Marion Bailey, who plays the Queen Mother, is another of the urbane military man’s fans. He taught her that a royal always wipes the rim of a wine glass with a napkin before taking a sip and the pair had a “long debate” about whether the tines of a fork should be placed over or under the blade of a knife. “I don’t know what we’d do without him,” she says. “We rely on him to tell us what people would do the moment they walk into a room.”
A cursory reading of Major Rankin-Hunt’s biography reveals he is well qualified to be handing out protocol lessons. A former soldier who began his military career in the Scots Guards, he spent 33 years working in the Royal Household at St James’ Palace. Few people have had as great an opportunity to observe the royal family at work, rest and play.
The major retired from the household in 2014 but continues to serve the monarchy as a royal herald (Norfolk Herald of Arms Extraordinary, to be precise). He is also the Deputy Inspector of Regimental Colours, a role that sees him advising the British army on its badges, colours, standards and guidons.
As a former soldier, Major Rankin-Hunt knows that anyone who has served in the armed forces quickly spots an erroneous medal or a misplaced salute. The credibility of a television drama – particularly a multimillion-dollar drama about the British royal family – rests on getting the little details right. “Believe me there are lots of people who do notice these things and have no compunction about writing in and saying ‘I’m disgusted that sentry gave the wrong salute’,” he says. “People take great delight in pointing out mistakes.”
Having worked on The Crown since the first series, he is confident the show has hit the mark in almost every case. “I don’t think anything else comes close,” he says. “They [the producers] have invested so much time, effort and money to make it realistic. It’s incredibly authentic and that’s very gratifying.”
Sometimes, the level of realism catches him off guard. When he visited the production at Caernarfon Castle where the Prince of Wales’ investiture was held in 1969 – the ceremony is set to be a key event in series 3 – the events unfolding in front of the camera seemed “almost real”. He pauses. “But that’s good, isn’t it.”
Veracity requires constant vigilance of course. An early example was “some chap saluting without a hat on”, something that would not happen in the British services.
Other gestures would be almost imperceptible to anyone who hadn’t spent years in the Royal Household. The Queen gives signals to her retinue using a “kind of code or a series of telltale signs”, he explains. “These signals are picked up by pages or equerries.”
Olivia Colman, who plays the Queen in series 3, is a regular beneficiary of the major’s advice and clearly adores him. “I just want to hug him,” she says laughing. “He’s taught me so many little things. “Like how her handbag is in one position for walking, then it moves down the arm when she’s seated; how she likes to have her left hand over her right.”
The major’s first opportunity to correct a mistake comes when one of the army of researchers working for The Crown’s creator Peter Morgan gets in touch with a query. Phase two begins when he reads the scripts prior to shooting. He also holds regular meetings with the cast and when the cameras roll “I’m invariably on set”, he says.
Did he have to ask Kensington Palace for permission to become an advisor to The Crown?
“Yes,” he says. “But they seemed pleased that I was doing it.”
Is the Queen watching the show?
“I really don’t know,” he says, with a mere hint of a smile.