DARCEY BUSSELL discovers a very personal link to Her Majesty in her revealing new royal TV series  

The day I danced with the Queen: Not only did Darcey Bussell find out she once lived in the same house as Her Majesty while making a new series – here she reveals they’ve shared a dancefloor too

  • Darcey Bussell has met the Queen more than 100 times at different events 
  • She discovered that she and the Queen both spent time at the White Lodge
  • She says she has a huge appreciation for Her Majesty’s patronage of ballet world
  • Ballet dancer said it was nice to delve into the communities the Queen visits 

For most people, meeting the Queen just once is a lifetime ambition.

Dame Darcey Bussell has met her more than 100 times, from her early years as a young prima ballerina to the moment she had the rare privilege of dancing in the throne room at Buckingham Palace in 2005 and the day she received her damehood in 2018.

She has huge appreciation for Her Majesty’s patronage of the ballet world, perhaps even more so knowing that it’s not her first love. 

Darcey reveals that after one royal gala the Queen said to her wearily, ‘I think I’ve seen enough ballet for the year now.’ ‘She is this extraordinary figurehead who, by having come to ballet events, shows that she values our art form, and is willing to create an awareness of it,’ says Darcey.

 ‘It makes a big difference to all of us and to the future of British ballet, and I personally feel like I’ve had support from the Queen.’ So, if not ballet, what does the Queen like? 

Plenty of things, Darcey discovers in her glorious new four-part More4 series Darcey Bussell’s Royal Road Trip, in which she travels around Britain on a mission to find out what the Queen loves most about her realm. There’s the obvious – the beach, horses, boat trips, corgis and trees – but there are also some surprises such as rose-flavoured chocolate, serving tea, driving herself around, fly fishing and dancing. 

Darcey Bussell, pictured, explored Britain to find out what the Queen loves most about her realm. Some surprise favourites included fly-fishing and dancing

Darcey Bussell, pictured, explored Britain to find out what the Queen loves most about her realm. Some surprise favourites included fly-fishing and dancing 

And during her journey, Darcey also explores her own special link with the Queen. The former Strictly judge proves an entertaining, surprisingly kooky and thoughtful presenter, examining nooks and crannies of the Queen’s life even the most devoted fan may not know about, and throughout the series her respect for Her Majesty shines through.

‘We mainly associate the Queen with the events we see her at, the pomp and ceremony and the traditions that she’s kept going,’ says Darcey. ‘But it was lovely to delve into the different communities she connects with. 

‘She really has this whole other life that we don’t see. To be able to make this series that recognises a small part of what she has done feels like an honour.’

Darcey travelled the length and breadth of the kingdom for the series to meet some of the ordinary people who know the Queen best, from her friends at the Sandringham Women’s Institute to a former steward on the Royal Yacht Britannia, the purveyor of her favourite sausages and the musicians who’ve played at the famous ghillies balls thrown for locals and staff at Balmoral.

Indeed, it was through keyboard player Eileen Pike and accordionist Frank Thomson that Darcey discovered the Queen loves to dance and would famously stay on the dance floor all night during the energetic jigs. ‘I really liked learning that she and Prince Philip never missed a dance at the balls,’ says Darcey, 53.

 ‘She loved to dance with everybody who worked with her – one of the things I discovered was how much she values community. I’d never really thought about her as a dancer, but I’ve been lucky enough to be at a few events with her and it made me realise she makes the most of dancing if she can.

Darcey once saw the Queen dancing at a joint birthday party at Windsor Castle

Darcey once saw the Queen dancing at a joint birthday party at Windsor Castle

If she’s able to dance the night away, she will. ‘In June 2000 I went to the most wonderful joint birthday party at Windsor Castle, which ranged from the Queen Mother’s 100th to Prince William’s 18th. 

‘My husband and I were dancing and I suddenly realised the Queen was behind me dancing as well, smiling away and having a lovely time. You definitely took extra care not to bump into her though!’

Each episode looks at a different area of Britain – starting in Scotland before heading to London and the South-east, then to Norfolk and finally on to Wales. As well as learning about the ghillies balls in Scotland, Darcey also visits the site of the Braemar Gathering, the biggest event on the Highland Games circuit, which the Queen used to attend annually.

I realised the Queen was behind me dancing as well, smiling away and having a lovely time 

 She also visits the Royal Yacht Britannia, which was decommissioned in 1997 and now has a permanent mooring in Edinburgh. ‘I was expecting it to be grand, sort of like a floating palace, but actually it’s very understated,’ says Darcey.

 ‘It became clear that what the Queen valued there was a chance to get away from it all and be with her family. And while her homes are full of the stories of her ancestors, the Royal Yacht was where she made her own story.

‘Her father designed it but he died before it was finished, and so the yacht was something she made her own mark on. It was very personal to her and she clearly got very special enjoyment from it.’

Meeting the Queen in 2016 as President of the Royal Academy of Dance

Meeting the Queen in 2016 as President of the Royal Academy of Dance

It was when she travelled to the south of England that Darcey discovered a startling personal link to the Queen – they once lived in the same house. Her Majesty spent the first year of her life in the beautiful White Lodge in Richmond, and the building was later leased to the Royal Ballet School where Darcey boarded from the age of 13.

‘It’s strange because when you embark on a project like this, you want to make a connection, and obviously we have our links through the arts, with the Queen being a patron of so many of the companies and charities I’ve been involved in. But I had no idea we had once shared a home,’ says Darcey.

‘I knew White Lodge had royal history but I hadn’t appreciated that the Queen’s parents were living there when she was born, long before they knew that her father would become king. It was completely surreal to think that the studio that I trained and sweated in as a young student was the Royal Family’s living room.

‘All of us who went through that school knew it was a special place – it has a sort of aura about it – but it was nice to learn the history of somewhere I knew so well.’ Chief among the Queen’s activities in England, of course, are horses, and Darcey visits Ascot to meet racing legend Frankie Dettori, who tells her about his friendship with the Queen.

 ‘Frankie has this extraordinary energy for life,’ says Darcey. ‘He was really appreciative of what the Queen brings to racing but it’s also clear they have a lot of laughs together. 

‘She can be quite cheeky with people who work in that industry because she knows it so well. He was laughing about how when the Queen was giving him an award at Ascot, he said to her, ‘Do you know, Your Majesty, this is my fourth King George?’

 Quick as a flash she said, ‘Lester [Piggott] has seven.’ Frankie told me, ‘That put me straight back into my box!’

 I found it fascinating that the Queen introduced horse whispering to the UK. Trying it out was mystical

Darcey also learnt that the Queen introduced the technique of ‘horse whispering’ to the UK. In 1989 she read about an American called Monty Roberts, who could ‘break in’ racehorses without using traditionally aggressive practices. 

She arranged for Monty to visit Windsor for a private showcase in front of 200 people in the industry. ‘Apparently the Queen had tears in her eyes when she saw it and told Monty, ‘That was one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen.’ 

She then arranged for him to go around the country showing people his techniques.’ As part of the series Darcey turns her hand to some of the things the Queen enjoys, and having a go at horse whispering was something she will never forget. 

SINGLE BEDS AT SEA 

It’s well known that Prince Philip would often refer to his wife as ‘Cabbage’, but it still came as a shock to William French, who was a steward on the Royal Yacht Britannia and saw the Royal Family at their most unguarded.

 ‘The Duke of Edinburgh used to wander round the ship calling out, ‘Cabbage’,’ he reveals. ‘It was quite bizarre. I had no idea how it came about.’

William also reveals there was strictly no hanky-panky aboard Britannia. ‘All the rooms have single beds [below] except one.

‘No one slept together on the Royal Yacht unless they were on their honeymoon. Everyone, even the Queen, slept in a single bed.’

The Queen's bedroom on the former Royal yacht Britannia

The Queen’s bedroom on the former Royal yacht Britannia

 

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‘It was a mystical, terrifying and extraordinary experience,’ says Darcey. ‘I found it fascinating how the Queen was behind introducing this into the UK. 

‘Getting into a ring with a horse and trying out the technique – where you’re persuading them to follow you using eye contact and body language – was incredibly powerful.’

The Queen’s life at Sandringham, where she spends her winter break, is explored in the third part of the series, and here Darcey discovers some intriguing gems, including the fact that the sandwiches the Queen’s served for tea are circular and known as ‘jam pennies’. ‘Apparently she isn’t allowed to have sandwiches with right angles because traditionally anyone presenting the monarch with a rectangular sandwich was trying to overthrow them!’ explains Darcey. 

‘It’s an odd thing, but quite sweet.’ Darcey was also surprised to discover just how invested the Queen and her family are in the Sandringham community. 

She visits the local WI, of which the Queen is president, and hears how she showed up for a meeting even when there was a power cut. ‘It was cold and dark but she arrived saying, ‘I can hear you but I can’t see you!’ branch chairwoman Yvonne Browne reveals. 

According to Yvonne, the Queen immediately puts everyone at ease by asking after their families and pouring the tea. Darcey’s final leg is in Wales where she meets harpist Claire Jones, who played at Prince William’s wedding, and there’s an immediate empathy between the two performers. 

Darcey admits that dancing in the throne room at Buckingham Palace remains one of the most nerve-racking nights of her career. ‘The idea of being there, with the prestige of it all, and knowing that for everyone else who was there it was a show they would always remember just really heightened the nerves,’ she recalls.

 ‘It felt I really had to make it perfect.’ She also visits the cathedral in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, the only one in Britain to have a seat reserved solely for the Queen – as Darcey finds out when she’s about to perch on it and gets told off. 

‘Without fail I will do the wrong thing,’ laughs Darcey. ‘But I can see why it’s a favourite church for the Queen as it’s a very special place.’

Darcey has been fortunate enough to see the Queen up close many times, but over the four weeks she spent walking in the monarch’s shoes there were still plenty of surprises. ‘I knew she always does her homework so she’ll have something different to say to every cast member when she talks to them after a show,’ says Darcey.

 ‘But what surprised me is that while she’s always on show, she never wants to take a break. She’s entwined in her work, and wherever she is she gets highly involved in the local community. She just enjoys being with other people.’

Darcey Bussell’s Royal Road Trip, Tuesday 19 July, 9pm, More4.

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