William and Kate on YouTube and Harry and Meghan on Netflix – did modernising the monarchy have to look like this?

The Cambridge PR machine is in full swing, says Sophie Gallagher as the Oprah interview and Prince Philip’s death ring in an era of change and the never-ending bid for royal survival steps up a gear

Thursday 06 May 2021 16:36
<p>Watch the throne: William and Kate embrace the social media age</p>

Watch the throne: William and Kate embrace the social media age

“Hey guys, welcome back to our channel! Today Kate is sharing her what’s-in-my-Waitrose-bag haul and bouncy blow-dry tutorial while I’ll be racing helicopters with Logan Paul. If you missed last weekend’s vlog of us taking the kids to Pizza Express, no sweat just subscribe to make sure you never miss another Cambridge family moment. Comment and subscribe to the monarchy below!”

Less than 24 hours after their stateside sister-in-law announced she would be adding children’s author to her increasingly lengthy job title and her husband appeared at Vax Live (Live Aid reimagined for the pandemic generation), the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have launched a YouTube channel, joining the global platform famous for such internet royalty as the kids from “Charlie Bit My Finger” and that hysterical lady wearing a Chewbacca mask. On Instagram the couple captioned the latest move “better late than never”, but the tax-paying public may beg to differ.

It was less than 350 years ago that the crown was still peddling the divine right of kings. Arguing that the monarch had absolute power simply because it was derived from the hand of God, and therefore was above the power of earthly peasants. Although that was abandoned after King James II – a Glorious Revolution will do that for you – the monarchy is still cripplingly aware of its constant and everlasting need to justify its existence.

Having sat upon the British throne for 69 years, the Queen has long provided a respectable face for the family. Over 80 per cent of the population (those under 65) have never known life with a different head on the coins in our purse. Even if you dislike the concept of monarchy it’s hard to wish ill on a 95-year-old grandmother and her pack of corgis. But she isn’t the future, and “the firm” knows it.

And if the “what comes next?” discussion wasn’t already enough to sour the palace’s morning cornflakes, then our ginger Californian prince (Meghan, get some SPF 50 on that man) throwing a Oprah-shaped grenade into the fold really upped the stakes. The 90-minute popcorn-shoveling affair not only heightened scrutiny and criticism of the institution but shone a spotlight on alleged racism and hypocrisy over mental health. The holy trinity of terrible PR.

Prince Philip’s death served another blow. Although the duke never featured in the line of succession, his departure was a stark reminder of the Queen’s own mortality. She appeared frail at the chapel, sat alone with no hand to hold, while Charles led his siblings and (well-distanced) adult children behind the coffin. The Prince of Wales may have long worn the heir-apparent badge, but it now seemed shinier and more visible in the light of day.

If Charles is organic vegetables and watercolour painting, the Cambridges need to be SpaceX and bitcoin

But at the ripe age of 72 himself, and ever-struggling to market himself as a popular choice after his affair, his divorce, the death of Diana, marriage to Camilla Parker-Bowles (The Crown won’t have helped matters), and claims by Harry that he stopped taking his calls, it’s a hard sell. 

If the union of Harry and Meghan was seen as a potential moment for the family to modernise and win hearts and minds, the Sussexes booking a one-way flight to LAX has all the vibes of Cilla Black unveiling a Blind Date: “Here’s who you turned down!” The alternate sliding doors reality we all could really have done with holding onto. 

While Charles remains first in line for the free meal vouchers, his son and daughter-in-law are increasingly aware that they perform a vital role: giving the monarchy longevity, a vision of what lies ahead. If Charles is organic vegetables and watercolour painting, the Cambridges need to be SpaceX and Bitcoin. They need to go the whole hog.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge celebrated their 10th anniversary last month

Like all of us, the pandemic gave the couple, and their team, the chance to get very familiar with video-calling technology, appearing from a number of gilded rooms to share their support throughout 2020. But since the Oprah interview the public relations machine has gone into overdrive, fueled by the mics dropped in a Santa Barbara back garden.

Just days later, Kate went unaccompanied (but well photographed) to the Sarah Everard vigil in London. On Mother’s Day the family shared cards written by George, Charlotte and Louis to “Granny Diana” with the phrase “papa is missing you”. We’ve been spoon fed videos of William and Kate driving a tractor and handling livestock, and for their 10th wedding anniversary they put on their best “hey fellow normals” with what can only be described as Boden catalogue meets Ben Howard single. How lovely it is that Centre Parcs is open again we think. They even managed to squeeze the dog into the 40-second home video, although they have no speaking roles. Which begs the question, were they silent or was their camcorder silenced?

Now the Cambridges have no choice but to be increasingly online, to follow the gravy train where it may lead

Of course the royals aren’t new to promotional material: the 1969 fly-on-the-wall documentary, Royal Family, set the stage for Big Brother x Windsor. But, despite eliciting a jump in approval, it was largely seen as a failure for destroying the mystique of the royals, worried it would draw back the velvet curtain, Wizard of Oz style. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” 

But now the Cambridges have no choice but to be increasingly online, to follow the gravy train where it may lead. Progress marches on to pastures new, with ring lights and advertorials and sponcon. Where bloopers and behind the scenes footage of the couple navigating filming (“Careful what you say,” warns Wills) is simply what the people want.

Because now they are up against a whole world of modern celebrities, from teenage bedrooms in Bolton to the Hollywood hills, the most recent resident being his younger, cooler sibling and his much-adored wife who have not only bagged a Netflix deal, Spotify podcast, and jobs in Silicon Valley, but are not afraid to use phrases like “legend of banter” in a statement about the longest-serving royal consort in British history.

Even if Harry and Meghan are no longer senior royals, their lives will forever run tangentially to Wills and Kate – both riding a constant barometer of public opinion and approval to pay the bills – even when one finally wears the crown.

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