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Struggles of the Sussexes

What kind of future do Harry and Meghan have?

Artillery Row

Last week, as Volume I dropped with a disappointing thud, I inadvertently became a fulltime Harry and Meghan commentator. A few left leaning broadcasters — Channel 4 News, Sangita Myska’s weekend show on LBC — were apologetic about feeling compelled to cover what has become the Japanese Knotweed of British journalism. But cover it they did. To an extent even as a royal historian I shared their reticence. Surely there were bigger fish to fry than this unseemly bust up between the House of Windsor and the House of Montecito? A global lesson in the disembowelment of privileged pain, were there ever going to be any winners? Except of course Netflix and, perhaps briefly, Piers Morgan’s ratings on TalkTV. 

Elizabeth and Philip, the story of young love, marriage and monarchy, Tessa Dunlop (Headline, £20)

Sadly, this giant soap opera cul-de-sac was a predictable outcome for our one-time charismatic flame-haired Prince. History tells us that. Just look at the life and times of his great great uncle, Edward VIII, post abdication. The rebranded Duke of Windsor’s ghost written memoir, A King’s Story, was a best-seller in 1951, and briefly there were British recriminations about having relinquished such a fine fellow. In the sixties an eponymous Oscar-nominated documentary followed, but thereafter the Duke’s life disappeared in a fog of pointless publications and second-rate appearances. It is perhaps worth noting, given the current speculation over Harry and Meghan’s presence at the pending coronation, that Edward was advised by Churchill not to attend his niece’s ceremony in 1953. Like Elizabeth and Philip’s earlier 1947 wedding, he sat the coronation out. Here we should have some sympathy. Falling down the Establishment ladder is never easy, and it’s even harder when you once sat at the top or (in Harry’s case) very near the top. Needless to say, the deposed King never felt he had enough money.

The British Royal Family is no longer born to rule in the conventional sense, but they are still destined to reign over us: imbued from day one with divinely appointed ideas of entitlement and genetic exceptionalism that are enshrined in the laws of our land. Such staggering precedence established at birth is almost impossible to erase. Again, history is informative. The late Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip spent his dislocated childhood in exile — an experience that was defined by instability, ignominy, (relative) poverty and insanity. But he never lost a keen sense of his own “specialness” and, sixth in line to the Greek throne, throughout the war always signed himself “Philip of Greece”. 

By securing the hand of his third cousin, Princess Elizabeth, the Prince made sure that for him the only way was up. Much has been written lamenting Philip’s truncated naval career, but no position in The Admiralty could ever compete with the lifelong platforms and riches attached to the Duke’s position as husband to the Great British monarch. Not bad for a boy who left Corfu in an orange box aged one. Save your tears for Harry. His gig on the self-appointed outside is far harder than his grandfather’s secondary position on the inside. 

Beyond Hollywood schmaltz, the couple made some valid points

Inherited wealth and status can blunt instinct, but presumably Harry anticipated some of the problems involved in Megxit. Most pressing, the question of how to live outside a plethora of inherited palaces minus a convenient kickback from the Sovereign Grant? Marrying Meghan, a contemporary attractive American actress, ensures Harry has various advantages the Duke of Windsor did not. Her media nous and the alchemy of their combined status in America have afforded the Prince platforms Edward could only have dreamed of, ones which have funded the couple’s very own American palace complete with emerald green lawn and aqua blue pool. In California these days, the water required for those two features alone requires a king’s ransom. 

No matter how many calls (then emails) back to Daddy, sufficient funds were not forthcoming. Harry and Meghan had to work out how to earn enough money to bankroll a princely lifestyle. As discussed, falling down the ladder was never an option. In America, money talks. It is in this context that we must interpret the turgid volume of emotional gibberish that has been spooned across Netflix’s streaming platform this week, accompanied by divisive trailers promising drama that failed to materialise, with yet more to come on Thursday. For those who feel disappointed the Prince could betray his family in this way, be assured, it is not what the Sussexes wanted, not really. 

When they first signed up to Netflix for an alleged $100 million, the couple gushed: “our focus will be on creating content that informs but also gives hope. As new parents, making inspirational family programming is also important to us.” But within a year, Meghan’s anticipated children’s series Pearl had been dumped. Not even hardcore Sussex supporters can pretend that “Harry and Meghan” is “inspirational family programming” — rather a masterclass in how to publicly detonate two sides of a family tree.

In the end, Netflix got what it wanted

Sure, beyond the emotional gibberish and Hollywood schmaltz, the couple made some valid points. The Lady Susan Hussey debacle and overwhelmingly white royal households suggest that monarchy has some way to go on the race front. Likewise the couple called out the relationship between the institution of monarchy and the British fourth estate. The co-dependence the royal family and conservative press have long shared is corrupting and at its worst abusive. However, Harry and Meghan appear to have replaced one compromising media set-up with another. Quite what will appear in Volume II is anyone’s guess. (“Institutional gas-lighting” according to the newly enlightened Prince.) But no one can pretend these episodes are the “hope”-filled content that the pair thought they’d put their name to. 

Inevitably, once the late Queen died, there were editorial tensions behind the scenes, but in the end Netflix got what it wanted — a protracted docusoap peppered with insinuation and accusation that has garnered constant news headlines and recording breaking downloads on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile the Royal Family has met the whole charade with a characteristic and silent shrug. They can afford to — as part of a state institution, they are funded by us, the taxpayers. As for Harry and Meghan, the question is not if but when the public will get bored of the same old woe-is-me story. After Spare, Harry’s autobiography out in January, will anybody still be listening? If not, who is going to indulge their lifestyle in Montecito? The couple are currently riding high, but those princely expectations might yet be dashed. 

Tessa Dunlop is the author of Elizabeth and Philip, the story of young love, marriage and monarchy, Headline Press, November 2022. 

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