A little soap, and the Royals come up shining

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The Independent Online
AMONG the most common conceits of recent years has been to compare the Royal Family to a soap opera. Well, at this particular moment in British royal history, we have entered the most fascinating and complicated phase in the narrative cycle of a soap opera: that in which the characters attempt abruptly to shed, or at least to obscure, their recent pasts.

A peculiarity of soap opera as a dramatic form is the extent to which its narrative tenses are the present and the future. The personae do have pasts - indeed, given the demands for cliffhanger incidents, the average serial housewife has a curriculum vitae like Medea's - but these are rarely referred to. This is partly to enable new viewers to join the story at any moment and partly because a long-running character has eventually suffered so much - cyclical divorces, illness, bereavements, rapes, bankruptcies - that, were their previous experiences to be regularly mentioned, their only plausible demeanour would be permanent tears or catatonia. Equally, the producers may suddenly decide, for the sake of fictional interest, to make a character more sympathetic (cf Barry Grant in Brookside) or exotic (cf Arthur Fowler in EastEnders). The audience happily falls in.

Monarchists, therefore, should not complain that the Mountbatten-Windsors are treated like the Grants or Fowlers. They should be grateful. The Royal Family is currently benefiting from the extension towards it of the soap fan's willing suspension of disbelief: the laxness about narrative continuity, the easy forgiving of improbable switches in character. Consider current Royal storylines, as reported in the media last week.

HRH the Prince of Wales - as recently as December the villain of the piece, the marital baddie - suddenly cuts a jolly, considerate and thoughtful figure, a lurching reverse to his persona of the early Eighties. His textbook on organic gardening rises up the bestseller lists. The press and BBC Television commend his swift visit - he 'personally requested that his schedule be rearranged', the BBC court correspondent informs us - to the victims of the Warrington bombing. The newspapers breathlessly reveal that the Prince's children's book, The Old Man of Lochnagar, will be screened on television next weekend, with HRH electronically shrunk to Borrower dimensions for his role as narrator. ('Charles - the 12-inch ruler]' chortles the News of the World.)

On other pages we find the Princess of Wales on a skiing trip in Austria. Such is the coverage that you would believe it was the first time a human being had attempted to travel down an icy hillside on planks. 'Di Sleighs 'Em', is the Sun headline above a report that begins: 'Radiant Princess Diana wows the crowds on her skiing holiday as she takes excited sons Wills and Harry for a sleigh ride.'

Elsewhere, speculation is mounting about the romantic arrangements of the royal princes. The Daily Mail exclusively confides that Prince Andrew's consort is not 'as widely reported, former Pretty Polly model Catrina Skepper' but rather 'peer's daughter Caroline Neville, known to her friends as Cazzy'. At the stage door of the West End show Crazy For You, the paparazzi gather because of rumours that Prince Edward is partnering one of its dancers. Meanwhile a model is telling the tabloid Sundays how Prince Edward lost his virginity with her at Balmoral.

On another day, the Daily Mail devotes two pages to an analysis of the Mustique holiday set of Princess Margaret, while the BBC's main evening bulletin finds room for the 'news' that HM the Queen told children at a storm-lashed RAF display that it was 'such a shame about the rain'.

What do all the above stories have in common? They are cringingly deferential and breathlessly trivial. They are also uncannily like the newspapers and bulletins of 15 or 10 years ago. At the end of 1992, it was a standard contention that the relationship between the British people and the monarchy had been significantly altered - by the almost monthly marital separations, royal dirty phone calls and the Queen's humiliating submission to the Inland Revenue - and that the future of the Crown was seriously in doubt. Yet now, little more than 100 days after the announcement of the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales, it is almost, on the media surface at least, as if the old order has been reinstated.

Some of the success of this attempted Restoration of Charles III has been achieved by the family itself. The Buckingham Palace press office's old and misguided strategy of allowing media inventions to lie, as it were, without correction - because of an unworldly theory about not 'dignifying' them with denial - has been swapped for a new policy of rapid demands for an erratum note. Also, the recent marketing of Charles - consolation trips to hospital, photographs of his garden - indicates that someone in his entourage has learnt lessons from such public relations makeovers as Bill Clinton's.

The acceptance of the new storyline, however, depended on the natural tendencies of the British people and of their press. Britons revert to historical and psychological type very easily, forgetting recent moral modifications. For example, it would seem improbable that - in a period when the releases of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six are a fresh memory - the British could ever again indulge in a generalised hostility towards Irish people.

But the BBC is asked - and shamefully agrees - to apologise for raising a possible miscarriage of justice in Belfast on the day of the burial of a bombing victim, a coincidence which might serve as a textbook illustration of the obligations of a liberal democracy. Emma Thompson is criticised for agreeing to appear in what is called a 'film about an IRA bombs case', but which proves to be the story of the Guildford Four. A combination of fear and inertia always brings the British back to conservatism, the election result of a year ago being merely another example. So, after apparently flirting briefly with republicanism, the British creep loyally back to the Crown.

This trend is encouraged by the mass-circulation press. It is a frequent bleat of monarchists that the Royals are to the tabloids as flies to wanton boys. In fact, the attitude of the popular newspapers to their quarry, royal or otherwise, is more normally like that of wanton boys to flies: ie, they will eventually tire of squashing insects and wander off and pick on something else. Media amnesia and the short attention span for a story are aspects of journalism that are as significant as the so-called 'feeding frenzy' assaults on an individual or institution. A headline villain as little as a fortnight ago, John Birt last week made a major speech that was scarcely reported.

British indignation is always cyclical. The Royals are indeed like characters in a soap opera. They are allowed to wear their past lives lightly. So next time an old Establishment buffer mutters that the public and press treat the palace like Dallas, he should think again. It may be what saves the Royals.