After carrying out around 500 public engagements a year for half a century, the Princess Royal has not just become a part of our national landscape. Rather, like her mother, she has acquired a certain timelessness.
So it may come as something of a shock for many people to learn that next month she will be entering her eighth decade. Not that any member of the family will be touching on the delicate subject of her slowing down.
‘Good luck!’ says her daughter, Zara Tindall, when I ask if anyone has raised the question ahead of the princess’s 70th birthday, four weeks from today.
Crash helmet on, I finally broach the subject with the princess herself. ‘Slow down? I thought I had slowed down!’ she says breezily, swerving round the question.
Princess Anne greets her granddaughter Mia Tindall at the Badminton Horse Trials in 2016. The Princess Royal’s life will be the subject of an ITV documentary to be aired later this month
LOCKDOWN AT GATCOMBE
Despite being marooned for months in Gloucestershire, the princess and Sir Timothy have been fully occupied during the lockdown. ‘Sitting still really doesn’t happen very much,’ she explains during a rather surreal conversation on the Gatcombe Park estate, her home since 1976.
The interview is conducted in the middle of a field, in order to comply with social distancing rules. A lighting stand blowing over in the breeze is not the only glitch. At one point we end up with some extra (off-camera) company.
As the interview progresses, some of the princess’s horses and cattle wander up to the fence behind her to check us all out. Afterwards, Princess Anne introduces us to some of them, including a magnificent White Park bull and her horse, Cloud Formation.
Pictured: Princess Anne being interviewed on her estate by Robert Hardman (seated), with sound recordist Chris Syner (far left), and director Ian Denyer
The princess greeting nosy Cloud Formation in the grounds of Gatcombe Park
‘There’s always something to do in a place like this. We’ve got a mixture of livestock; there’s fencing and gates; the things that always need mending,’ she says. However, she is the first to recognise her own good fortune.
‘Look around. It’s not hard here,’ she says. ‘The idea of being stuck in a block of flats with small children – I can’t imagine how difficult that would be.’
However, she has heard plenty of first-hand accounts. Never previously a fan of video links, Princess Anne instantly mastered the art of teleconferencing to keep in touch with her charities and military units, more than 300 all told.
This is the longest continuous period of time that she has spent here at Gatcombe. Yet, like everyone else, she misses the human touch.
‘Almost everything that she does in a public way involves people coming together to meet her for some reason or another,’ explains Sir Tim. ‘So that’s been very difficult.’
No sooner had the Government’s stay-at-home edict been loosened than she was on her way (driving herself, of course) to her first postlockdown engagement.
It was a show of support for the Royal Corps of Signals (she is their Colonel-in-Chief) who were on Covid-testing duty in the area. There were no cameras (other than our own) and no fuss.
The princess just wanted them to know that their efforts had been appreciated. Explaining her approach to all of her Forces engagements, she tells me, ‘I think it’s important that they recognise that there is somebody from outside the military who may understand what they’re doing.’
‘I think the thing that nags away is that after all this time, you should have learnt something. And I think that’s important – before you become irrelevant.’
Of that there is absolutely no chance. For the past year, I have been part of a tiny film crew which has followed the Queen’s daughter all over the country, and overseas too.
The result is this month’s landmark ITV documentary on the life of a contented, stoical, quick-witted workaholic who usually regards publicity as something to be endured if not avoided altogether.
Yet, at a time when the monarchy has seen the Dukes of Edinburgh and York, plus the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, all withdraw from public duties, the princess is more in demand than ever.
And viewers will soon be reminded why she remains one of the most popular and dependable members of the Royal Family.
Along the way, they will also learn some of the quirks of this royal one-off: the first royal Olympian, the first child of a monarch to reject titles for her children, and the first to face down a kidnapper.
‘You have to prepare for the unexpected,’ she explains with typical understatement.
Born on 15 August, 1950, Princess Anne Elizabeth Alice Louise is only the seventh royal lady in history to receive the accolade of Princess Royal (a title bestowed on her by the Queen in 1987).
Princess Anne is only the seventh royal lady in history to receive the accolade of Princess Royal. Pictured: The Royal full of fun with Mummy and Prince Charles in 1954
Yet, throughout it all, she has shown an unapologetic, almost heroic disdain for those who might want to see a ‘fairytale princess’.
This is a princess who, as often as not, may turn up in trousers and at the wheel of the royal vehicle (she is, after all, the holder of a very un-fairytale HGV licence).
At one point in the film, she reveals the secret behind that magnificent hair arrangement that has become one of her trademarks.
‘It takes me ten or 15 minutes,’ she says. What’s more, she likes to do it herself with no assistance and, preferably, no tiaras. ‘It’s so much quicker.’
She also accepted from an early age that she was destined to be overtaken by her brothers thanks to the (now reformed) laws of male primogeniture.
Princess Anne commanding a tank with the King’s Royal Hussars in 2001
‘As a member of the Royal Family, females tended to be treated as honorary men,’ she says without a scintilla of resentment. ‘So they would become involved in organisations that were otherwise men-only.’
Growing up through the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s, she never saw herself as a standard-bearer for change.
‘One of the oddities about my life is that I never either felt that or was encouraged to be that,’ she says. ‘So no, I’m afraid I was really bad at that role model bit.’
The princess also lets slip how, at royal garden parties, she developed a technique for sniffing out shy, retiring types among the royal flowerbeds.
‘They used to have two lanes, and I would work up the back of the border, which is where the people who didn’t want to be seen went,’ she chuckles.
‘They were almost pretending they weren’t there. They were always looking around – “I’m not really here, you know. I don’t really want to talk to anyone” – which was always quite funny.’
This vignette, perhaps, could almost serve as her philosophy for royal duty. Here is one of the best-known, longest-serving figures in British and international public life.
Yet she is seldom happier than when spending a chilly awayday in the shires, meeting a few unsung stalwarts of society, people who don’t make (or seek) headlines, but who might appreciate a little recognition.
‘The whole point of the exercise is to increase the awareness of the people you go and see,’ the princess explains.
‘They’re the ones that are doing the donkey work, and they’re the ones who make the difference. That’s not me. But you can sometimes help other people get to that point where they can make an even bigger impact than they’re already doing.’
Over the last year, our cameras have seen her with countless examples of these people – from dog-trainers and midwives to charity workers and mud-caked British soldiers on a Baltic exercise near the Russian border (they’re thrilled when the princess hitches a ride in their tank).
Princess Anne married Olympic rider Captain Mark Phillips in 1973, then married Sir Tim in a low-key ceremony in 1993. Pictured: Making a splash at the Montreal OIympics
This is the coalface of royal duty. They may not be engagements that make the news bulletins, but they are a lifetime’s memory for all involved.
And the princess clearly regards them as fundamental to the ‘relevance’ of royalty.
Often described as ‘the hardest-working royal’ – last year’s tally of 506 engagements was pipped only by the Prince of Wales on 521 – she also does this because she finds it enjoyable and fulfilling.
‘She’s not a person that is constantly looking for praise,’ says her husband, Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence.
‘She gets on and does her work regardless because she thinks it’s important.’ Being the centre of attention is simply not the princess’s thing.
As she mutters at one point in our film, only half-joking, ‘I’m like a goldfish in a bowl here.’
On our travels, we have seen her representing the Queen at Buckingham Palace investitures and receptions. And we have seen life both pre- and post-lockdown at her Gatcombe Park home in Gloucestershire.
With her children and grandchildren living on the estate, family life has continued in as far as government distancing rules have permitted. She has also been in frequent contact with her Windsor-based parents by telephone.
HOW SHE FOILED A KIDNAPPER
Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips (pictured) were approached by armed fantasist Ian Ball on 20 March, 1974
On 20 March, 1974, Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips were being driven back to Buckingham Palace after an event when a Ford Escort blocked their Rolls-Royce on the Mall.
Armed fantasist Ian Ball was enacting his plan to kidnap the princess. When her protection officer, Inspector Jim Beaton, got out to intervene, Ball shot him in the shoulder. Insp Beaton’s pistol jammed, but he remained in front of the princess and was shot twice more.
The chauffeur, a policeman patrolling nearby and a passing journalist were shot as they tried to stop Ball dragging the princess out by the arm. But Capt Phillips was holding firm to the other arm, and Princess Anne was refusing to budge.
Princess Anne said her equestrian training prepared her for the unexpected
Now she reveals it was down to her equestrian training.
‘Strangely, I had thought about it before. One of the things about horses and sport is you have to prepare for the unexpected. So to some extent that coloured my thoughts.’
To this day, she can remember it all – sort of. ‘I thought I remembered everything, but I was never able to swear I remember it all in order because they were like snapshots,’ she says.
Ball fled, but was tackled by another policeman. He was sentenced to life in prison. The wounded men were decorated by the Queen.
Insp Beaton received the George Cross and he credits the princess with preventing tragedy: ‘She was so cool, calm and collected, it kept the situation within control.’
Her biographer, Brian Hoey, offers a further reason for her resolve: ‘She said, “I was so annoyed he tore the sleeve out of my dress – and it was a good new dress!”’
The princess even persuaded the Queen to join her in a video conference with carers, a section of society with whom the princess (founding president of the Carers’ Trust) has a special connection.
It was at the start of last year that I approached Princess Anne’s team with the idea of a film to mark her 70th.
Having interviewed her for previous documentaries on different subjects, I have always enjoyed her astute observations on life. However, this would be a project focusing entirely on her and her work.
Her whole life has been spent in the public eye, from the moment she first appeared on the famous Buckingham Palace balcony as a toddler.
To this day, footage of a teenage Princess Anne helping with the Balmoral barbecue is one of the best-remembered moments in the groundbreaking 1969 film Royal Family; two years later she was being interviewed by Blue Peter’s Valerie Singleton and on the cover of Vogue.
Princess Anne presenting Olympic silver to daughter Zara in 2012
Yet she has always preferred to deflect that spotlight on to others.
Fortunately, though, she saw merit in my idea and granted unique access to our crew from Oxford Films, led by the award-winning director Ian Denyer (fresh from his acclaimed BBC2 portrait of another British institution, author Hilary Mantel).
The result is a 90-minute ITV film as busy and varied as its central subject. It is full of new insights as well as enchanting ciné film from the Duke of Edinburgh’s private collection.
The documentary has no presenter; with this subject, it doesn’t need one. As writer and producer, however, I have interviewed the princess at length about life as a daughter, wife, mother and grandmother.
We have discussed the extraordinary range of her work – from Save The Children and Riding For The Disabled to The Hovercraft Museum. She explains her devotion to her regiments, the King’s Royal Hussars among them.
She is not only by far the longest-serving member of a regiment which made her Colonel-in-Chief at the age of 19, but she has seen regimental children grow up and then join up.
Some of them are now parents themselves. ‘We’re into grandchildren,’ she admits. If proof were needed of the bond between the Forces and the Royal Family, this is it.
Her two children, Zara and her brother Peter Phillips, make a very engaging double act. Their fond reflections on their childhood – as near to normal as can be expected for a monarch’s grandchildren – are eloquent testimony to the princess’s devotion to her family.
The Queen and Prince Philip with children Charles, Anne, Andrew (right) and Edward
They delight in tales of the mother who would return home from a state occasion and head straight for the farm.
‘She’d come home from engagements in exactly what she was wearing, make-up on,’ Zara recalls, ‘put her welly boots on, jacket on, do her chickens and get her eggs.’
There would be no cotton wool for a well-adjusted pair who still regard themselves emphatically as country folk rather than royalty. Dogs and horses are just a way of life.
‘Just because you fall off or you fall over, that doesn’t matter,’ says Peter, recalling the mantra drummed into him by both parents: ‘Get up, carry on, mind your manners.’
Now that she is juggling two young children with her own career, Zara, 39, has come to appreciate all the more how much home life must have meant to a busy princess doing the same.
‘When you are working, you also want to go home and be a mother,’ she reflects. Whatever the demands of royal duty, the Princess Royal was certainly determined to be a hands-on mum.
My hair? It only takes me 15 minutes!
Anne with her famous ‘do’ and (right) Erin in The Crown
During the early 70s the princess was at the cutting edge of cool, appearing on the cover of Vogue three times in as many years.
Now, nearing her 70th birthday, she is back on the pedestal of high fashion once again thanks to the Netflix drama The Crown. Of all the characters, it is the sassy, uncompromising Princess Anne, played by Erin Doherty, who has been the surprise hit of the latest series.
One American critic called her the ‘indisputable standout’. Not that the princess has seen it, as she reveals in our documentary.
‘I don’t watch Netflix and The Crown,’ she tells Frances Segelman, at a sitting for a birthday bust in the sculptor’s studio. But she hints she may have seen the first few episodes.
‘The early ones were quite interesting,’ she notes, ‘but making a series about people who are living is always quite a dangerous thing to do.’
The princess shows amazement at a press interview in which Erin revealed it could take her Netflix hair team two hours to recreate the ‘Anne’ look.
‘I’m thinking, “How could you possibly take that long?”,’ scoffs Anne. ‘I mean it, it takes me ten or 15 minutes.’
What’s more, the princess reveals she does her own hair. ‘It’s so much quicker,’ she says. ‘The idea that they’re taking that long. You think I need that every day? I don’t think so!’
‘She was the one taking us out onto the farm, helping with the farm, helping with the lambing, all that sort of stuff,’ says Peter.
The pair remain in awe of the princess’s memory power.
‘She’s like a sponge. The information that’s stored in her brain, it’s incredible,’ marvels Zara, adding, ‘It’s quite annoying as well!’ ‘It is quite annoying,’ Peter chimes in.
We also went to see the princess’s husband. For nearly three decades, she has been loyally supported by Sir Tim, whose post-Royal Navy career has now spanned major organisations including the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and English Heritage (he is its chairman).
After a low-key Scottish wedding in 1992, their marriage has long outlasted the princess’s first, to Olympic rider Captain Mark Phillips.
That 1973 ceremony, the first royal wedding of the colour TV era, was watched by half a billion people worldwide.
Relations remain thoroughly amicable. ‘I was thinking it’s quite amusing that she married first an Army officer and then a Naval officer,’ Sir Tim reflects, ‘so there must be something about the military.’
Peter pays tribute to his stepfather’s steadfast supporting role, saying, ‘He’s been a very, very strong support for her. He’s definitely been a very strong part of her public life.’
The children have absolutely no wish, however, to join their mother and Sir Tim in their favourite holiday pursuit.
‘Our ideal break, if we have a break, is to go up to our boat on the west coast of Scotland and spend a few days sometimes getting wet and cold,’ says Sir Tim.
He adds, tellingly, that once on board their 44-foot yacht, the princess is the better sailor. ‘I navigate. I know how to get from A to B. But she’s a better sailor of the boat, better at setting the sails.’
Peter and Zara both chortle at the thought of these two seadogs tackling the Outer Hebrides. ‘I’m sure she tells the admiral what to do,’ says Zara.
‘She’s also an admiral. In fact she’s slightly more senior than he is,’ Peter chips in (the princess is indeed the Admiral and Commandant of Women in the Royal Navy).
‘I’m sure they tell each other,’ laughs Zara. ‘You wouldn’t go on a boat with them.’
Family aside, I have talked to those who work for the princess and know her well, including some of her ladies-in-waiting, speaking on camera for the first time. Her private office is known for being a lean, highly efficient unit within the royal orbit.
They all know that the princess expects very thorough briefing notes ahead of all her engagements.
Sir Nick Wright, her private secretary for 17 years until his retirement last year (and another ex-Royal Navy officer), laughs at the memory of an early mishap.
‘I remember once, I’ve never forgotten it, she said, “Private Secretary, what normally comes after 16?” And I knew then that page 17 of the brief was missing.’
Old friends – including a childhood playmate and a best friend from school – offer their recollections of her childhood days.
We look at her years as a top-tier international sportswoman, beating a certain George Best to win the 1971 BBC Sports Personality Of The Year – ‘I was just amazed to be included’ – and competing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
The princess’s campaign ended in near-disaster when she suffered a nasty fall. She insisted on remounting for the sake of the overall team result. It was a gutsy response but there is no point in asking the princess about it.
Princess Anne revealed the pressures on members of the Royal Family is always harder on the young. Pictured: The Princess Royal in 1973
As former Olympian-turned-lady-in-waiting Jane Holderness-Roddam explains, ‘She got back on and competed. She was that concussed that she couldn’t remember and to this day she doesn’t remember the rest of the course.’
I also went to see a pair of very well-known ex-colleagues who worked with her on bringing the 2012 Olympics to London.
Ex-Mayor and now PM Boris Johnson recalls her ‘integral’ part in it all. Games chairman Lord [Sebastian] Coe remains in affectionate awe of a fellow Olympian with whom he has spent years on various grand sporting committees.
‘As I always reminded our colleagues sitting around the table, while we’ve sauntered into a board meeting at two o’clock, she’s probably opened five hospitals by the time she’s even had lunch,’ says Lord Coe, adding that he has always loved the princess’s bracing approach to the fudge and flannel that are part of committee culture.
The double-gold-winning head of world athletics bursts out laughing as he recalls the meeting at which some blazered windbag was ploughing on with a pointless contribution.
The pressures that you’re seeing at the moment applied to the younger members of the family, it’s always worse because that’s what the media is interested in
The princess leaned over to Coe, unaware that her microphone was still on, and whispered, ‘I think he is probably the most stupid person in world sport.’
‘This echoed around the room and I couldn’t quite get to the red button while I was listening to the words coming out!’ Coe remembers.
‘She never flinched. It was as though that never happened and we just moved on. But it is probably one of my favourite moments.’
The princess has had her share of tricky moments. After 70 years in the royal frontline, how could she not? Whether you are born royal or join the family like Kate and Meghan, it is never an easy ride.
And it is always harder on the young. Indeed, she is rather glad not to be starting out on the royal career path today.
‘The pressures that you’re seeing at the moment applied to the younger members of the family, it’s always worse because that’s what the media is interested in,’ she tells me.
‘That’s hard sometimes to deal with. Everybody’s been through it, but there was no social media in my day, so it probably has made it more difficult.’
Even so, her approach to the pitfalls of public life is clearly the same as the advice she gave her children all those years ago: ‘Get up, carry on…’
So, given her time all over again, what might she have done differently? A life in the Forces, perhaps?
She smiles. ‘I’m not going to indulge in “what if?”,’ she replies. ‘That’s too difficult.’
Anne: The Princess Royal At 70 will be shown later this month on ITV.