Matthew Norman: What a bleeeedin' royal family...

It's in its very absurdity that the wedding of Charles and Camilla reaffirms the relevance of the monarchy
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In a wild and seemingly doomed attempt to make sense of the latest fiasco to enshroud the House of Windsor, I find my mind drifting again and again to a favourite moment from British sitcom. It concerns a funeral rather than a wedding, and it comes in the episode of Steptoe And Son entitled Oh, What A Beautiful Mourning.

Yet another of Albert's myriad siblings has popped his clogs, and after the burial the entire Steptoe clan engage in a high-speed funeral car chase to get back to the deceased's house first, where the will is to be read, to strip it of any valuable artefacts. Steptoes of varying horror and lunacy are arrayed around the living room - in one corner, Uncle Nobby is drunkenly giving voice to biblical quotations ("The wages of sin is death"), in another Auntie Vi is flashing her voluminous Union Jack bloomers at all-comers - while Harold chats up a nubile young cousin he hasn't seen since she was tiny.

He is making excellent progress when Albert sidles over to warn him off. But she's only a cousin, Harold points out, so it would be perfectly legal. His dad flashes him a typically mischievous grin, and mentions that, due to a coupling some 20 years earlier with the relevant sister-in-law, the girl may, in fact, be his half sister. A cocktail of disbelief, despair and tragic resignation seizes control of Harold's features. He glances once more round the room, puts a hand to his forehead, and whispers to himself the immortal line: "What a bleeeeeedin' family".

If the heir to the throne has had cause this week to utter that phrase as his wedding plans descended (or rather, if you share my point of view, ascended) into such sublime farce, this may have been the first time that he's even been in perfect harmony with the people he hopes one day to rule. Is there anything that can honestly be said about these Windsors that covers the facts better than: "What a bleeeeeeedin' family"?

Leaving to the lawyers and such impressive "constitutional experts" as Lord St John of Fawsley the question of where, if anywhere, Charles can legally marry Camilla, it seems to me that situation comedy is the most useful reference point for analysing this never-ending fiasco. There are those who prefer to compare the adventures of our royals with soap opera. But the thing about soaps is that, by and large, the story lines end on a positive note, reaffirming the questionable verity that familial relationships, however difficult and heart-breaking, are ultimately underscored by love and goodwill.

It is only in sitcoms, and only then in the best British ones (the Americans being unable to handle the brutality) that all mawkishness is expunged. The central characters tend to be unremittingly ghastly, and their relationships relentlessly awful. There is nothing whatsoever to redeem Basil Fawlty or Alf Garnett, who are simply horrendous people marooned in monstrous marriages. Reggie Perrin, although far less odious than the above, could no more tolerate his prissy son-in-law than Alf could his "Scouse git", and had little time for his daughter or her children. When a doctor rang David Brent to request his presence at the bedside of his senile father, Brent claimed to be too busy, and then asked for the answer to a pop question with which he and Finchy were struggling in the annual Wernham Hogg quiz.

Tinged with soap-style tragic melodrama though his life has been, at root Prince Charles is a paradigmatic sitcom anti-hero, being as big a loser as Fawlty, Brent and Garnett, and sharing with them an endless supply of self-pity, misplaced certainty in his own wisdom, and a total absence of self-awareness regarding his inherent absurdity. But the character on whom he's most closely modelled is, of course, Harold Steptoe, the pseudo-intellectual of Shepherds Bush.

Like poor Harold, Charles is trapped in a seemingly perpetual limbo, his hopes of fulfilment resting entirely on the death of an aged parent who prefers to travel by horse-drawn carriage, owns the family business and shows not the remotest intention to die. When in a spin-off movie Harold married a stripper against the old man's wishes - and I'm led to believe that Lord St John himself has cited the precedent - Albert boycotted the register office.

Yet whether the Queen and the rest of the Windsors are snubbing Camilla by refusing to attend the service, and whether or not such wedlock is legitimised by the Human Rights Act (and let's face it, what was that legislation designed for if not to protect the most vulnerable in society?) ... intriguing as such conundra are for those intrigued by such things, they are subsidiary to the big question that will not go away: do we want this bleedin' family to continue, however nominally, to rule this country?

The odds are that you, being a reader of a sceptical newspaper and a person of high intelligence, do not. The system of monarchy is so blatantly a preposterous anachronism that I cannot see any vaguely sensible argument in its favour. If the best the monarchists can come up with is "Oh, you'd rather have President Mandelson, would you?", it hardly seems worth the effort of pointing out that there might be other, more palatable, candidates up for election than him. And so, in the absence of any sensible argument, we must fall back on a facetious one with a teasing hint of mock-seriousness at its core.

It costs more to make a single series of a decent British sitcom than to fund the Royal Family for a year, and the latter have provided more belly laughs in the last couple of decades than every great TV comedy combined. The tampax tape, "slitty-eyes" and all the other Philip furores, Edward's It's A Royal Knockout, the collapse of the Burrell prosecution, the valet holding Charles's specimen bottle while he peed, Fergie and the toe-sucking, Anne's dog attacking the Queen's corgis, HRH Obersturmführer the Prince Harry... if I listed every incident that has diverted and delighted the populace, it would take us all the way through the sports section and into tomorrow's magazine.

The great mistake of the republican movement, it seems to me, is in misunderstanding the power imbalance in the relationship between monarchy and people. The one compelling argument for driving these people out of their palaces is that it's so hideously cruel to keep them there. Choosing to retain this glorious nonsense - and as the Queen's frantic return to London after Diana's death made plain, the choice is entirely ours - is the purest sadism. We, the supposed subjects, are elevated by their existence to the role of Greek gods, who looked down from Olympus at the suffering of the puppets they made into apparent heroes solely to torment them, and thus alleviate their divine boredom. We keep them dancing because they keep us chortling. And however ghastly and dysfunctional our own families may be, what a reassurance to know of one, never further away than the nearest copy of The Sun, that is far, far worse.

Now why on earth would anyone want to sacrifice all that for no better reason than it's absurd that so irrelevant a system endures? It's in its very absurdity that the wedding of Charles and Camilla reaffirms the relevance of the monarchy and underlines the cold logic of retaining it. They are the most bleeeeedin' of families, and for that alone Gawd bless and preserve 'em.

m.norman@independent.co.uk

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