Mark Irving: Whatever happened to the trusty flunkey?

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The Independent Online

Of course, it's amusing that the name is Michael Fawcett. While Buckingham Palace may prefer this particular tap to remain firmly tightened, one senses that the slow drip-drip of leaks about life within the royal household may soon turn into a torrent. It is too early to say if the Palace has made a grave mistake in coming out about Prince Charles's alleged involvement in what is quaintly being referred to as "a controversial incident". Just when we thought it couldn't sink any lower, when our memories of Camillagate, Squidygate and any other gate were disappearing into history, along comes Fawcett "the Fence", as the sobriquet has it. One of the great certainties about British life today is that the stories about the Royal Family - and particularly those about them and their families - just get worse and worse.

Deference once conditioned the relationship between masters and their servants and, in the better households and institutions where servants were to be found, this tied both to each other in a bond of trust. Just as the servant swore fealty to his master so, it was implicitly understood, his master was supposed to guarantee the servant's welfare. A rather splendid if sinister painting currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London, however, reveals the condescension and outright contempt underlying the attitudes of masters towards their servants. Marking the entrance to Below Stairs, a ground-breaking exhibition of paintings of servants from the past 400 years, William Cave's The Trusty Servant of 1809 is a truly brutal portrait of the species: with his swinish face (symbolising his characteristic gluttony), ass's ears (the better with which to hear his master's voice) and stag's feet (his fleetness of foot), the servant is represented as a hideous compilation of functions. Holding the tools of his trade in his left hand, his good faith demonstrated by his open right hand, his loyalty is evidenced by the sword and shield he bears and his discretion by the padlock on his jaw.

It is not entirely clear when Paul Burrell decided he had in all conscience to unlock the restraints he had willingly adopted when he first took up employment within royal circles. What is sure, however, is that working for the royals seems to do strange things to some people: it encourages them to think that they too are very important. This is the insidious effect of a deferential atmosphere. Psychiatrists may eventually discover a special syndrome with which to describe the sad shift from mild deference to intense devotion to quasi-messianic fervour that has characterised the shooting star career path of certain servants to the royals. Joseph Losey's powerfully directed 1963 film The Servant, in which Dirk Bogarde's valet gradually dominates James Fox's effete Mayfair layabout in a tale charged with homosexual angst, underscored the psychotic potential in the master-servant axis. Gosford Park more recently played on the dangerous intimacy that wraps masters and servants together.

Because such relationships are inherently unequal they are so fragile. It takes a very careful balance of personalities to pull it off. In an age when the old ideals of honour and unswerving loyalty are dimming fast, the lure of filthy lucre is an element that easily threatens this. As the public relations expert Max Clifford observed on Friday, other former royal servants, some of them earning the grand sum of £ 9,000 per year, may be watching Mr Burrell's rising bank balance with fascination. The recent Channel 4 television series Masters and Servants was notable solely for the abject failure of the different families involved - one family plays servant to another for a week and vice versa - to understand that the master-servant relationship should not be an opportunity to humiliate people. It revealed the vicious class anxieties still prevalent in Britain today. It put the finger on a peculiar angst about social roles that, when confronted with the misfortunes of the Royal Family, the apex of the pyramid of deference, is appalling and fascinating in equal measure.

Walking through the National Portrait Gallery, one witnesses in picture after picture the changing fortunes of those individuals who served the rich and powerful. Some look miserable or are derided in pencil and paint. But there are many other paintings that tell of affectionate attitudes towards the servant. The famous portraits of the Yorke family at Erdigg in the Welsh Marches are among the most appealing. As for royal servants, there is John Brown, attendant to Queen Victoria, shown standing outside Osborne House, his masculine self-assurance - something that interested the Queen a great deal - etched against the building's façade. Such unaffected and putatively innocent appreciation of their servants may no longer be available to the royals.