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Royal Moments: When Princess Anne was nearly kidnapped

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It’s easy to forget that alongside the duty and privilege that come with being a member of the Royal Family, there is also the inescapable fact that you are going to spend your entire life being considered a potential target.

The Royal Family are considerably more security conscious than they used to be – beyond simply making it harder to repeatedly break into Buckingham Palace and steal Queen Victoria’s underwear. The safety of the Royals came under intense scrutiny more than three decades ago, when Queen Elizabeth’s daughter Princess Anne was held at gunpoint – and very nearly kidnapped.

It was the gravest threat to the life and liberty of a Royal in living memory.

On the evening of March 20th 1974, Princess Anne was on her way to Buckingham Palace having attended a charity film screening, travelling down The Mall in a maroon-coloured Rolls Royce driven by chauffeur Alex Callender. Also in the car: Anne’s husband of four months, Mark Phillips, next to her on the back seat; Rowena Brassey, Anne’s lady-in-wating, on the seat opposite; Inspector James Wallace Beaton of the Royal Protection Command, riding up front alongside the chauffeur.

A white Ford Escort pulled in front of the Rolls Royce and stopped abruptly, unexpectedly forcing Anne’s car to a halt in the middle of The Mall. It was an ambush: a man leapt out of the Escort. His name was Ian Ball; a small-time crook with mental health problems and a pair of pistols – one in each hand.  

Ian Ball started shooting as he walked towards Princess Anne’s side of the Rolls, and Inspector Beaton stepped out of the passenger seat with the intention of shielding Anne and intercepting her attacker. Beaton might have succeeded, had his Walther PPK not jammed as he fired. Ball fired back, only his weapon didn’t jam and the bullet took Beaton to the ground.

Chauffeur Alex Callender was next, abandoning the driver’s seat in hope of disarming the attacker with his bare hands. It was a short-lived attempt that ended with another gunshot wound – but it didn’t deter nearby tabloid journalist Brian McConnell from stepping into the breach and telling Ball “Don’t be silly, old boy. Put the gun down.” He was rewarded with a bullet to the chest for his efforts, and it must have been one of the few times a Royal would have been grateful for the direct intervention of a tabloid journalist in their affairs.

Still from the 2006 film To Kidnap a Princess

Undeterred, Ian Ball continued to the Princess’s door, where – according to the account later written up by prime minister Harold Wilson’s private secretary Robert Armstrong – he informed her: “I want you to come with me for a day or two, because I want two million. Will you get out of the car?”

Princess Anne’s reply was equally blunt: “Not bloody likely – I haven’t got 2 million.”

Anne was calmer than anyone might have realised at the time, though it was anger that she was suppressing rather than fear. She later told Robert Armstrong in her account of the kidnap attempt: “It was all so infuriating. I nearly lost my temper with him, but I knew that if I did, I should hit him and he would shoot me.”

As it turned out, there was no need for Anne to hit her attacker. Their interaction provided enough time for a conveniently passing former boxer named Ron Russell to return briefly from retirement by punching Ball in the back of the head. Meanwhile, Princess Anne and her lady-in-waiting Rowena Brassey made their escape through the limousine’s opposite door, where Ron Russell met Anne and lead her to safety.

By now, the police had arrived – or one policeman, to be exact. PC Michael Hills had chanced upon the bloody chaos and radioed for backup, before succumbing to the latest trend on The Mall: a gunshot wound courtesy of Ian Ball. The plan having gone very much awry, Ball was now on the run; Hills’ call was answered by the DC Peter Edmonds who gave chase to – and finally arrested – the would-be kidnapper.

Ball would claim that his £2m ransom demand had been made with the intention of ultimately donating the money to the NHS. While undoubtedly a worthy cause, his method of fundraising left something to be desired; after 11 gunshots wounding four people, he ultimately ended up draining more money out of the NHS than he put in. He was detained under the Mental Health Act, and it’s believed that he is still imprisoned at Broadmoor today.

The four wounded men all recovered from their injuries and were rewarded for their bravery, along with the former boxer who came to Anne’s aid and the DC who arrested the attacker; Inspector Beaton received the George Cross, Ron Russell and PC Michael Hills the George Medal, while driver Alex Callender, journalist Brian McConnell and DC Peter Edmonds all received the Queen’s Gallantry Medal.

Shortly after the attempted kidnapping, Princess Anne made the unusual move of appearing on a 1974 episode of Parkinson alongside her then-husband, to give a cool, unruffled and wryly self-deprecating account of her brush with a loaded weapon. She laughed in the face of danger – and the audience laughed with her.

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