Prince Philip: the Royal who has made the nation laugh, though more at him than with him

A man so heroically out of touch with modern sensibilities, he gives us the gift of laughter – however unintentionally

Adam Lusher
Friday 05 May 2017 08:40
He gave us the gift of laughter, although maybe he didn't always see what was so funny
He gave us the gift of laughter, although maybe he didn't always see what was so funny

Even Jeremy Corbyn, the Republican Traitor Who Must Never Be Prime Minister, who once refused to wear a tie, or kneel, or bow and scrape before Her Majesty or to kiss her gracious Queenly hand - (or something) - felt moved to offer his humble respects.

“I would like to pay tribute to Prince Philip following his decision to retire from public life,” said the lifelong republican who may or may not have been influenced by the forthcoming election. “He has dedicated his life to supporting the Queen and our country with a clear sense of public duty.”

And maybe that is indeed what some people will immediately think of when they reflect upon the Duke of Edinburgh’s contribution to public life.

Others, of slightly less exemplary royalist integrity, while briefly alighting on something to do with loyal consort to Her Majesty and all that, will swiftly move on to remembering that Phil was the bloke who suggested a dodgy fuse box must have been “put in by an Indian”.

And whose ‘corking’ one liners have included telling a British student in China: “If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes”; and asking another British student, who had trekked through Papua New Guinea: “You managed not to get eaten then?”

This 95-year-old’s great contributions to diplomacy have included calling Beijing “ghastly” – in 1986, on the same trip as he made the slitty eyes “joke”-–before calling Stoke-on-Trent “ghastly” in 1997, and asking a Scottish driving instructor in 1995: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?”

He has “charmed” a female fashion writer at a World Wildlife Fund event by asking: “You're not wearing mink knickers, are you?” and told a 13-year-old dreaming of space exploration: “You're too fat to be an astronaut.”

The rational mind struggles to disagree with Graham Smith, chief executive of the anti-monarchist campaign group Republic, who tells you: “He's a pretty awful man, who has been on the make and saying pretty awful things, reflecting the racist attitudes of the 1950s upper class, for decades.

“He should have been challenged and told to shut up a long time ago.”

The working class had Alf Garnett; the Royal Family have Prince Philip (Getty)

And yet at some point – maybe somewhere between him telling a group of industrialists “I have never been noticeably reticent on subjects about which I know nothing”, in 1961, and pointedly telling The Independent’s editor-in-chief “you didn’t have to come” to a press reception in 2002 – you give up.

You find yourself almost powerless to resist in the face of a man so heroically out of touch with the problems of the modern world, that in 1981 – with Britain in the grip of recession and unemployment on the way to rising above three million – he could muse: “A few years ago, everybody was saying we must have more leisure, everyone's working too much. Now everybody's got more leisure time they are complaining they are unemployed. People don't seem to make up their minds what they want.”

The working class had Alf Garnett; the Royal Family came up with Prince Philip – a man whom some took entirely seriously, but who brought many others the gift of laughter, albeit that they were often laughing at him, not with him.

Prince Philip: 10 memorable quotes from the Duke of Edinburgh

As he recedes gracefully, but probably grumpily from public life, we are left to wonder whether we will ever see his like again.

With Prince Charles managing only the occasional peep about “monstrous carbuncles”, and even Prince Harry showing signs of maturity and settling down with that American actress companion of his, who now will provide the vital frisson of excitement at otherwise tedious ribbon-cutting events?

Who now will make Palace press officers nervous, and have Royal reporters following closely to see whether they ask the assembled youth club members: “Who's on drugs here?... HE looks as if he's on drugs.”

It may be extraordinary that the Duke’s public career survived the invention of Twitter 11 long years ago, but survive it did.

And now he bows out, maybe not quite as a national treasure, but certainly as a national guilty pleasure.

In vain does Mr Smith protest: “These so-called gaffes are racist, sexist and plain insulting. Had he been an elected politician, he would have been thrown out decades ago. The fact that he has been saying these things and getting away with it for so long points to the fact that our Royal Family is completely unaccountable.

“When an MP is alleged to have called a police officer a pleb, all hell breaks loose.”

The existence of a double standard does seem pretty undeniable. In a world where ambitious Tory MP David Cameron felt he had to give up pheasant shooting when elected Conservative Party leader in 2005, Prince Philip can keep blasting away merrily.

(Although no longer with complete abandon. He doesn’t shoot tigers any more. He makes do with the memories of that 8ft beauty he bagged in Ranthambhore, India, in 1961 – the year he became president of the British National Appeal, the first national organisation of the World Wildlife Fund.)

And it’s not just shooting. He has been enjoying the rather upper crust sport of carriage driving for 46 years, ever since giving up polo.

An elected MP would be teased mercilessly. But with Philip, the feeling seems to be, let the man enjoy sporting pleasures in the company of young friends like Lady Penny Brabourne, 30 years his junior and his carriage driving companion of many years.

Indeed, some marvel at how he manages to fit it all in.

Despite his busy schedule, the Duke has enjoyed his hobby of carriage driving (Getty)

On one occasion in 2000, for example, the then 79-year-old Duke had to attend an engagement at Lowther in Carlisle on a Wednesday, open a new pavilion for the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes on the Thursday, and attend the Queen Mother's 100th birthday lunch on the Friday.

He did it all, even if he needed a helicopter to get to Cowes, where he is Admiral of the Royal Yacht Squadron. (A man of many sports, the Duke is also keen on sailing. As well as – one assumes – a few toasters, his wedding presents included a 29ft yacht.)

Mr Smith lets the wedding presents thing pass, but attempts some republican insubordination over the idea that Prince Philip has been tireless in his performance of his public duties.

“It’s the big public engagement con,” he insists. “People say he does 250 engagements a year, but most of them last about an hour. So that equates to about 35 working days a year when he has actually done something.”

The Duke received a yearly Parliamentary annuity of £359,000 to meet the expenses of carrying out his duties, but Mr Smith says that Republic’s research suggests that once numerous royal perks like free travel have been accounted for, Prince Philip really costs the taxpayer at least £19m.

“Let's all stop the toadying,” he argues. “He's never done a day's work in his life ... Public service? What public service? What he did wasn't really public service unless you count spending the public's money as public service.

“He’s essentially been living a life of luxury since he left the Navy.”

His time in the Navy, it probably should be said, did coincide with the Second World War, during which he was mentioned in dispatches.

But the 26-year-old’s marriage to 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth may well have helped ease his money problems somewhat.

Some Royal watchers say Prince Philip had been left penniless by his father, Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, who spent the last part of his life in Monte Carlo – which, for a man known to have taken solace in gambling, was probably rather too handy for the casino.

Prince Philip jokes he can 'barely stand up'

There were doubts about Philip too, at the beginning.

King George VI's private secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, noted that some Buckingham Palace courtiers considered that he was “rough, uneducated and would probably not be faithful”.

Subsequent remarks by the Duke of Edinburgh may rather suggest they got the “rough, uneducated” bit right.

But unfaithful? All those rumours about showgirls, peeresses, and just about any wholesome household name you and the man in the saloon bar can think of are very likely just that: rumour. Even the one about a night of gay passion with notoriously randy ex-French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

And those 24 love children he supposedly fathered? All just an unfortunate misunderstanding. As the foreign newspaper that reported their existence acknowledged after it was pointed out that they had mistranslated information that the Duke had 24 godchildren.

So let us ignore the innuendo, the nudge, nudge wink, wink hints that one sometimes reads between the lines of certain news reports. And let us instead perhaps take the sage advice of the Duke himself, offered to a female journalist who dared ask about the infidelity rumours.

“Good God, woman,” he chuntered. “Have you ever stopped to think that for years, I have never moved anywhere without a policeman accompanying me? So how the hell could I get away with anything like that?”

No, the truth is, that he has by all accounts remained true to Her Majesty, the Queen who after nearly 70 years of marriage, he still – according to one Royal biographer – addresses as “cabbage”. Or “bloody fool”, depending on the mood, on isolated occasions over the years, according to other reports.

She, of course, adores the man who at their Golden Wedding anniversary in 1997, she described as “my strength and stay all these years”.

“She admires him for many things,” one courtier was reported as saying, “But mainly I think for the way he has managed to remain himself — the same man she married.”

And so say all of us. Because it leaves us with hope, as offered, strangely enough, by Mr Smith of Republic.

“He will still carry on going to places like Ascot,” said Mr Smith, “So I am sure he will still have opportunities to be rude to people.”

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