Can the Queen laugh it off?

A Canadian DJ's hoax call to the Palace is being played down as irritating but harmless
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The Independent Online
BUCKINGHAM PALACE is this weekend assessing the political and public relations costs of the Great Royal Phone Embarrassment. Initial indications are, however, that the successful phone hoax perpetrated on the Queen by a Canadian DJ pretending to be his country's prime minister should not worry the royal household too much.

That is not to say that courtiers were not yesterday incandescent at the cheek of Pierre Brassard in not only getting through to Her Majesty, but in successfully taking the mickey. Their reactions were officially described as "irritated", and "annoyed", which is Palace code for going ballistic.

There would be no formal enquiry - translation, witchhunt - into how Mr Brassard made a nonsense of royal telephone security, Palace sources said, but an enquiry of sorts there will certainly be. "We will look again at our procedures for handling incoming calls," said a spokesman.

Real damage does not seem to have been done. The Queen's evident sympathy with the position of the man she thought was the Canadian premier, Jean Chretien, in trying to hold his possibly fragmenting country together, yesterday did not seem to be creating any unfortunate backlash among Quebec's French separatist community. The Queen's expressions were careful, and constitutional experts took the view that she would naturally support the position of the Government of Canada, and Canada itself seems too preoccupied with the actual referendum to bother overmuch.

"The Queen behaved perfectly properly. She was prepared to act on the advice of the Canadian prime minister. She would no more give her own views in a speech in Canada than she would give them in the Queen's Speech to Parliament,'' said Vernon Bogdanor, reader in government at Oxford University and a leading constitutional authority.

"The only pity is that this has distracted attention from the serious questions about the independence of Quebec. Although I'm sure that the disc jockey will dine out on this story for the rest of his life."

Equally, the fact that the Queen this weekend became the key player in a Great National Giggle does not seem to have bruised the royal dignity much. Indeed, a close reading of the tape transcript of the hoax interview, for all the world like a Monty Python sketch, elicits sympathy for someone who may well be realising that all is not well but cannot possibly do anything about it.

The Queen's muted responses to an enquiry about her possible Hallowe'en costume, and to a request to keep her televised address to Canada to the length of a cornflake packet, indicate that the royal brain may well have been forming the equivalent of the thought, unvoiceable in the diplomatic cirumstances: "this character is a nutter".

Natural Royal supporters could see the funny side yesterday. The Canadian high commissioner, Royce Frith, dismissed the hoax call as "a joke". Speaking outside his official residence in Grosvenor Square, London, a smiling Mr Frith said: "It is a joke and it is an old joke. But I thought the Queen was terrific." As he headed off to attend an official event at the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington, he said he did not believe the incident had embarrassed the Queen. "Even a constitution can be the subject of a joke. Everything can be the subject of a joke. I guess it was funny at the time. But, like most jokes, it is over.

"I don't think it embarrasses the relationship between the two countries or between the Queen and her subjects, particularly considering how well she did," he said.

"I think she'll probably have a good laugh, eventually," said Lord St John of Fawsley, long-time acquaintance of the Queen and established commentator on matters Royal. "It has got its funny side, and the Queen has a very keen sense of humour. She won't be pleased, but she will have a good chuckle in the fullness of time. And ultimately, I think she handled herself very deftly. She gave no hostages to fortune."

Yesterday an embarrassed spokesperson for the real Jean Chretien refused to explain how the prime minister's office apparently verified the hoax call from Pierre Brassard in Montreal, which allowed him to get through and speak with the Queen for 17 minutes.

The Palace followed a routine process of checking back to Canada when it receives a call from the Canadian government but neither the prime minister's spokesperson nor Mr Brassard would reveal how he bypassed this procedure.

In Canada yesterday the call was being dismissed as another publicity stunt by the broadcaster and sometime actor who has made a career out of impersonating famous persons and calling celebrities - such as the Pope - while he is on the air.

The incident has been totally overshadowed in Quebec and in the French- speaking press by the reverberations from the huge national unity demonstration in Montreal on Friday, where police estimates now put the crowd at more than 150,000.