Open house, closed set: Buckingham Palace reopens this weekend. Mark Simpson charts its demise from national shrine to a monument to kitsch

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Visit the Palace? . . .I'd rather be sent to the Tower, proclaimed the Daily Mirror last year, throwing a bucket of cold water over any hopes our beleaguered Queen may have had that opening Buckingham Palace to the public would garner favourable PR as well as some readies. The People, meanwhile, complained tartly that it was 'a bit rich' that we should 'pay eight quid to look around a building which belongs to us'.

As she contemplates the Palace's reopening to the tourist hordes on Sunday, our monarch might well remember that not so long ago things were very different. In the Jubilee year of 1977, and then in the Eighties with the royal marriages, Buckingham Palace was at the centre of the nation's attention and heart.

Financially, last year's Buck House Tours adventure was a success for HRH, with over 379,000 visitors raising, after costs, over pounds 2.2m. But the financial dividends just throw the depreciation in the stock of royalty in general, and Buckingham Palace in particular, into greater relief, marking the transformation of what was once a national shrine into another over-priced, under-exciting entertainment on the Madame Tussauds/London Dungeon/Trocadero tourist circuit.

How did this dramatic change in the status of 'BP' (as the Royal Family likes to call it), come about?

Of course, the antics of royal newly-weds have something to do with it, but this time the children cannot be blamed - this time it's mum's fault. By opening the Palace to the public she has let the hoi polloi in on a secret that the importance of this building in the national psyche has always depended on them being ignorant of: BP is not the home of the Royal Family. For them it is little more than a glorified office, dining suite and pied a terre. They dislike it intensely and spend as much time as they can at Balmoral, Sandringham and Windsor.

The hurt and sense of betrayal the public felt at this revelation could be seen in the reactions of sightseers when they discovered no trace of the Queen. As one American tourist put it, 'When we go to Disneyland, Mickey was there'. Without Mickey, Disneyland is just another theme park; without Lizzy, Buckingham Palace is just another stately home.

The fond belief that BP is the home of the Royal Family has been central to the national cult of royalty, symbolising the stable, familial/familiar centre of empire and home of 'Britishness'. Its constitutional continuity was complemented by its domestic reliability. Ironically the royal residence became a beacon of bourgeois respectability, a family home that represented both aspiration and dedication. The life of the Royal Family dramatised the virtues and struggles of the nation; hence the pictures of George VI and Elizabeth inspecting bomb damage to the Palace Chapel during the Blitz were presented as an image of shared stoicism and resolve.

But BP, in the heart of London's West End, yet standing composed behind tall railings and guardsmen in red tunics crunching gravel beneath their patent leather boots, also symbolised for natives and foreigners alike the myth of the inscrutable British and their cool mastery of the public and private domain.

The Royal Family's impeccable performance of public duties would conclude with them waving from the Palace balcony before retreating into their serene private world.

The arrival of Murdoch and zoom lens photography changed all that. The private was made very public indeed and revealed to be not so impeccable or serene after all. Long before the Queen decided to allow the public into the Palace, it had been turned inside out by tabloid stories of Andy and Fergie's rows, Charles and Di's slanging matches and 'exposes' of the 'gay frolics' of footmen or the Queen's bodyguard.

As Today put it at the time of the opening: 'Buckingham Pallas. You've seen the tantrums and tears. You've read of the jealousy and fear. NOW you can visit the set.'

And, of course, the various intruders, from Michael Fagan and his bedside chats with the Queen to the nude American hang-glider and the women anti-nuclear protesters, have all added to the violation of the place. The obsession with 'invading' Buckingham Palace has been due not just to the fame of the Royal Family, but also to the fascinating private/public conundrum BP represented - symbolising privacy while promising publicity.

And this is another reason why so many visitors are bound to be disappointed. Voyeurism is most definitely not catered for. Visitors will only be shown a handful of state, ie public, rooms - no bathrooms, no kitchens and certainly not the Queen's bedroom. Not so much a case of Through the Keyhole as Please Wait in the Hall.

After queuing for two hours and parting with pounds 8, punters will see less of the private world of royalty than a trip to the newsagents and 20p will buy. Stripped of symbolic significance - not a royal home, not a glimpse of a private world - Buckingham Palace is just a palace. On which account it reveals further shortcomings.

Built in 1703 as a seat for John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, on swampy marsh ground frequented by prostitutes, Buckingham House was never meant to be a palace. In 1820, George IV acceded the throne and decided he needed a grand metropolitan palace to match the stature of his kingdom after its defeat of Napoleon. But, being a British monarch, he had to have it on the cheap (not until Victoria did they have any money). So he commissioned John Nash to remodel Buckingham House. The result was a palace that was a fraud.

While leaving the heavy, stately home structure mostly intact (the Portland Stone 'High Street Bank' facade was added in 1913), Nash attempted to inject palatial splendour by decorating the interior in the francophile fashion the King admired.

The reception rooms, candiedwith ornate ceilings and fittings, glutinous with gilt and velour, betray the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha's insecurity: neither British, nor really very royal.

This was not lost on observers of the time: 'The costly ornaments of the state rooms exceed all belief in their bad taste and every species of infirmity,' one commentator wrote. 'Raspberry-coloured pillars without end that quite turn you sick to look at.' Aesthetics have never been the strong point of the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas/Windsors, which has not earned them good reports from the aristocracy.

As one aristocrat says: 'The Royal Family are a rather plain bunch who haven't got a single architecturally beautiful house: Windsor: plain, Balmoral: ugly, Sandringham: bulky, Buck House: dumpy.' Perhaps that's why Charles is sointerested in architecture.

The bad news for the Queen is that commoners are behaving more like aristocrats. No longer looking at BP through rose-tinted, deferential glasses, they see it for what it is: neither decent stately home nor impressive palace; more shambolic than symbolic. Worse, in this cynical age no one wants to seem easily impressed: the peasants don't want to be peasants any more.

Of course, there are some of the forelock-tugging old guard left, such as the retired New Zealand builder who gushed: 'My eyes were boggling. It was incredible, it was wonderful, absolutely spectacular. . . but the modern reaction was summed up by a young man, surveying the chandeliers with their fake electric candles and the two-bar electric fires, who told the Sunday Telegraph: 'It's a bit naff really.'

At the Palace though, they have seen the future. They have not opposed Westminster Council's plans to turn the front of BP into a pedestrianised piazza and attract more tourists. This will remove the only significant aspect of Buckingham Palace for Londoners .- fast routes from Hyde Park Corner to Trafalgar Square.

Buckingham Palace opens on Sunday 7 August. Admission pounds 8.

The things they said

'Wow] Check out that ceiling]' - American tourist, Sunday Telegraph Magazine

'The State rooms were too bare of furniture and knick-knacks, giving little evidence of the Queen's presence.' - Observer

'If someone slashes a leg off a chair, my head's on the block.' - Female warden

'Eight pounds for 18 rooms out of 681. Four rooms in and already it feels like being trapped inside a box of Quality Street. No wonder they all got divorced.' - Guardian

'A lot of this stuff looks really old.' - Samantha Berdagy, 21

'Admittedly it is not the greatest piece of architecture in Britain . . . one historian commented that it looked more like an ambitious terrace of houses in Brighton.' - Hugh Pearman, Sunday Telegraph Magazine

'People do bring in an awful lot of moisture and dust.' - Sir Geoffrey de Ballaigue, director of the royal c ollection

'The throne's rather disappointing. I was expecting something bigger.' - Australian tourist, Telegraph

'It's very grand, very opulent, and I think, rather ugly.' - Hedwig Thornburn Macfarlane, London correspondent for Sweden's Goteborg Posten

'The Palace, so austere from the outside, offers a stunning, unsettling surfeit of an experience, eased by the charm of the attendants.' - Financial Times

'It struck me that it would be nice if one could arrange for the Queen to commute from Sandringham in future and to use Buckingham Palace merely as an office.' - Richard Crossman, 1967

'At Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral she does try to draw a line between her public and private life. Only at Buckingham Palace is the distinction impossible to maintain. Perhaps the confusion which results, in the public mind as well as her own, has something to do with the monarchy's present plight.' - Richard Tomlinson, Independent on Sunday

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