Feb. 29, 2008 -- London is one of the world's modern metropolises, but it is also the seat of a monarchy that has survived wars, famine, pestilence, scandal, even democracy.
There is an inevitable air of mystery about royalty and what really goes on behind the palace walls. In the documentary "The Royal Family," anchored by Barbara Walters, ABC News offers a rare glimpse of the most famous royalty in the world -- the royal family of Great Britain.
From Queen Elizabeth II to Prince William and Prince Harry, the documentary crew from RDF USA filmed the British monarchy for more than a year, and was given unparalleled access to the working monarchy and its private spaces and lives. Culled from hundreds of hours of footage of the queen and her family in both public and private settings, this special offers unprecedented access to the royal family.
Queen Elizabeth II has reigned from Buckingham Palace for 55 years, and her family, for centuries. Last summer, in the queen's private reception area on the second floor of the palace, four generations of royalty and a likely future king gathered to celebrate her official birthday.
"It's a wonderful, wonderful occasion, and it's done so, so well," Prince Charles said.
"I remember so well, when I was small, I was always looking up at people with wonderful uniforms on, you know, and breast plates and egalettes and always wanting to pull swords out and so on," said Prince Charles. "It's so funny to see it happening, you know, and other generations all wanting to do the same thing."
The event itself symbolizes the paradoxes of a modern monarchy. The official celebration of the queen's birthday is in June, at the height of the tourist season. Yet she was born in April.
The birthday party is very private, but outside the palace, thousands gathered for the public celebration. It all started with a full-dress royal procession through the streets.
At the Horseguards Parade, one of her majesty's regiment troops presented the colors. Then it was back to the palace, where the queen, next to her granddaughter Beatrice, kept up with the festivities outside.
"The fly-past on the same day as the troop and the color represents the Royal Air Force's annual tribute to her majesty, the queen," said GP Cpt. Bob Judson. "This year is particularly special from the point of view in that it's much bigger than it has been in the recent past. A fly-past such as this is nearly 24 miles long. It's 49 aircraft that'll actually be flying over at the palace, and that's one of the biggest runs we've done for many years."
"It's going extremely well," said Air Vice Marshal Christopher Marshall. "The Battle of Britain memorial flight has just overflown Buckingham Palace, exactly on track, exactly on time."
The queen has been the heir apparent to her father, King George VI, since she was 10 years old. He lived to see her marry Prince Phillip in 1947, and only the fact that the king had no sons was what put Elizabeth on the throne at the age of 25, when her father died five years later.
Elizabeth II will turn 82 next month. Buckingham Palace is host not only to celebrations in her honor but to visits from heads of state from around the world.
'You Can Never Be Good Enough'
The palace plans for state visits with polish and precision. A visit by President John Kufuor of Ghana last year was typical -- the itinerary was spelled out page by page, minute by minute.
"What we've got is the ceremonial, we call it, which is the program for the visit itself, which contains all the detail, all the timings for the entire time he's here, from the moment of arrival to the moment of departure," said Jonathan Spencer, the deputy comptroller for the Lord Chamberlains Office. "We've always had a book."
In the palace kitchens royal chef Mark Flanagan supervised the arrival lunch.
"You know, the guys take a lot of care," Flanagan said. "Every piece of fruit's polished, every leaf is polished, then of course we've got the worry that the china is irreplaceable, so it's a bit of a nervy job and we try not to let the youngsters do that one, just in case."
"You can never be good enough," said Philippus Steenkamp, the senior footman on the queen's floor. "There's always a margin for improvement."
"These shoes are virtually brand new," he said, polishing cloth in hand. "So they don't produce a good shine yet, 'cause the polish hasn't built up in layers yet. This'll be my No. 2 shoes and then for this afternoon, I'll wear my No. 1s."
"Buckingham Palace functions very well as a venue for a state visit because the layout of it and the room designs and the room sizes lend themselves very well to the different things that we put on whilst they're staying here," said Spencer. "I think they always feel slightly shell shocked when they arrive."
The president of Ghana arrived at the grand entrance and was greeted by the queen.
"The queen is saying to us, to the president of Ghana and to Ghanaians, 'Keep it up,'" said Annan Cato, Ghana's high commissioner to the United Kingdom. "'You're making it, and we're proud of you.' That's how we see it. That's what it is. That's the significance of the visit."
The State Dinner
The highlight of the visit was a state dnner. With her visitors settled in, the queen focused on preparations, including inspecting the flower arrangements.
On the evening of the dinner, the queen's pages must be on the top of their game.
"Now the first course is fish, which is sole served with a white wine sauce, but if one of the guests has suddenly elected to become a vegetarian, tonight we do have a vegetarian course," said the senior courtier. " The first light you'll see'll be a blue light. And that light means take your place at the start of your service, and then on the green light, then you all lay your plates."
"Now, has anyone got any questions?" said the senior courtier. "It's important from my point of view that you know what you're doing tonight, OK? Don't be nervous and enjoy yourselves."
Prime Minister Tony Blair was a principal guest at the state dinner, one of many he attended during his 10 years in office.
"I know when visiting heads of state come to this country and they have one of these magnificent banquets at Buckingham Palace, you know, if you said to them, 'Well, we'll scrap all that and we'll go down to the local bistro or we'll have you in Downing Street for a dinner,' I mean, it wouldn't be the same to them," the prime minister said. "They love the fact that they're in Buckingham Palace with the queen of the United Kingdom and you know, the royal family, in what is, at one level … almost a piece of theater. But it's great. People love it, and why not?"
As President Kafour began his speech, chef Flanagan and his staff were hurrying to have dinner ready to go on time.
"Lovely, let's rock and roll," Flanagan said.
"The president's still speaking, and we've finished, so we're good for time," he said. "We were lucky they were late, and it always pans out that way, and you make it by the skin of your teeth."
The after-dinner entertainment was by the Scots Guard's pipers … the kind of pomp and circumstance for which Buckingham Palace is noted.
Every British monarch since Queen Victoria in the 1800s has lived in the palace, which is rich in furnishings and traditions that are passed down from one generation to the next. Members of Great Britain's royal family learn by doing … and it takes a lifetime.
"The one thing about this particular job, as far as I can recall, is that there is absolutely and precisely no training scheme whatsoever," said Prince Edward, the earl of Wessex and the queen's youngest son. "So, it's actually quite extraordinary that any of us have survived at all."