few sub-standard shots which cease before the Tirpitz is seen.

All this on a day’s shoot.

The Movietone At War articles are based on extracts and research for my forthcoming book: “Movietone At War”.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2014.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For other articles about Movietone click here.

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