It is welcome news that PBS’s Masterpiece strand will be bringing Mike Bartlett’s witty, pacy, and strangely moving play, King Charles III, to American TV screens.
The play, which began life in London before moving to Broadway, imagines a future Prince Charles now-made-monarch following the death of the Queen.
Tim Pigott-Smith will be playing Charles in the Masterpiece version, as he did on stage (the rest of the casting is still to be announced), and Rupert Goold will direct, as he also did on stage.
Bartlett’s play, written in free verse and with the ancient and traditional clashing with the very modern and political, imagines that Charles’ reign may be exceptionally short-lived if Prince William and a very Lady Macbeth-ian Kate Middleton have their way: the couple knows William is more popular than Charles and scheme to displace him before he has a chance to get used to wearing the crown.
What the play does cleverly—in imagining a party-loving Prince Harry too—is dramatize in very vivid terms the unknown relationships at the top of the Royal Family, while also wrong-footing us about what may be the real characteristics of its protagonists. Kate is not just doe-eyed and smiling, but hard and calculating; Camilla is no smiling consort, but vital in trying to ensuring Charles fights for his interests and ideals.
Missing from the play is Prince George, which is fair enough as—at 3—he is presently too young to have any say about anything. But that hasn’t stopped social media and the press pillorying him in very adult terms to mark his third birthday.
As the Daily Beast reported earlier this week, first he was slammed for giving family dog Lupo a lick of ice cream; and then on Facebook, underneath where someone had posted a picture of him—which the author thought made the Prince look like a “fucking dickhead”—British Council employee Angela Gibbins posted this message: “White privilege. That cheeky grin is the innate knowledge he’s royal, rich, advantaged and will never know any difficulties or hardships in life. Let’s find photos of 3yo Syrian children and see if they look alike, eh?”
Gibbins is now the subject of a disciplinary procedure. The British Council’s patron is the Queen, and it receives almost $210 million in public money every year to promote British language and culture around the world.
Gibbins received both opprobrium and mockery online and in the press—in one picture she is seen holding a champagne glass, the ridiculous implication being that she couldn’t object to the classism enshrined by the Royal family if she earned a decent wage and enjoyed the odd glass of fizz herself.
Responding to her critics (accusing her of hating on Prince George) on Facebook, Gibbins was extremely clear, non-inflammatory, and reasoned in her views.
“I have a multi-faceted political opinion,” she wrote to one. “That’s not hate, and I hate no human being on this planet as an individual. But I do disagree with the system that creates privilege of any sort. And I have a dedication to calling that out for what it is.”
To another critic, Gibbins wrote, “I’m sound in my socialist, atheist and republican opinions. I don’t believe the royal family have any place in a modern democracy, least of all when they live on public money. That’s privilege and it needs to end.”
Whether one agrees with Gibbins or not, debating the point and future of a monarchy in a modern Western democracy is hardly new and arguably more salient than ever as Britain prepares to shape its post-Brexit future.
The Royal family itself knows that its position in a pluralist society—with class divisions becoming ever more porous and the public feeling ever more financially squeezed—is increasingly precarious.
The public, especially at the moment of succession as identified in King Charles III, will ask, ever more urgently, why they are funding the Royal family.
The irony that cute pictures of Prince George turning 3 were the backdrop for Gibbins’ pointed remarks on class and privilege is that the pictures were presumably sanctioned for release to warm public hearts to the little prince—and to satisfy a ravenous press who are otherwise kept well away from him.
The pictures of Prince George do not make him look like a normal 3-year-old. He’s dressed in an upper-class toddler uniform. He looks like a Royal-in-the-making, far from a regular kid. The online insults flow from what seem to his critics as a vivid display of wealth and privilege.
Besides carefully managed photo opportunities, and the release of photographs as on his 3rd birthday, Prince George and Princess Charlotte’s childhoods are being conducted away from the prying eyes of the media.
Prince William has an understandable wariness of the media, after the treatment afforded to his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales—and he clearly wants his family to grow up with more privacy than she had, especially in her all-too-brief post-divorce-from-Charles life.
But too cloistered and private, and William will run the gauntlet of critics who want to see a more public and publicly engaged monarchy, if Britain will continue to have a monarchy at all.
This week, a new Will and Kate tour of Canada was announced, and certainly the Royal brand travels well in their care, just as it does with the Queen. But are Royal tours to friendly Commonwealth countries enough? Even those bonds will fray as younger generations grow older and question the meaning, depth, and practical benefits of those bonds.
What King Charles III does so well is not just dramatize the intrigues of the future Royal court, it also asks—with empathy as well as critically—what a modern Royal family means.
Gibbins’ many critics may deem it unforgivable that she criticized a three-year-old child, but her more trenchant questioning of the system that underpins Prince George’s privilege was sober and reasonable—and, one imagines, its substance underpins many of the discussions of family members and their strategists and advisers at Buckingham and Kensington palaces.
They are also questions whose answers will one day shape the reign, if it comes to be, of the future King George himself.