“God Save the Queen!” sang the whole school at morning prayers, with a fervour that reflected our delight that lessons had been cancelled so we could line part of the route along which the Monarch would pass during her visit to Stirling, ancient seat of Scottish kings.
The highlight of her programme that day was the unveiling of a larger-than-life statue of Robert the Bruce, famous victor of the Battle of Bannockburn and no friend of royal visitors from south of the border. But as we all knew, the Queen was as much a Stuart as anything else and in those days (the early sixties) Scottish nationalism was a curiosity rather than a republican-tinged tartan tide.
Soon afterwards we were rewarded by a glimpse of Elizabeth II in the back of a fast-moving Rolls Royce and were suitably thrilled, as much by our escape from double maths as by such a close encounter with the head of state.
My chief impression was that, through the rain-streaked car window, she looked just like my mother. Her impression of us, a straggling line of damp grey flannel and runny noses, we never did discover.
A whole generation of parents who would now be approaching 90 grew up with Princess Elizabeth Photo: Getty Images
Half a century has passed. The world has changed beyond recognition. Those snotty little boys are balding and paunchy; the Scotland of Alec Douglas Home has become the fiefdom of Nicola Sturgeon; saltires have replaced Union flags.
In my own small way I was privileged – not always willingly – to see some of the most wrenching changes at first hand, as Princess Diana’s private secretary and daily go-between with the Queen’s office. In the dark days of her son and daughter-in-law’s infidelities and divorce, when the Royal universe wobbled like a Duchy Originals lemon posset in a gale, her resolute neutrality sent a sharp message to a fractious court.
The Queen’s role as head of the family carries an authority that doesn’t have to be wielded to prove its awesome power; Her Majesty’s displeasure is not lightly incurred, nor is it quickly forgotten.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (L) disembark after a tour of the Grand Harbour in a traditional Maltese fishing boat during the State Visit and Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Valletta, Malta, November 28, 2015. REUTERS/Toby Melville
When I was still an apprentice equerry, I was on duty for a state visit, part of which was a very formal and grand lunch given by the Queen at Buckingham Palace for our distinguished guest and his entourage. It was an example of the kind of diplomatic stagecraft on which we British pride ourselves, though in the world of high-powered palace protocol it was as near to routine as you could get while still wearing a starched collar and morning coat.
As the new boy, I kept a low profile, taking it all in as I watched the senior courtiers run nonchalantly through the familiar procedure, rounding up the visitors for the procession into the dining room. But to my surprise, I began to realise that something had gone wrong.
The experts – private secretaries, ladies-in-waiting and other top management – hadn’t completed their whipping-in duties; the guests were looking lost and already the efficient Queen was in her customary position, waiting for the off. Her look said it all: why isn’t everybody ready?
Suddenly I felt her eye on me. So much for my low profile. 'What are you going to do about this?’ said the look, with some emphasis. And I saw a momentary vulnerability. Here was the Queen keeping the show on the road, but where were all the people who were supposed to be helping her? I served almost eight more years in the Royal Household but I never forgot that look – neither its galvanising effect nor its hint of reassuringly human frailty.
Some time later, towards the end of my stint as a treader of red carpets, I was honoured with the award of a modest decoration as a mark of my service. At the Investiture, and later when she received me on my departure from the Palace, Her Majesty’s words left me in no doubt that her keen blue eyes (and no less keen ears) missed nothing that happened in her extended organisation.
What mattered rather more to me was that she left me in equally little doubt that she recognised and appreciated my efforts in the corner of it that had been my responsibility. By such impressions are loyal followers made.
The Queen's resolute neutrality sent a sharp message to a fractious court Photo: Geoff Pugh/The Telegraph
We can be grateful that Robert the Bruce is still astride his snorting bronze charger, Stirling Castle has been lovingly restored and Elizabeth II is still providing lazy schoolchildren with a great excuse to swap lessons for a bit of energetic kerbside flag waving. My own mother is long gone, yet our national matriarch is now our longest serving monarch.
A whole generation of parents who would now be approaching 90 grew up with Princess Elizabeth. Like her, they served in uniform, braved the Blitz and brought children into an austere post-war world. The young Princess’s vow to her future subjects – that her whole life, be it short or long, would be dedicated to their service – echoed the sacrifice of self to duty that we now associate with our nation in its finest hour.
The longevity of the British Monarchy, we are told, is due to its unerring instinct for pragmatic evolution.
her keen blue eyes (and no less keen ears) missed nothing that happened in her extended organisation
Elizabeth has come to personify this process, from disbanding the debutantes to paying tax, kissing colonies a fond farewell and decommissioning the Royal Yacht.
A process of painful national evolution (or decline, according to taste) has been soothed by the seemingly imperturbable profile we still find on our stamps and coins and which still graciously raises a white-gloved hand from gilded state coaches on great national occasions; an enduring, reassuring symbol of all the qualities we associate with Britain at its best.
In ITV’s birthday tribute tonight, Our Queen At 90, we will have an extraordinary opportunity to see for ourselves an example of this royal evolution in practice. Almost as long ago as that far off visit to Stirling, the Queen agreed to an unprecedented level of access for the BBC’s “Royal Family” documentary. The nation goggled in amazement as the cameras revealed the Windsors at work and play as never before.
For me, the sight of the Queen presiding over a picnic in the beautiful setting of Royal Deeside while the Duke of Edinburgh took command of the barbecue was just further reinforcement of the comfortable belief that They were really just like Us, only a bit posher. Even then it had a voyeuristic thrill that may in part explain why the whole project was soon judged a damaging mistake, never to be repeated. “Letting daylight in on magic” was traditionally thought to be fatal to monarchy’s chances of survival, a point many thought was proved by the subsequent national disillusionment when the family was seen to share its unfortunate marital shortcomings too.
Yet year by year, the cameras were allowed deeper and deeper into the world of palaces and Range Rovers, the Royal Train and the Mews. Weddings, funerals, overseas tours and significant birthdays all attracted their keenly-anticipated TV specials. One by one, members of the Royal Family appeared on the box to reveal titbits of their lives or – a favourite of the Prince of Wales – to share their interests, philosophies and charitable activities for our general edification. Notoriously, Charles and his wife took to the small screen to attract sympathy for their respective versions of their unhappy domestic drama.
All of these virtual visits to the nation’s sitting rooms seemed a good idea at the time, and most had their ardent exponents among the spin doctors who gratefully accepted the invitation to try their hands at Royal image polishing.
But ITV have not been short of exclusive material. And one message coming across loud and clear is the Queen is closely involved with the raising and Royal preparation of her great-grandchildren. That’s reassuring news for those who know how much the dynasty depends on the wisdom that will be Her Majesty’s most valuable legacy to her descendants.
Elizabeth II is still providing lazy schoolchildren with a great excuse to swap lessons for a bit of energetic kerbside flag waving Photo: REX FEATURES
Of course, this is nothing new: despite whatever earthquakes were shaking the rest of the Royal world, Diana unfailingly ensured that William and Harry had regular close links with the Queen. Most often an informal tea, arranged with minimal notice and maximum jollity. The benefits for their young minds, not to mention for family cohesion, must have been immense.
As I saw for myself, the Princess always found these sessions with Granny immensely supportive too, even if the two women never fully overcame the communications barriers between them. Meanwhile the close, affectionate and mutually enlightening relationship shared by William and his grandmother is at the heart of monarchy’s long-term health. It looks increasingly like the key to its very survival.
Interviews with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry look certain to reinforce the next generation’s place in loyal Royalists’ hearts. And adorable details of Prince George – who we’re told calls the Queen Gan-Gan – and his new sister Charlotte Elizabeth Diana must be odds-on to win new converts to the blessings of an inherited hierarchy.
The relationship shared by William and his grandmother is at the heart of monarchy?s long-term health Photo: GETTY IMAGES
One thing we will never know is what Gan-Gan herself actually thinks about all this. Another televised tribute is unlikely to alter the unshakeable optimism and resolute sense of duty that has served her – and the rest of us – so well these past nine decades.
The whole exercise is an affectionate and respectful expression of gratitude and celebration for a woman who can remember when the cavalry regiments of the Empire wheeled and jangled past Buckingham Palace.
But inside, I like to think she’d rather be putting on tweeds and boots and going for a good long walk in the gentle Scottish rain.
Patrick Jephson was equerry and private secretary to HRH The Princess of Wales, 1988-96. He is now partner in the communications consultancy JephsonBeaman llc in Washington DC