The Queen Mother and the Gorilla Joke - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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The Queen Mother and the Gorilla Joke

Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother was not only the Commandant-in-Chief of the RAF's Central Flying School but she was also a genuine fan of the Red Arrows. When I went with the Team to Clarence House in 1994 to pose with her for an official photograph to be used as the frontispiece of a new book about the Team, we arrived late. Our RAF coach had had difficulty getting through London’s traffic and - it has to be said - we'd not allowed sufficient time to cope with the inevitable delays. It is unforgiveable to be late for a royal appointment and, as the appointed time passed, we all wondered how we would be received. One or two of the pilots had mobile phones but no-one had any idea what number to call.

When we eventually pulled up at the gates of Clarence House, there were staff, including the Equerry and several policemen, standing out on the street and at the junction with the Mall looking in all directions for us. There was then a further delay because the pilots had travelled in civilian clothes and needed a room where they could change into their famous red flying suits, polish their flying boots, and comb their hair. All in all, we were not ready to be presented to the Queen Mother until 30 minutes after the scheduled time.

When the Equerry had lined us all up in a loose gaggle in a drawing room at the front of the house, Her Majesty entered, went straight up to the Team Leader and said with a smile by way of introduction, “I thought the Red Arrows were never late? Surely you didn’t get lost?”

After being introduced to all the red-suited pilots, the Queen Mother said, “I’ve gathered together some of the many photographs and prints of the Red Arrows that I’ve been presented with over the years.” I was standing with my back to a sofa and the Queen Mother turned to me and said, “Squadron Leader, would you mind please lifting them out from behind the sofa where I’ve hidden them.” I was in civilian clothes because I was a retired officer, but she recognised me, without any prompting, from the occasion when we had met at Birkhall during the Russian Knights visit to UK.

The Queen Mother had a really comprehensive collection of Red Arrows paintings and prints going back to the Team’s earliest years, and as I lifted them out and held them up, one by one, she could remember every single occasion on which they had been presented and whom she had met on each particular occasion. A remarkable feat for a lady in her mid-90s.
A short time later back in the drawing room after the official photograph and while we were eating delicate sandwiches and drinking cocktails, one of the Team pilots, who shall remain nameless, said to the Team Leader:

“Boss, why don’t you tell Her Majesty the Gorilla joke.”

There was a horrified silence. The gorilla joke, which the said pilot had told us on the trip down to London, was ribald and not repeatable in front of any lady, let alone Royalty. The Team Leader, quick as a flash, substituted a clean joke of his own which made no reference to gorillas. We all laughed politely, as did the Queen Mother. Then, looking slowly around at each of us, she said, with what could only be described as an impish and knowing smile, “I don’t suppose I’ll ever get to hear the real gorilla joke, will I?”

There was no answer to that - but none was expected!

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