Looking at the delightful, unforced pictures of Kate Middleton, Prince Harry, and Prince William laughing their heads off as they threw wellington boots at a scarecrow erected for the purpose at a cinema in central London (they were at the launch of the new Shaun the Sheep movie) it was easy to forget that royal visits were once the epitome of dignified reserve.
Until about 10 years ago, the traditional royal visit, carried out by the Queen, Princess Margaret, or Prince Charles, would involve nothing more strenuous than the dainty snipping of a ribbon, or perhaps pulling a lever (assistance would be offered) to send a bottle of champagne smashing against the hull of some newly named ship.
Even to ask a royal to do anything “daft” would have been regarded as deeply impertinent.
These days, it’s the royals (and their people) who are suggesting doing the daft things, and the pictures emanating from today’s event, and currently whizzing around social media, are ample evidence that the strategy is working.
William, Kate, and Harry had quite the day of it: On Monday evening they attended the red-carpet premiere of the new James Bond movie, Spectre, she in a rumored-to-be-braless, diaphanous Jenny Packham gown.
The trio’s larky, informal approach never worked for Charles—indeed whenever Charles tries his hand at DJ-ing or dancing the resulting footage is utterly cringe-worthy.
Of course, Princess Diana was never unwilling to get involved with her public and her causes, especially after she separated from Charles and was unfettered from royal expectation.
The most famous example of such immersion resulted in the picture of Diana walking through a minefield wearing a grey bib and plastic face mask in support of the Halo charity.
Harry has always been a natural at this kind of stuff, but William has more of his father in him and has often struggled to appear unforced when he plays the casual part. Take for example his oh-god-please kill-me-now singing of the Bon Jovi, “Livin’ on a Prayer,” in which William looked mortified as he sang the song with the Jovi live on stage.
Katie, for her part, gets the heebie-jeebies whenever she has to do any kind of public appearance—with so many cameras stuck in her face who can blame her?—and, much like Diana, focuses on children or individuals as a way to lessen the intensity of the moment.
However, with the royal strategy of the past year being a concerted move to represent the new generation as increasingly informal, Kate and William are having to get used to doing things the new way and what better coach could they ask for than Harry?
We’ve seen plenty of examples of this shift to informality over the past year—since press operations were taken over by Jason Knauf—most notably the embrace of an informal and even jocular tone on Twitter, where so many interactions between Kensington Palace and the public increasingly occur.
The informal atmosphere has been steadily extending into public engagements and royal duties, and today’s daytime event was a prime example.
The young royals clearly understand that in order to stay relevant in the 21st century they need to be able to connect with a new generation of individuals who have never worn a suit, don’t know how to do up a tie, and have a totally different understanding of royalty from their parents, seeing them as little more than A.N. Other celebrity.
William and Kate’s challenge, as future monarchs, is to connect with these people, without in the meantime alienating the older generation who provide the great majority of the Monarchy’s support.
Enter Prince Harry and his beard.
Much as been written about the prince’s facial topiary, some of it by me, but with good reason. It’s hard to understate just how important a symbol his beard is of how the young royals wish to be perceived.
This is no passing trend. The beard is here to stay. And it sends a very clear message to the under-thirties, many of whom in the U.K. are wearing beards.
Harry, William, and Kate are best understood as a kind of royal power trio.
The three work incredibly well as a team, much helped by the fact that they have the knack of looking like they just stepped off the set of Friends. They present a convincing spectacle, on camera at least, that this carefully choreographed, meticulously planned press event is nothing more than an impromptu day out.
Presenting themselves as a trio works well for each of them individually as well: Kate looks less reliant on husband, William looks less stiff—and William and Kate subliminally impose some manners on Harry.
It was noticeable today in fact that when William was separated from Kate and Harry and went off to chat to some other kids, wearing a Shaun the Sheep mask on his head, that he instantly started to look very uncomfortable and awkward and stiff again.
The same, enhancing dynamic was on display a few weeks ago when William and Harry attended a charitable project that was renovating a street of dilapidated houses in the north of England for ex-Army personnel.
Today’s engagement was actually a new kind of super-event for the young royals, as more than 30 organizations of which William, Kate, and Harry are either patrons of work closely with were represented at the event.
The young royals are trying to figure out how they can most efficiently support the causes that they want to help—and clearly a very good way of doing this is to hit an event with all guns blazing, with all three of the royal stars in one place at one time.
This is the new way that the young royals and the monarchy will interface with the public; social media friendly, totally informal, big-but-not-splashy events. If they can be carefully stage-managed to look like a casual day out, and also provide maximum support to their charities in a single hit, well, so much the better.
It’s stage managed, yes—but, for the pictures they got today, the British papers are more than happy to go along with it.
Now, if the new royal power trio could only rope in George and Charlotte as extras, the media’s joy would be truly unconfined.