More disaster movie than soap: We already know far too much about the House of Windsor. And each episode gets worse

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AUDREY ZEDER of Long Beach, California, has a mail order business that sells up-to-the- minute commemorative royal gifts. She offers more or less timeless lines such as the Diana Letter Opener or the 217-piece Coronation jigsaw puzzle, but she also has an Annus Horribilus (sic) Queen Elizabeth china dish at dollars 23 and, most poignantly of all, Charles and Diana separation dishes at dollars 23 or mugs at dollars 28. Ms Zeder is clearly not one to ignore the uncomfortable reality of modern royalty, so doubtless this week craftsmen in Long Beach will be working on a pressed glass Diana workout dish complete with lovingly detailed pounds 120 Reebok Hexalite cross-trainers.

Ms Zeder is smart. Evidently she believes that the unfolding catastrophes of the British monarchy might be employed to augment its mysterious, popular appeal. She - like the Daily Mirror with its 'We Love Di]' headline to celebrate its snatched shots - is determined to blend exploitation with sentimentality, to whisk modern rites of passage, like marital breakdown, into the old mix of loveable royalty. All we need now is for Volkswagen to catch on. They could buy up the big divorce and have Diana driving off in a Golf GTi with a tear in the eye, her ring in the ash-tray, tins tied to her bumper and 'Young at Heart' on the soundtrack.

But, really, how much more can we take? Thanks to the Daily Mirror's lousy taste and rotten timing, the wreckage of press freedom now almost certainly stands alongside the charred walls of Windsor Castle as a further grim cenotaph to commemorate these days of royal disasters. How can we find ourselves courting the nightmare of privacy legislation over something so trivial as Di's thighs in a gym in Isleworth? Why do bulimia and cellular telephones draw us into tortured constitutional self-examination? What, precisely, is going on here?

There are two answers, but they are really one: the first is Diana and the second is the Royal Family. Since the appearance of Andrew Morton's book last year, the Princess has become the Royals' worst nightmare. It revealed her history of bulimia and apparently suicidal tantrums and the de facto collapse of her marriage. She is generally accepted to have co-operated with Morton by proxy, a fact that plunged the unfortunate Lord McGregor of the Press Complaints Commission into deep embarrassment at the time. In serialising the book, the press were, certainly, as he said 'dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other people's souls' - but only after the souls had been offered up for dabbling by their owners.

This tactic was a show of power. The aggressive use of the drooling, tabloid frenzy against the Royals amounted to a controlled, Hiroshima-like demonstration of what could be done by a disaffected Princess who did not wish to be sidelined in the name of the peaceful progress of the Windsor succession. For such presumption she would, under previous aristocratic dispensations, be dead by now, quietly disposed of, like Browning's My Last Duchess, for behaving 'as if she ranked/My gift of a nine-hundred-

years-old name/With anybody's gift'. But these are different times and a wall of tabloid, democratic steel surrounds the saintly Diana.

The Morton explosion also generated limitless collateral damage for the Royals, in that it made the entire history of tabloid coverage up to that point suddenly appear restrained. The truth, it transpired, was far more dramatic and spectacular than any of their inventions. It was no longer open to the Windsors to display quiet, patronising disdain for the press since now anything might be true - indeed, it was obviously the case that the worst tabloid hysteria was more true than the benign, familial calm of the projected image.

All of this makes Diana an appalling problem for the Royals. Because of the power she wields on the basis of what she might say or do, she has managed to cling to a royal role, keep the children and Kensington Palace and oblige the Royals in general to keep her reasonably sweet. On the other hand, she has become, for hard monarchists, an excessively easy scapegoat. Ingrid Seward, for example, is editor of the weird and irrepressibly upbeat Majesty magazine, an organ that is the opposite of the Independent in that it carries nothing but royal stories.

Although her views are not reflected in her magazine, Ms Seward has no qualms about blaming the entire Windsor disaster zone on Diana. She stops short of saying she torched the castle, but has little doubt that none of this could have happened but for the initial blunder of admitting an entirely unsuitable teenager into the inner ring. The strength of this argument for Ms Seward and the rest of the faction that circulates admiringly around the Prince of Wales is that it holds out the hope that the whole mess can be shovelled into one bucket labelled 'Diana - Big Mistake' and, eventually, forgotten.

Like most monocausal explanations, this is satisfyingly neat but wrong. In truth, the Diana detonation is no more than the outcome of a decision apparently taken by the Queen in the Sixties, to identify a modern role for the Royals as an exemplary family, an icon of stable home life. This was a perfectly rational strategy for a post-war, post-

imperial nation obliged by history to take pride in its domestic virtues rather than its world influence.

Unfortunately, it was also unsustainable. Historically, Royals have always had slightly lower moral standards than the population as a whole, but a ring of courtiers, aristocrats and establishment figures could always, if necessary, be relied upon to keep lapses quiet. Given that there was no reason to assume that the new Royals would be any less debauched than their ancestors, the new exemplary family policy needed that ring of deference more than ever before. But the ring was already crumbling. Its members were acquiring new loyalties and their society was rapidly being penetrated by media interests, like those of Rupert Murdoch, that regarded the old deference as disgusting and symptomatic of much that was wrong with Britain.

In such a climate, uncontrolled exposure for the Royals was inevitable. They possessed a primitive, popular magic that was far more potent than secular fame or power. The slightest frisson of scandal or oddity was absurdly magnified. In tabloid terms, the Royals had to be simultaneously set on a pedestal and torn down. The pedestal was necessary to preserve the magic; the tearing down necessary to feed the ever higher expectations of what constituted a royal story. The beast of publicity was Janus-faced, alternately fawning and savage, and the Royals simply did not have the power to choose which aspect they preferred.

So by the time fresh-faced Diana arrived, the Royal Family was already a publicity event and it is now difficult not to believe that she was consciously chosen with publicity in mind - young, beautiful and unsullied by scandal or intellect as she appeared to be. But these were, in fact, the qualities the Royal Family needed least. Provided with this glamorously blank page, the hacks turned Diana into a global superstar and, in consequence, gave her more real power than any of the other Royals.

For the Royal Family to expect her to submit to their own bizarre and specialised conceptions of family discipline when the adoring masses were falling at her feet was absurd. Why should she? Out there it looked like a lot more fun. Charles had needed a tough, disciplined, level-headed, slightly cynical inner ringer for a wife; what he got was an impressionable outsider.

The Daily Mirror pictures of the Diana workout may be seen as just one more case of the interminable tabloid frenzy. Indeed, it has not even been covered as a royal story, but rather as an issue of newspaper law and politics, as if Diana were incidental. But she is central. The story only exists because of this strange history of the penetrating and debauching of the Royal Family by the monster of publicity. And it is this history that has led us to the likelihood of catastrophic anti-

press legislation for which, in years to come, many commercial and political low-lifers will give joyful thanks to Princess Diana and Bryce Taylor's concealed Leica.

Last year I was still a monarchist, convinced that the Royals would somehow survive the trouble and continue to provide an irrational, symbolic centre that would endure whatever the quality of the characters thrown up by heredity. After this I am not so sure. The cost of royalty has become absurdly high and the whole spectacle almost too grotesque to contemplate. Ms Audrey Zeder in Long Beach should perhaps start work on her masterpiece - the dissolution mug, complete with Mirror masthead and Diana giving us one of her odd, sideways looks.