So, as the “King’s Speech” rumbles towards the Academy Awards, bursting with well-deserved Oscar nominations, here in Britain we’re also dusting off our party gear in preparation for the Royal Wedding. And this has set me thinking about the monarchy, and how it’s coming to an end.
Let me say straight away that I quite like having a Royal Family. It’s a bit like old age. You complain about it until you start thinking about the alternative. Then you feel that cold lurch of horror. Oh God, King Dave. Or Emperor Ed. So, yes, you can line me up on the Royalists’ side.
The sad fact, though, is that we’re destroying an institution that most of us would prefer to retain. And what is destroying it is a fundamentally flawed PR vision. The media, the public and even the Royal family themselves have all now decided that our Royal Family are little more than a rare breed of uber celebrity, and that’s how, increasingly , they are coming to be treated.
You may remember the old Latin proverb: “Whom the gods would destroy, first they feature in Hello Magazine”. Those Romans knew their fagioli. Personal publicity can be a heady and intoxicating brew. It seems it’s no longer enough for a celebrity musician or footballer or film star to be known for their music, their football skills, or their performances on the silver screen. Now we must listen to their solutions for world hunger, admire their taste in interior decoration, and absorb their views on breast feeding, the environment and naval destroyers. Really, it’s simple vanity: firstly, to believe that that their narrow professional talents somehow validate them as people, intellectuals and arbiters of taste and secondly to believe that the more people know about them, the more the public are exposed to the “real me”, the more we’ll love them. Not many of us are wholly loveable when the “real me” is truly revealed. Mother Teresa perhaps. And Ernest Uthershaw from Bootle. But that’s probably about it. Certainly not many footballers, actors or recording stars.
The press of course, for their part, won’t rest until they have sucked every hidden corner of the celebrities’ lives dry – their love lives, their religious convictions, their family problems, their battles with the bathroom scales or the bottle of bourbon under the bed. We probably know more about the private lives and intimate secrets of some public figures than we know about our own friends and neighbours; even perhaps, our own families. And the more we learn, and the more information we swallow, the more we digest, the more bitter the reflux.
And this is the mistake we are all making with the Royal Family. Monarchy is not about people; not real, flesh and blood, living, thinking, breathing people. It’s a pageant, a pretence, a performance in which performers and audience contract together to suspend disbelief. Occasionally, we the audience are allowed onto the stage to play our bit parts. When we bow or curtsey before a member of the Royal Family, we know that we are performing a charade. The person standing before us is no better than any other normal, flawed member of the human race. They are not more intelligent, more generous, more noble in spirit. They are not braver, wiser, stronger or more perfectly formed than the next man or woman on the number 19 bus.
Or, at any rate, they are not necessarily so. Yes, over the centuries, there must have been wise, brave and beautiful kings and queens. There will also have been clowns, cowards and incompetents. Just like the rest of us, then. But this doesn’t matter. Or, at least, it shouldn’t.
We all know the truth. Of course we do. Monarchy is an act, a tableau, a representation, a play. And, as in any theatre, there is a contract between the performers and their audience. We pretend it’s real. As Juliet reaches out her hand to Romeo, what we see is that innocent girl child, doomed by fate and the tender desperation of her first great love. We do not see a 24 year old actress with two kids, a footballer boyfriend, a cocaine habit and a holiday home in Marbella. That’s the only way it can work. We accept the role as the reality. If we allow it to be coloured by all we know of the actor playing the part then the performance is doomed from the outset.
And this, really, is why our monarchy is doomed. In the 19th century, when an englishman in some far corner of the empire raised his glass to “The Queen”, he really knew nothing about the dumpy little lady to whose health he was drinking. He was drinking to the role. To the Queen. And that was a role which commanded unqualified veneration.
But now there seems to have been a shift, an insidious, dangerous rethinking. More and more it seems that the PR strategy guiding the Royal Family is geared to promoting their attractions as individuals, as “personalities” whose exceptional qualities somehow justify the palaces and the pomp in which we swaddle them. Now, I happen to think that Prince William seems an excellent young man, and his fiance has barely put a foot wrong. I also think there’s a great deal to admire about Prince Charles, and I’d have Camilla on my dinner party list any time. But the moment we begin to justify the whole edifice of the monarchy on the basis of the qualities of the actual people playing the roles, we have sown the seeds of its destruction. I doubt if the man or woman exists whose personal qualities justify the veneration which we choose to bestow on our Royal Family. But what we venerate is the role and the symbol, not the individual playing the role.
If monarchy in this country depended on the qualities of the individuals occupying the throne, we would have been a republic for hundreds of years.
But now, all parties to the contract are beginning to forget the rules of this theatre. The “Royals” are beginning to twitch the curtain aside like children at a school play. “Look, here’s the real me. Here I am. Here’s what I think. Here’s what I eat. Here’s how I like to play”. You can really trace this back to the seismic shift in PR strategy that took place as long ago as 1969 when the BBC were invited to make their celebrated “fly on the wall” documentary, “Royal Family”. Here was Prince Philip frying sausages (”Look, aren’t we normal? Just like you”). There was the Queen sharing her insight with Richard Nixon that “world problems are so complex, aren’t they now?”
The fact that the documentary was so cringingly deferential probably made it all the more dangerous, because the dangers were not so evident. You could imagine the Family looking at each other after the first screening: “Well, I think we came out of that pretty well, don’t you?” What they failed to see was that they had started the process . They had shifted the focus from the roles they played to the individuals playing them them. Of course there was not an immediate collapse in public regard. In fact, on a short-term basis, quite the reverse. But the long-term rot had begun.
And then Princess Diana arrived on the scene. The personification of royalty as celebrity. And the media of course raged into a feeding frenzy of excitement. Here was everything they wanted: royalty, glamour, charisma, spawning gossip, tumbling into indiscretion, disintegrating into tragedy. And the public loved it. This was soap opera beyond anything they had ever known. And the taste for this quickly became an addiction. Now they demand that the Royal Family should be “more like Diana”. When a Royal Wedding is announced, the young couple today must do a celebrity interview, because that’s what Diana did. They must talk of “love” and “feelings” because the public now demand emoting royals . And if the supply is inadequate, they will turn to Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter to provide synthetic substitutes (But what a great film, eh?).
So, imagine you are losing yourself in the passion and tragedy of an opera. La Boheme perhaps. And now imagine that the person in the next seat to you begins to whisper in your ear: ”That soprano. Huh ! Right little tramp, that girl. And Rodolfo. He’s no better. Drunk during rehearsals”. Any chance of enjoying the performance would vanish straight away. But that’s exactly what the British press are doing. They are whispering in our ears: gossip, innuendo, rumour and speculation. And we allow it. In fact we welcome it. And in this we sow the seeds of the destruction of our system of monarchy, because no performance can indefinitely survive this kind of attention.
Yet we demand more and more, like a child devouring chocolate until it falls back, sick and nauseated. For every intimate detail we devour, for every little story about tupperware on the Queen’s breakfast table, there is a corresponding tiny chip of erosion into the regard we feel for the institution. Yet, the PR advice, probably, is ”Show you’re human. Show compassion. Let your feelings show. Let people see you’re real”. It all sounds very right. Very modern. Very market-friendly. But, actually, it’s entirely wrong, because the construct that is our monarchy can only remain robust and respected if it is impersonal, public and magnificent. The intimacy of private lives has no place in the tableau.
Is there hope? I think, sadly, that it is almost certainly too late. The trend is probably too far advanced now, too inevitable. The only possible hope would be for the Royal Family and their advisers to recognise, right now, that the PR strategy of these past 40 years has been a terrible, fundamental mistake, and to re-shape their future activities on the strict understanding that their importance as members of the Royal Family lies in the role they play. The fewer intimate details we know about them and their private lives, the greater the chance of success in the performance of their public roles. Perhaps the greatest hope lies in the record of the Queen herself. Despite the embarrassing mistake of that fly-on-the wall documentary, her entire life has been built around the meticulous performance of her public role, and the preservation of an almost impenetrable wall of discretion around her private life. She understands the contract between herself and her people. She performs her role, and her head is never one of those peeping round the stage curtain.
The public may want more. The media certainly will, and will rage at any reduction in their “royalty fix”. But ( however counter-intuitive this may sound) good PR does not always mean giving the public what they want. And sometimes, in PR, less is more. And less is what the Royal Family needs more of, if it is to survive. Less focus on individuals. Less intimate information. Less personality PR.