The Royalist

04.26.14

The Cult of Royal Porn

A new documentary series about Britain’s royal family is full of gossip and pretty pictures, but doesn’t ask deeper questions about how the “Firm” manages to maintain itself in an era less inclined to deference.

In the “Funerals” episode of The Royals, Ovation’s documentary series frothing at its seams about the lives, loves, and pets—yes, pets—of Britain’s royal family, it is jolting to see the crowds of people thronging London’s streets and parks in 1997 on the day of Diana, the Princess of Wales’s funeral, crying, holding each other, bereft.

I remember having to go to Kensington Palace, her onetime home, the morning she died, and where people were already placing flowers at the gates, and the tears and silence, and the rumbling anger at the press; one person accused me, then a cub reporter in his first job, of killing her myself.

Then there was the feeling of that week, where the country seemed in tinderstick-dry antipathy toward the royals; the Queen no longer a rock-steady matriarch to the nation but a heartless, cold Mafia don, overse’er of a system that had destroyed the mind, and now helped take the life, of the “People’s Princess,” as Tony Blair, then the freshly installed prime minister, called her. The night before Diana’s funeral, I walked down the Mall to Buckingham Palace. People were camped out. There were fires. It truly felt that revolution was in the air, if revolution meant sleeping bags and Thermoses of hot tea, rather than pitchforks.

Afterward, there was scorn heaped on the outpouring of emotion; why had so many collectively spent tears on a woman they didn’t know? There was a collective madness at work, it was posited. But such disparagement was itself a kneejerk reaction, and it was fallacious. Diana’s charisma, her bearing, her beauty, something about her, her publicized trials and tribulations, touched people, much as that appalled commentators in retrospect. It was a strange chemistry.

Anyway, the extremity of that reaction was an inevitability given the royal family’s own bizarre, self-appointed pedestal in British life. The publicity the family propagates for itself engenders a kind of madness, it has to in order to maintain itself. Its placing at the apex of British life is itself a little nuts, as the Ovation series shows. In the three episodes I watched—on funerals, weddings, and scandals—what stuns you over and over again are the crowds attending weddings, funerals and walkabouts, from Queen Victoria’s time onward. Passionate waving, whooping, crying.

The real question is where did the devotion to the royals come from? Did they engineer it? Why were we so ready to give it? The Royals doesn’t really ask that, but it does examine the public and media’s unwavering obsession with the royal family.

The Royals demonstrates unintentionally that when it comes to purveying pornography—the pornography of wealth, power, and privilege; of shoving it in people’s faces and then masterfully expecting to be thanked and deified for it—the British royal family has no match.

The royal family projects itself on to the people, and in return the people worship and reject it, when—as Brits do—their patience snaps, or they see things clearly. It is a soap opera and a coconut shy.

“The fear is that public goodwill towards the royals will, if not evaporate, then dramatically, perilously lessen after the Queen dies.”

Britain might seem like a sage, level-headed democracy, but it is in thrall, even now, to this bizarre system of hereditary privilege. We invented punk, we are noted for our chippy dissent, a health-care and education system funded through public taxes, but we also still, despite squalling the opposite occasionally, love being ruled over by this dysfunctional bunch living, servant-laden, in their wedding-cake palaces.

Queen Victoria had the reputation of being a humorless, dour battleaxe, a Terminator in bombazine. But, as The Royals shows, she was the first royal to figure out how to maximize public fascination about her to her own dynastic advantage. Her wedding was covered by the press. Her diaries, released much later, revealed a far more passionate woman than the ramrod-backed public image allows.

The problem with The Royals is that it doesn’t follow its initial jottings at this circus to their conclusion. Episode upon episode reaffirms that everyone is fascinated by the royal family, by simply showing more pictures of Diana and Charles (getting married, not talking); or William and Kate getting married, with Pippa, Kate’s sister, holding her train and showing her now famous derriere to its best slinky advantage. One of the most memorable images of Diana featured was her the night of Prince Charles confessing to adultery on TV in 1994, hitting the Serpentine Gallery in a black Christina Stambolian dress, a brilliantly aggressive move ensuring the message of “I’m doing great” boomed loud, and from the front pages the next day, displacing him.

The program makes bizarre, sweeping claims like, “Royal weddings created an essential and intimate bond between the monarchy and the people, making Britain and the rest of the world one large family.”

Perhaps at this point the producers were deep into their third round of Cosmos at the wrap party, because this is utter nonsense.

The truth, which The Royals avoids addressing, is that the royal family is a cosseted, well-funded machine. It is the figurehead of a declining commonwealth. It hosts a big, public wedding to remind everyone that it can, as a statement of power, not a fairytale. The royal family knows the dream it is selling and markets it ruthlessly, as the recent royal trip to New Zealand and Australia illustrated.

Like any soap opera, the royal family relies on injections of new blood and characters, and hence the smooth photo-ops with little Prince George, looking just adorbs in his blue romper suits. This family is a business—Buckingham Palace has a shop for goodness sake—and its position is ever more precarious in a world where people both at least think they live in a meritocracy, and where they also feel financially vulnerable and less inclined to worship at the altar of privilege. The fear is that public goodwill toward the royals will, if not evaporate, then dramatically, perilously lessen after the Queen dies.

Ovation’s series is disinclined to burrow deep. It has a host of excitable talking heads and pretty pictures. It is scrapbook journalism. Like its subject, its business is marketing the pornography of its subject: the pretty dresses and tiaras, the familiar tabloid dramas of marriage breakdowns and deaths, affairs, and hideous flashpoints. None of these are new or revelatory, and so instead we find ourselves in a hall of mirrors of vintage, grotesque familiars, like when Prince Charles compared himself to Camilla’s tampon, or Diana’s affairs, and how his affair with Wallis Simpson led to King Edward VIII’s abdication.

We learn that the Queen insisted her favorite tiara, broken suddenly, was repaired so she could wear it at her wedding ceremony, and why she wears block colors: this apparently is not just to do with the queen’s sense of style, but also because it’s a security protocol, to ensure she is always visible. You’d hope, surely, that Royal Protection officers always had their eye on the queen when she’s out and about, without her wearing canary yellow to keep their eyes alert.

The Ovation series, then, is a romp through history; its best bits are not the yellowing headlines from our own times, but of times far past: the era when Edward VII found himself named in divorce proceedings, or how the queen mother helped her husband, the then-King George VI, with his stammer (as dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie, The Kings Speech).

That film very neatly, and without the hysterics of modern tabloid journalism, examined the tension between public and private the royal family struggles with today. It wants to be seen as open and accessible, when it is none of those things. And so, as with William and Kate’s trip to Australia and New Zealand, the public is treated to a series of tantalizing masquerades; morsels tossed to an adoring public. And we talk of Kate’s dresses, and lovely Prince George, and then if we want a bit of spice, well hopefully Prince Harry will lose his underwear in Las Vegas. Don’t think all royal scandals are all necessarily damaging; some serve a useful purpose for the royals themselves, as heat conductors.

The economic argument for the royals might be persuasive: They bring tourism to Britain. They are an indelible part of the British brand, as shown in the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony when the queen-figure parachuted into the stadium. She really is astonishing, or an astonishing figure. Unlike her children and grandchildren, she has kept the brand intact: ever-present, ever-smiling, but ever-enigmatic. No one really knows what she thinks of anything.

The Royals doesn’t ask how this system began, how it became so entrenched, and what its methodology of survival is in more cynical, less-inclined-to-deference times. As with porn, and as with the royal family itself, The Royals intends that its pictures do all the dazzling, and with as little tricky questioning as possible. The producers hope that that is enough, just as the royals themselves hope pretty pictures, big weddings, and gracious princesses will sate their subjects. Perhaps they’re right: For now the pitchforks stay blunt.

The Royals is on Ovation, starting today (Saturday) at 5pm.