The dancing Queen and the Abominable No Man

Don’t dance all night with me
Till the stars fade from above.
They’ll see it’s alright with me
People will say we’re in love.

As the Queen entered Sydney Town Hall with Prince Philip on the third night of her first visit to Australia – 5 February, 1954 – the band at the Lord Mayor’s Ball struck up her favourite song, People Will Say We’re In Love, from Oklahoma!

Well, she didn’t dance at all that night and her love for the curmudgeonly Philip wasn’t always on show throughout her arduous two month tour during which she was sunburned, often exhausted*, frightened by a polio epidemic that swept Western Australia, but worst of all, caught by a film crew having an almighty row with Phil.

The temper tantrum has just come to light in a new book, Our Queen, by Robert Hardman, published on 6 October, 2011.

As extracts in The Daily Mail reveal, the end of the row was captured on film. But nobody ever saw that film. Not long after it was shot, the film was exposed and handed to the Queen’s press secretary of the time, Commander Richard Colville, DSC, also known as “the Minister of Untruth” and “the Abominable No Man”.

Although he wasn’t named, it’s likely that Colville was the “member of the Royal Household”, quoted in the media, who explained why the Queen didn’t dance at the Town Hall.

“The Queen is making this tour to meet and to be seen by as many people as possible”, the Royal Household member said. “If she danced it would mean that she would spend perhaps a quarter of an hour talking to one partner. This, she feels, would deprive several people of the opportunity of meeting her.

“The Queen also likes to have a good view of the gay scene in the ballroom on these occasions and to see all the beautiful dance frocks. This she is better able to do if she remains on the official dais.

“I hear has been some adverse comment about the number of guests at the ball who gathered to look at the Queen instead of dancing”, the official continued. “I can assure you this criticism is quite unwarranted. The Queen realises that people want to see her, especially when she is wearing one of her lovely ball gowns and her jewels”.

“Looking” at the Queen? Not really. Standing like statues and gaping at her was the way it was explained by John Pringle, a former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, who was present at the ball.

As he wrote in Punch magazine: “Those in the gallery continued to stare at the stage with the help of opera glasses when the Queen arrived. Those on the floor merely formed a squad and crowded as close to the Queen as possible”.

(Making fun of the colonials, it seems, was jolly good sport for Pringle, a Scotsman, writing in a British magazine.)

Despite her sedentary evening at the ball, the Queen did seem to enjoy dancing, occasionally, especially Scottish dances, but she had also been known to samba.

In 1951 she was photographed changing partners in a square dance in Canada and much later, on a dance floor in the arms of President Gerald Ford in Washington DC. No doubt her lessons as a young princess at Vacani’s School of Dance in London helped with her dancing style and the etiquette of chatting while twirling.

A month after the Sydney ball, the Queen and Philip were spending a quiet weekend at a chalet on a tributary of the Yarra River, about 80 km east of Melbourne.

On the morning of 6 March, the couple attended a service at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church after which Phil decided he’d like a game of tennis.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected. The press reported that workmen had spent “a great deal of time over the last few months preparing the O’Shannassy Chalet tennis court for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. They repaired holes in the fences, resurfaced the court and marked it as carefully as they would for the Davis Cup”.

Camped outside the chalet was a crew ready to film the Queen that afternoon for an official UK documentary, The Queen In Australia.

Taking up the story from Hardman’s book:

“The afternoon light was fading. ‘Christ, when are they bloody well coming?’ muttered Loch Townsend (a member of the crew) at which point the door of the chalet flew open”.

The cameraman Frank Bagnall “instinctively turned on his camera. But what happened next was not in the script.

“Out dashed Prince Philip, with a pair of tennis shoes and a tennis racquet flying after him. Next came the Queen herself, shouting at the Prince to stop running and ordering him back.

“And still the camera kept on turning. Eventually, as Townsend later recalled, the Queen ‘dragged’ her husband back into the chalet and the door was slammed.

“At this point, angrier than a wounded buffalo, Commander Colville suddenly charged into view…

“Loch Townsend was a brave film-maker who had been in action during World War II, but he was not about to enter mortal combat with the man British journalists knew as the ‘Abominable No Man’ or, simply ‘Sunshine’.

“Without hesitation, Townsend exposed the film and then handed it to Colville, saying: ‘Commander, I have a present for you. You might like to give it to Her Majesty.’

“Colville disappeared and a member of staff emerged with beer and sandwiches for the crew. It wasn’t long before the Queen reappeared herself, calm, serene – and extremely grateful.

“‘I’m sorry for that little interlude,’ she told Townsend, ‘but, as you know, it happens in every marriage. Now, what would you like me to do?’”

Years ago, researching a book on the social life of Sydney in the 1920s-1950s, I interviewed newsmen and women covering the Royal tour of 1954 and many told me stories of both Colville and Phil, just as grumpy then as he was in later years.

The first person who briefed the news teams was Oliver Hogue, seconded from The Sun newspaper to pass on Colville’s instructions.

The Queen and Duke must never be shown drinking or eating, said Hogue. If someone did accidentally photograph them doing so, the film had to be destroyed.

Colville made his mark on the first day of the tour, when a Sydney Morning Herald photographer, Gordon Short, bounded forward from his designated position at Farm Cove, when the Royal couple stepped onto Australian soil – a pontoon.

Colville rushed towards him screaming “don’t move!” to which Short replied, “listen we don’t operate that way in Australia. If you don’t shut up you’ll end up in the harbour”.

Near the end of the tour, in Woomera, the journalist, Tom Farrell, told Colville: “We’re not popular with you and you’re not popular with us. Stop acting like a schoolmaster”.

Farrell told me: “He softened after that”.

Philip, meanwhile, continued to call the photographers “vultures” and asked them “can’t you do anything else?”

In Western Australia, the polio epidemic tethered the Queen to the Royal yacht, the Gothic. She ventured out each day but shook no one’s hand and accepted no bouquets. The Gothic’s chef prepared all her meals and the English pressmen who travelled with the Royal party on the Gothic remained on board.

On final day of the tour, photographers presented Philip with a Box Brownie camera. He asked one of them, “what are you going to do now?”

The photographer replied “I’m going to have a beer, sir”. Philip replied, “so am I”.

But this website is called dancelines, so I’ll finish with one last dance story.

On their last full day in Sydney, the Royal couple attended a variety show at the Tivoli.

The evening began with a few jokes from English comedian Tommy Trinder, then continued with a selection of short ceremonious English pieces by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Sir Bernard Heinze, followed by a performance of the comic opera, Devil Take Her, by the Australian, Arthur Benjamin, more jokes from Trinder, and finally a performance of the ballet Corroboree, choreographed by Beth Dean to John Antill’s score.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s critic, Lindsey Browne, didn’t much care for Corroboree which “assails the nerves with the stamping persistency of its rhythms as it traces the trial-by-ordeal experiences of an aboriginal youth. Its loose episodic structure tends to scatter the intended dramatic impact….

“In seeking to give off the inner excitement brought to them by their theme, the ballet’s devisers seem to be persistently hampered by their concern for the superficial anthropological aspects of it, the precise clay-brown colours, the precise native steps, the precise costumes. There is too much of reproduction and information, not enough of interpretation, to make the ballet exciting”.

However Browne had only praise for the performers.

“In the strong company of dancers, Beth Dean, dancing the main role on a level of superstitious terror, was quite outstanding”.

This month, October 2011, the Queen and Duke will visit Australia for the 16th time. Nearing her Diamond Jubilee as monarch, it’s unlikely she will be here again.

She will leave the country after a visit to Western Australia, just as she did in 1954. One wonders, as the Queen might say, whether her 2011 farewell might incorporate an Aboriginal ceremony in place of Last Gasp of Empire farewell of 1954 when the band on the Fremantle wharf played Roses of Picardy, followed by:

There’ll always be an England,
And England shall be free
If England means as much to you
As England means to me.

* The so-called Coronation tour of the Commonwealth began in November 1953 and ended in May 1954. The Royal couple visited Bermuda, Jamaica, Panama, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, Cocos Islands, Ceylon, Aden, Uganda, Libya, Malta and Gibraltar.

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Queen Elizabeth wears the wattle dress designed by Norman Hartnell, Sydney, February, 1954

William Dargie’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth in the wattle dress, designed by Norman Hartnell, 1954

Princess Elizabeth, square dancing at Rideau Hall, the Ottawa residence of the Canadian Governor General, 1951

President Gerald Ford dances with Queen Elizabeth at a White House State dinner, Washington DC, ca. July 1976, Photo © Wally McNamee/CORBIS

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Women’s Weekly cover, 3 February, 1954

Beth Dean in Corroboree costume, State Library of NSW, PXA 739/1867, Digital Order No. a272019