The Queen & George Formby - the truth
A few years ago, when I was writing a biography of the Queen and Prince Philip, I found myself discussing Her Majesty's taste in cake with her then private secretary. 'Please don't include that in your book,' he pleaded. 'Why not?' I asked. 'Because once people know what cake she likes, wherever she goes that's all she'll be offered.'
I thought about that last night during the concert at the Royal Albert Hall celebrating the Queen's 92nd birthday. After Sir Tom Jones, Sting and Shaggy had strutted their stuff, the birthday girl was offered a special treat: 'the George Formby Fan Club' (led by Frank Skinner, Harry Hill and Ed Balls) singing 'When I'm cleaning windows'. Why? Because . . .
Yes, I am responsible. In 2003, I interviewed Deborah Bean, Her Majesty's long-serving Correspondence Secretary, and during our conversation Mrs Bean revealed to me that the Queen had once told her that she loved the songs of George Formby, knew all of them, could sing them - and frequently did. What Mrs Bean told me I then told the world - and as a consequence George Formby has now become the go-to repertoire when people want to play the kind of music they think Her Majesty will enjoy.
I'm sure the Queen does enjoy George Formby, but I am not sure he's her 'one and only'. That will make no difference. Once it's in print there's no escape. From now on in, whenever the Queen and music are mentioned together, George Formby wlll be part of the story. She will have ukulele music wherever she goes.
Since I first met Mrs Bean we've become friends. She's huge fun - as I think you'll agree if you read on. This is the original interview - my world exclusive: the day I broke 'The George & George Formby' story.
They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace and, high up in the building, immediately above the state apartments, in a small, hot, low-ceilinged room, overlooking the Mall, I am taking tea with a larky, sparky, classy lady who could easily feature as an up-market nanny, or a Kensington mother, in a verse by A A Milne. She is beautifully groomed and spoken (small pearls at the neck, tiny plums in the mouth) and looks much younger than her sixty years. I think she is rather sexy. She is friendly and fun and mad about horses.
She is Deborah Bean, Correspondence Secretary to Her Majesty The Queen. This weekend she retires, after almost forty years of royal service, and she has kindly agreed to give me a world exclusive: her one and only, once-in-a-lifetime, newspaper interview. First things first: what does she like to be called?
‘Debs or Debbie,’ she says, with a smile, smoothing out her skirt.
‘Ma’am,’ banters the attendant Palace Press Officer.
We all laugh, but I see where the press officer is coming from. There is something pleasingly regal about Mrs Bean. (By happy chance, her maiden name was King.) ‘And what does your job involve?’ I ask, looking around her cluttered office. The desk is dominated by her computer, but there are reference books, folders, papers piled high, on every surface.
‘Researching, drafting, signing, and sending replies to everyone and anyone who writes to Her Majesty,’ she explains, sitting forward, intently, on her swivel chair. As we talk, she glances regularly at the notes she has prepared for the interview. Discretion is her watchword. She is not going to put a foot wrong, but she is clearly a little nervous. Twice she refers to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as Rowan Atkinson. (Perhaps that’s easily done if you are called Mrs Bean.)
‘Does the Queen get much correspondence?’ I ask.
‘About three hundred letters a day,’ reveals Mrs Bean. ‘260 came in today. The biggest postbag is usually on a Monday. Last year, with the Golden Jubilee and the deaths of Princess Margaret and The Queen Mother, we had a record, just over 122,000 in all, including fourteen thousand from the Commonwealth and nearly 22,000 from foreign countries.’ She checks her notes. ‘Her Majesty received 4,495 letters of condolence on the death of Princess Margaret and 13,631 on the death of The Queen Mother.’
‘And how much of this does The Queen see?’
‘All of it,’ says Mrs Bean. ‘If it’s addressed to The Queen, it’s seen by The Queen.’
‘What?’ I splutter. This I can’t believe. Mrs Bean gazes at me steadily and nods her head.
‘Yes,’ murmurs the Press Officer, earnestly. ‘The Queen sees the lot.’
‘The Queen is amazing,’ smiles Mrs Bean, evidently amused by my incredulity.
I am still not wholly convinced. ‘How does the system work?’ I ask. ‘What’s the process?’
‘The letters arrive,’ explains Mrs Bean, ‘they are screened for security, then put in a bag and taken up to Her Majesty by her page. He leaves them on the desk in her office.’
‘Still in their envelopes?’
Mrs Bean nods. ‘How can The Queen tell which ones are personal?’ I ask.
‘Friends and family put their initials on the envelope, but almost all the correspondence The Queen receives comes from strangers.’
I am open-mouthed, marvelling at the thought of the sovereign snowed under by unsolicited mail. What are the letters about?
‘Requests for autographs, invitations to tea, cries for help, all sorts,’ says Mrs Bean. ‘At the moment Her Majesty is receiving hundreds of letters from people about the war in Iraq. Europe always provokes a lot of correspondence. She has had over 3,000 letters on the Treaty of Nice and 114 on the matter of the European Arrest Warrant.’ Mrs Bean consults her notes. ‘She got ninety-three objecting to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster’s visit to Sandringham and twenty-five objecting to Lucian Freud’s portrait of her.
‘A number of those who write are hoping The Queen will intervene on their behalf, sort out the disagreement in the local Scout pack, get a by-pass diverted, strip Lord Archer of his peerage. There was quite a correspondence about the future of the Niagara Women’s Institute. It really can be anything. Someone recently sent in a delightful recording of a budgerigar singing the national anthem.’
And what happens to the letters once The Queen has seen the‘They come up here, and, if there’s an address, they get a reply. The ladies-in-waiting answer the straightforward ones, but if it’s controversial I handle it. I’ll consult with the Foreign Office, or the Home Office, or whoever, and try to come up with an appropriate response.’
‘Does The Queen ever let you know what she thinks about a particular issue?’
‘No,’ says Mrs Bean, firmly. ‘The Queen doesn’t express views as such, but she will sometimes put a comment on the envelope. When the George Formby Society wrote asking if The Queen remembered their hero, she wrote, “I still remember all his songs and sing them!” ‘
My mind is now boggling as I picture Her Majesty leafing through assorted begging letters, petitions, requests for recipes (or asylum), while gaily humming snatches of “When I’m cleaning windows”.
Her Majesty does not send out signed photographs. ‘It is not her custom,’ says Mrs Bean, head tilted to one side. ‘As a rule, The Queen only signs photographs for people known to her personally or to mark an official visit of some kind. We say “as a rule” just in case the rule ever needs to be broken. And Her Majesty doesn’t express preferences because that could lead to all sorts of complications. If she said she liked lemon sponge, she’d never be offered anything else. She does say she won’t eat shell-fish, but that’s just being sensible.’
Clearly, Mrs Bean and The Queen are on the same commonsensical wavelength. ‘If it’s a letter about horses,’ she admits, ‘I might send a note to Her Majesty via her page asking for further particulars. I simply try to give the response The Queen would want. A rector from Suffolk wrote recently about a scarecrow competition designed to unite scattered communities in a single activity. By way of reply, he was told it was an original idea and would, in any case, make 2002 an excellent year for the soft fruit and vegetable crops.’
‘I try to be diplomatic’ says Mrs Bean. Her aim is to keep her boss in the swim, but out of trouble. When the organisers of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras wrote to The Queen asking for a message of support, Mrs Bean replied, explaining that Her Majesty “is currently visiting Australia”, adding, “but I am sure she would wish me to thank you for telling her about the Mardi Gras Festival.” She described the news of the Gay Pride March as “interesting” and concluded, with an ingenious shift into the impersonal: “It is very much hoped that the celebrations . . . will be enjoyable.”
Around the Palace this effortless diplomatic circumlocution is known as “Bean-speak”. ‘I really learnt it all from Martin Charteris, who was Assistant Private Secretary to The Queen when I arrived here in the mid 1960s. He interviewed me and gave me my first job here. He had a wonderful way with words. When he thought someone was utterly useless, completely hopeless, all he’d say was: “I think his talents lie in another direction.”’
Deborah Bean is an exemplar of her class and time. A child of the 1940s and 50s, she belongs, she admits, to the “Daniel Neal/Peter Jones generation”: ‘We took tea at Dickins & Jones and stood up automatically when the National Anthem was played on television.’ Her father was Master of Hounds at Eggesford in Devon, her mother was a housewife. Her grandmother painted lampshades for Liberty’s and bought a shop selling needlework and wool. Debs went to Croydon High School (a Girls Public Day School Trust) and, aged eighteen, enrolled at Mrs Hoster’s Secretarial College in the Cromwell Road.
‘In those days,’ she reminds me, ‘girls didn’t all go to university. It was nursing or teaching or shorthand and typing. I really took to secretarial work. I could do 160 words per minute. Mrs Hoster said, “My dear, the world is your oyster.” And that’s how it felt. The College supplied “gels” for the establishment and, before I came here, my first job was working under Lord Hunt at the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme.’
She arrived at the Palace – ‘”The big house at the end of the Mall” is how Mrs Hoster described it’ - in 1965, on Battle of Britain Day, starting out as Lady Clerk to the Assistant Private Secretary. ‘”You will wear a hat” I was told: we all wore hats to work in those days. And the men all wore bowlers.’ Efficient, jolly, and what once was called PLU [standing for ‘People Like Us’], Debs gradually, and inevitably, moved up the hierarchy of the Palace secretariat.
It has been a happy and fulfilling professional life. Has fraternising with The Queen been one of the perks?
She looks amazed. ‘Goodness me, no. I hardly ever see The Queen, except at a distance. At Balmoral, it’s different, because The Queen uses the corridor where the office is and she very sweetly allows me to ride her highland pony.’ Suddenly she waves her hands at me frantically: ‘I shouldn’t have said “sweetly”. I meant to say “graciously”.’
It is clear that Deborah Bean is wholly in sympathy with Her Majesty. ‘Yes, we got a bumper crop of letters at the time of Diana’s death. Some of them were so arrogant, so abusive. It was not a comfortable time. But The Queen received some wonderfully supportive letters too, telling her not to believe everything she reads in the newspapers. I provide her with a monthly summary of the letters received and views expressed, so The Queen knows exactly what people think. Constructively critical letters are always welcome and always receive a reply. I do try to set the record straight. I do write back and say, “Actually, The Queen does see her grandchildren. She had tea with Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie at Wood Farm just this weekend.”’
Deborah Bean’s manner – like The Queen’s – is cheerful and humorous, but I imagine there has been darkness in her life too. During her childhood, she tells me, her father “didn’t really figure”. She has no children herself and her own marriage failed. She has been separated from her husband for ten years, but is not yet divorced. When I raise an enquiring eyebrow, she gives a little grimace: ‘Complicated,’ she says, simply. She belongs to the school where these things don’t need to be discussed or dwelt on. ‘Let’s get on with life,’ is her philosophy. She is looking forward to her retirement. She is moving to a cottage on the Sandringham Estate – “paying rent, of course”. She sings in a choir, she rides, she beats with a small shoot, she has a labrador puppy. ‘Aren’t I lucky?’ she says, beaming. ‘And if ever I have a problem, I can always write to The Queen.’