It is slightly berserk to think that the entire, sprawling royalty-entertainment industry failed to anticipate the death of a 96-year-old woman, but here we are. When Queen Elizabeth II passed away, nearly two months ago, all manner of projects were flung into unknowable turmoil.
You already know about Prince Harry’s epic tour of vengeance. The coming weeks were meant to mark his big return to the limelight, with both a book and a Netflix series set to air all his myriad grievances as uncompromisingly as possible. But the Queen’s death (not to mention the fact that Harry’s dad is now the King and, therefore, in charge of royal titles) has caused him to panic.
Harry is said to be scrambling to make last-minute changes to his memoir, postponing publication so that he can delete anything too “insensitive” about his family. The Netflix docuseries, which has been in the works for a year now (and which pays the Sussexes’ mortgage and sundry bills), has run into similar problems, with an insider telling the New York Post’s Page Six, “They’ve made significant requests to walk back content they themselves have provided—to the extent that some Netflix staff believe, if granted, it will effectively shelve the project indefinitely.” To add to the worries, a senior Netflix source suggests that the projects don’t even line up particularly well. “A lot in the show contradicted what Harry has written, so that was an issue,” this person says.
Equally braced are the makers of The Crown. The upcoming season returns on November 9 and will cover the period when the monarchy went full telenovela. The Windsor Castle fire. The divorce of Prince Charles and Diana. The separation of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. The divorce of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips. Sarah Ferguson being photographed topless, having her toes sucked. Diana’s tell-all book. Diana’s tell-all interview, and the deceit that it revealed. Charles’s tell-all interview. Diana’s death. Given that almost nothing happened in the first four seasons of the show, this is one that viewers have long been waiting for.
But now things are teetering on the brink. One main thread of the season looks set to be “Prince Charles: what a git.” This was probably fine when he was a prince. But now that he is the King—and a new one at that, still mourning his mother—the stakes have been upped somewhat. Especially since the first episode shows him having a secret meeting with Prime Minister John Major to discuss a plot to oust the Queen. Major has gone public to announce that no such meeting ever happened, calling the scene “a barrel-load of nonsense.” Others have rushed to defend Major, with Jonathan Dimbleby (the architect of Charles’s tell-all interview) calling it “nonsense on stilts,” and Major’s former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind calling the episode “pathetic and absurd.”
Harry is said to be scrambling to make last-minute changes to his memoir, postponing publication so that he can delete anything too “insensitive.”
But even figures unlikely to appear in the new series have wedged their oar in. Dame Judi Dench, for example, wrote a letter to The Times of London demanding that Netflix put a disclaimer at the start of every episode, lest anyone confuse it with a documentary, because to continue without would be ‘cruelly unjust to the individuals and damaging to the institution they represent.”
Which is sort of the point of The Crown, isn’t it? The show has always made it clear that it’s a historical dramatization, with scenes and plot lines conjured out of thin air to fill holes in a very well-reported story. Again, this was fine at the beginning, when the series largely concerned itself with musty old stuffed shirts who have been dead for decades. But as it marches ever closer to the present, the bulk of its subjects are still alive and—as Major has proved—they are very happy to bad-mouth the show to anyone with a tape recorder. With post-funeral patriotism still palpable in the U.K., this backlash might be enough to knock The Crown off-balance for a while.
One project that doesn’t have to worry about accusations of bad-faith dramatization is Courtiers: The Hidden Power Behind the Crown, the new book by The Times of London’s esteemed royal correspondent Valentine Low. The book is ostensibly the story of the advisers and secretaries employed to keep the royal family on track. These people are the power behind the throne. When Emmanuel Macron noted last month that Queen Elizabeth gave the British people a “sense of eternity,” he could just as easily have been talking about this backstage mycelium, charged with setting the boundaries by which the royal family must conduct themselves.
It’s a tough job. Courtiers have to strike a fine balance between tradition and reform, plotting for the future while honoring the past, and at the same time trying to rein in what can only be described as a bunch of petulant, diaper-pooping babies.
Very, very few members of the royal family come out of Courtiers looking good. The Queen Mother, by dint of the fact that she was superfluous and drunk a lot of the time, sounds like a fun boss, and Low writes with hope that Prince William might one day be a well-loved King. But, for the most part, the royals come off like a sentient, multi-headed H.R. nightmare.
There is Prince Andrew, a barking seal cursed with equal parts arrogance and understandably low self-esteem. At one point he demands a newspaper interview to tell the world what an “ideas factory” he is, then fails to recall a single idea of his to the journalist. At another, he screams, “Fuck off out of my office and fuck off out of my life!” at a staff member.
King Charles, meanwhile, is a man defined by his temper. He screams abuse at his staff in long, furniture-kicking tirades. He is depicted as equal parts dithering and stubborn, and burns through a steady succession of courtiers. “I was called names I hadn’t heard since my early days in the army,” one says of an incident when Charles realized that an order of his hadn’t been carried out immediately. Even Queen Elizabeth doesn’t come out of the book untouched, with her decades-long reluctance to pay income tax being a nerve that Low repeatedly pokes at with glee.
One main thread of the season looks set to be “Prince Charles: what a git.”
But while Courtiers throws the word “bully” around with abandon, its prime recipient is Meghan Markle. A number of Palace staff claim to have been bullied by Markle, with one describing her “emotional cruelty and manipulation.” Markle complains that she should be paid to do public appearances. She lies about receiving earrings from a Saudi prince who had just recently ordered the death of a Washington Post journalist. She pummels her aides around the clock with furious calls and e-mails. When one senior aide discreetly mentions that it isn’t a particularly good look to compulsively reduce staff to tears, Markle is said to have replied, “It’s not my job to coddle people.”
Markle is far from the only royal to bristle against the constraints of the courtiers. In her book My Story, Sarah Ferguson writes of the same staff: “Gradually, relentlessly, they had beaten me down. They were killing me by inches”—and it has to be said that the royal household has a history of treating outsiders with incredible disdain. Nevertheless, Markle and Prince Harry are depicted here as such a pair of full-tilt toddlers that Megxit, when it happens in the book, comes as something of a relief to everyone who had to deal with them.
But Courtiers is just one side of history. For the rest of the picture, there is always Prince Harry’s memoir, reportedly coming out on January 10. It is called Spare, which his family members no doubt pray applies to them.
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Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals