As millions of Britons celebrated Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee — 70 years on the throne — in June 2022, a disturbing old anecdote, which raised the prospect of casual racism on the part of the U.K. monarch, gained prominence once again on social media.
The claim — that Elizabeth once laughed while describing a Black foreign ambassador as “a gorilla” — has been the subject of speculation for several decades.
There’s no doubt she did once describe a particular ambassador with that word, but it has not yet been possible to determine who the man in question was, and therefore whether her remarks bore any racial undertones. As such, we are issuing a rating of “Unproven.”
On June 1, 2022, during jubilee celebrations, @HrmQueene posted a video clip on Twitter, along with the caption, “Oh, this isn’t good!” In the video, BBC presenter Kirsty Young asks David Jason, a widely beloved veteran English television actor, whether the queen had ever shown her reputedly sharp sense of humor, in his presence. (Elizabeth knighted Jason in 2005). Jason replied:
I remember seeing an off-the-cuff piece of television where she said — she was talking to family — and she said, they were talking about an ambassador that came from another country, and she said: “Actually, I thought that I was talking to a gorilla!”
The responses to the clip made it clear that many observers believed the ambassador in question to have been Black, and therefore that Elizabeth’s impressions — and her light-hearted recollection of them — were disturbingly racist.
Although it re-emerged in June 2022, in the context of that year’s Platinum Jubilee, the Jason clip was actually recorded in 2016, on the occasion of the queen’s 90th birthday. His “gorilla” anecdote caused a stir at that time, and again when a clip of it was shared widely in April 2021.
On that occasion, the tabloid Daily Express sought to fight back against the claims of racism, asserting that the ambassador in question was actually Walter Annenberg — U.S. ambassador to the U.K. between 1969 and 1974 — who was white.
However, the Express presented no evidence or attribution for the claim that Annenberg was the dignitary labelled a “gorilla” by the queen, and that newspaper’s own royal correspondent, Richard Palmer, had already refuted that claim.
Despite our research, we found no evidence to suggest that Annenberg was the ambassador in question, though we know it is at least possible, since he visited Elizabeth, in his official capacity, in June 1969.
A Legendary, Long-Censored Documentary
The original source of the “gorilla” anecdote was a highly controversial 1969 documentary film, entitled “Royal Family,” which contained extensive “behind the scenes” footage of the royal family. This is the “off-the-cuff piece of television” to which Jason referred in his anecdote.
BBC and ITV broadcast it in 1969, attracting enormous audiences, and it was syndicated in the United States and beyond. However, the royal family later reportedly became unhappy with its portrayals of them, and withdrew their permission for it to be re-broadcast.
For several decades, it remained unavailable to the viewing public and took on quasi-legendary status, as well as becoming a plot point during the third season of Netflix’s “The Crown.”
In early 2021, the film was leaked in full online, before hastily being removed from almost all platforms. Since then, internet and social media users have shared various clips of the “gorilla” scene, such as the one shown below:
However, none of those shows the conversation in its full and proper context. Snopes, on the other hand, was able to view the documentary in full, including the now-infamous “gorilla” scene, and below is a transcript of the relevant exchanges.
Seated around a table, ostensibly at Windsor Castle, are Elizabeth; her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh; and their children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
Elizabeth and Philip recall various funny moments from the royal family’s history: Queen Victoria “trembling” with suppressed laughter at the sight of an ambassador falling on the floor in front of her; King George VI swearing and shouting while trimming a rhododendron bush, and so on.
Then, the queen holds forth on the importance of keeping one’s composure during solemn occasions, and tells another story, as follows:
Elizabeth: It is extremely difficult, sometimes, to keep a straight face. When the Home Secretary, with his hand over his face — when he came in beforehand, like they do. And he said to me “There’s a gorilla coming in.”
So I said, you know, what an extraordinary remark to make, very unkind, about anybody. So I stood in the middle of the room and pressed the bell and the doors opened, and there was a gorilla! [Laughter] And I had the most terrible trouble in keeping — you know, he had [a] short body, long arms…
Philip: But he was dressed, I take it?
Elizabeth: Oh yes. [Laughter] And I had the most appalling trouble, because nobody else knew — except me — what he’d said, you see.
Charles: If that happened to me I’d absolutely dissolve. I’d have to walk out.
No one at the table mentions any names or provides any other clues as to who the ambassador was, what his racial identity was, or when the incident took place.
Between Elizabeth’s accession to the throne in 1952, and the filming of the documentary in 1969, several countries appointed numerous Black men as ambassadors or commissioners or diplomatic representatives to the U.K., so it is clearly undoubtedly possible that she was referring to a Black ambassador in the story. However, it is clearly also possible that the ambassador was white.
The home secretary, to whom Elizabeth refers, is a government minister responsible for law enforcement and national security, in the Home Office. Roughly speaking, it’s the equivalent of the U.S. Attorney General, but with arguably greater responsibility and public visibility in the U.K.
Up to that point, Elizabeth had been monarch during the tenures of seven home secretaries, but our research into the memoirs and recollections of those men provided no further information about the “gorilla” incident.
Similarly, an archive of British newspapers from 1969 onwards provided no additional clues as to the date of the episode, or the identity of either the home secretary or ambassador in question.
Furthermore, the recollection presented by the queen in the 1969 film could be slightly off in a factual sense, which could confound any efforts to pin down the precise context of the anecdote.
Say, for example, it was another government official, and not the home secretary, who had made the initial remark to her. Or if the word used was slightly different — “monkey” rather than “gorilla,” for example — this could also scupper any attempt to get to the bottom of this particular mystery.
In 2021, Buckingham Palace declined to comment when the Huffington Post submitted questions about the “gorilla” scene from the 1969 documentary.
In the continued absence of a clarification by someone connected to the royal family, the home secretary in question, or even the ambassador in question, the disturbing “gorilla” episode is therefore likely to remain indefinitely as a dark cloud over the public perception of Elizabeth’s personal and racial viewpoints.
Agius, Nicola. “(Will).i.Am Not Amused – David Jason Recalls Queen’s ‘racist’ Gorilla Joke.” Mirror, 12 June 2016, http://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/david-jason-accused-racism-after-8173897.
Bullock, Andrew. “David Jason Branded Racist after ‘gorilla’ Remark during Queen’s 90th Birthday Coverage.” Express.Co.Uk, 13 June 2016, https://www.express.co.uk/showbiz/tv-radio/679319/David-Jason-Queen-racist-gorilla-Kirsty-Young-will-i-am-BBC.
Hoare, Callum. “Woke Police Shut down after David Jason Humoured Queen’s ‘gorilla’ Jibe – ‘Not Bright.’” Express.Co.Uk, 11 Apr. 2021, https://www.express.co.uk/news/royal/1421348/queen-news-woke-police-david-jason-gorilla-bbc-prince-philip-royal-family-spt.
McCabe, Sophie. “David Jason’s ‘disappointment’ over Being Knighted by Queen: ‘Where’s the Other Bit?’” Express.Co.Uk, 19 May 2022, https://www.express.co.uk/news/royal/1609842/david-jason-disappointment-knighted-queen-royal-family-spt.