Usually, when someone really famous grants an interview, they take it as an opportunity to show the world how normal they are. It is generally held to be good PR to be a man or woman of the people, or at least come across as one, some of the time. Canny operators toss interviewers titbits about liking Emmerdale or the Arctic Monkeys, eating Marmite on toast or wearing socks and readers feel the vague, tingly thrill of connection. Normal makes sense. Normal is nice.
Not the Prince of Wales. On the day that an interviewer from TIME magazine pitched up at at Birkhall, his house on the Balmoral estate, with a dictaphone in her hand, Charles was to be found locked in a parlour with Prince William, giving him a hands-on tutorial in how to grant knighthoods, with the aid of a sword that had been specially despatched from his London residence to his Scottish residence for the purpose.
As father-son bonding goes, it is a step above the average stone-skimming or pint-drinking lesson. The journalist did indeed dig around for some humanising details, but all she left with is that the Prince likes gardening and once laughed at some clog dancers in Wales. The actress Emma Thompson has gamely chipped in to say that dancing with Prince Charles is “better than sex” but that only tips the scales further in favour of weirdness, I think.
That is the thing about the Royals. They struggle with normal. Of course they do, they were born to rule, which is totally abnormal. Palace advisers try to help them reach out, with “relaxed” photo shoots and “at-home” interviews but the inherent oddity of their lives seeps out as soon as they come into contact with commoners.
In a recent interview to promote her new novel, The Queen of Four Kingdoms, Princess Michael of Kent was asked to outline her daily routine. What could be more ordinary? Well, almost everything, as it turns out. The most mundane topics turn an exotic shade of plum in the mouth of a Princess. Take her views on shopping: “I think I have only walked down the high street once in my married life.”
Or on cooking: “My mother used to say, ‘You must learn to cook!’ And I’d say, ‘Mama, I will have a cook when I marry’”.
Or on moving: “When our private secretary said: ‘Ma’am, you have to downsize.’ It was the worst word I’d heard in ages!”
Now, you could roll your eyes at this and call for revolution immediately, or you could see it as the Prince and Princess doing their famous duty. They are upholding the tradition that the Royals are not people like us, in the teeth of a tide of spin which states the opposite. With the glamorous addition of commoner Kate Middleton to the clan and the birth of a new heir to the throne, the current notion, strenuously pushed by the Palace, is that we are entering an age of new-wave, low-key monarchy.
The christening of Prince George this week – in a hand-made replica of a lace and satin dress once worn by Queen Victoria’s daughter over a font filled with water dredged from the River Jordan – was described by one Royal insider as “a private, family, normal kind of event”. The fact that Kate and William chose seven friends rather than a selection of European monarchs as godparents has been hailed as daringly modern.
Clearly, normal and modern mean quite different things in a royal context. Just like “reality” when applied to television or “customer service” when it appears on the Ryanair website, they are words to be taken with a large silver spoonful of salt. This is not a normal family. This is a family which lines up the father, grandfather and great-grandmother of a new baby for a christening portrait but excludes its mother because she is the only one of them who will not rule the country one day. A family that costs the country £36.1m a year to run.
For every baby-step that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge take towards a more modern Royal Family model, there will be a salvo from Charles decrying modern architecture, or a request from Clarence House that photographs of Prince Harry having a late-night Nando’s are taken off the internet, or Prince Phillip saying something, anything to a member of the public. It is one step forward and several deferential shuffles back to tradition.
The Prince Charles interview in Time magazine, with its strikingly modern cover portrait shot by President Obama’s favourite photographer Nadav Kander, was no doubt intended to be an up-to-the-minute snapshot of the King-in-waiting’s current concerns. The christening portraits are framed to show the modern, relaxed face of the monarchy. In fact, both of these high-profile attempts at image management highlight the fact that the cycle of princes learning to wield a sword, as they live with the burden of the crown hanging over their heads, has not changed in centuries – and probably won’t any time soon, either.