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Q & A: Filmmaker John Curtin on Serving The Royals

Seen, not heard and sworn to secrecy. That is the way of life for those who enter into employment for the British Royal Family, or "The Firm" as it's also referred. But what happens inside the walls of the palaces of the British monarchy doesn't always stay there, as revealed in filmmaker John Curtin's new documentary Serving the Royals: Inside the Firm (which aired Jan. 17 on CBC Doc Zone).

The doc takes an in-depth look into the lives of the Windsors from the people who see everything first-hand; the 1,200 men and women who serve the family, run the households and are privy to all of the royals' secrets. These individuals - from butlers to bodyguards - are the monarchy's most trusted, but some have fallen out of grace and now spill on what it's like to live as an employee of the royals.

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We spoke to filmmaker John Curtin about his latest royal family doc (his other credits include After Elizabeth II: Monarchy in Peril and Chasing the Royals).

CBC Live: As a filmmaker, how were you able to illustrate these former employees' stories without evidence of the actual moments or events?

John Curtin: That was actually the most difficult part of it, actually it's the most difficult part of any royal doc is trying to illustrate the stuff because obviously you can't go around filming in the palace. You can't get anywhere close. In doing research and kind of watching films and documentaries I noticed for instance in The Young Victoria they filmed in a magnificent home and it looked pretty close to Buckingham Palace or what I thought the inside of Windsor Castle might look like. And it turned out that there's a stately mansion outside Oxford called Ditchley Park where people have done a number of feature films and even a documentary I saw, so I called this place up and we were able to (for a fee) film in there for two days and the guy that runs it recommended a local butler that actually worked for several years in the palace as butler to the Queen. We used him and a couple of young women who were in the catering service at the stately mansion. And I had to hire corgis who were driven in from the south of England with a trainer and they ran up and down the hallways and we had people carrying luggage up and down the stairs. We didn't have full-blown recreations, it's more suggestive photography that would cover some of the anecdotes.

What was the most shocking anecdote you heard from a former employee while making the film?

JC: The most shocking anecdote was told to me by Paul Burrell who relates (this is in the film) how he was asked by Diana to dig a six-foot-deep grave so she could bury the miscarried baby of a friend in the walled garden at Kensington Palace. I mean, this sounds so extraordinary, quasi-illegal. And even Paul Burrell at the time wasn't quite sure this was something they should do and he asked Diana, 'Have you told the Queen about this?' And Diana says, 'No, I don't think she would understand.' That's a pretty amazing thing to ask your butler. He says he was not just a butler, he was a royal undertaker. He smuggled lovers into the palace for Diana in the trunk of his car. He described in the film how he went to a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and got the chicken and the fries but as a guy - both of which were stuffed in the back of his car. It's pretty amazing what these servants actually see and hear.

Even with stories such as that one, is there still an allure to work for "The Firm"?

JC: Absolutely. I mean, people are lining up anytime there's an ad for even a lowly job at the palace, which appear now and again. I was told the people stay a little less, not so much into lifetime workers. People come for five or 10 years, maybe work in the kitchen then go off and say they cooked for the Queen and get a job in a fancy restaurant.

Speaking of job openings, the Duke and Dutchess of Cambridge are looking for a "super servant" now that they're have their royal baby. For a new-age, DIY royal couple like Will and Kate, how to do foresee their lives with the help?

JC: Well, it doesn't surprise me that they want less staff, in fact the film starts with them up in their cottage in Wales living their romantic, simple life. But the fact of the matter is they're having a baby, they're moving into Kensington Palace, which is a colossal palace in Hyde Park in London and it has dozens of enormous rooms. Their desire for a simple life is going to clash with the traditions of the Windsors, of living in the grandest of styles. And servants go with the territory. And Paul Burrell, when I asked him about it, he said they're not going to answer the front door. Kate isn't going to be ironing her dresses before the event. Although William is suspicious of staff. He doesn't like staff not because he doesn't like help but because he thinks they will leak stuff to the media. But as he's getting a little older, a married man, now I think he's resigned himself to the fact that he'll probably end up living much in the style of his father.

Watch Serving The Royals: Inside the Firm on CBC's Doc Zone



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