Perhaps there really was a time, long ago, when if one wanted to be informed of the activities of the royal family, one consulted the court circular.
Now, of course, you go on US celebrity gossip website TMZ. And there in glaring headlines you find a story, not of family joy at a forthcoming wedding, but of pain and suffering – much of it heaped on Meghan Markle’s 73-year-old father Thomas.
You could, as one newspaper has, call it “a rollercoaster of speculation surrounding whether Mr Markle would attend Saturday’s royal wedding at Windsor Castle in Berkshire”.
But you might also wonder whether this is a soap opera of cruelty, one in which Wednesday’s cliffhanger features the vulnerable father of the bride saying he can’t go to the wedding because he’s in hospital having heart surgery.
Nearly every story about the former award-winning TV lighting director Thomas Markle makes sure to include a reference to him living as a “recluse” in Mexico.
It might, therefore, have been reasonably assumed that this shy man never sought the limelight thrust upon him when his actress daughter fell in love with Prince Harry, now the sixth in line to the British throne.
That assumption, though, was thrown into doubt on Sunday.
In what was effectively the first episode of the drama, the Mail on Sunday reported that Mr Markle had in fact worked with British-born, Porsche driving paparazzo Jeff Rayner to set up a series of supposedly ‘candid’ photographs that were then sold for “up to £100,000”.
Mr Markle was accused, amongst other things, of staging a photo showing him reading a book about Britain, and of going to a party accessories shop with his own tape measure and getting the 17-year-old assistant to pretend to be a tailor measuring him for a wedding suit.
As Mr Markle himself later acknowledged – to TMZ – the whole thing made him look “stupid and hammy”. Some of those commenting online went further and called him “a sleaze”.
But read closely, even the Mail on Sunday story itself seemed to suggest the possibility that this was more complicated than just a chancer trying to make a quick buck out of his royal connections.
For one thing, there was an acknowledgement that it was not known whether Mr Markle was paid anything for his part in the stunted-up photos.
The newspaper also included what could be read as strong hints that Mr Markle was a shy man who was trying to give the paparazzi what they wanted in the hope they would finally go away.
Mr Markle was described as a man so reclusive that even his neighbours rarely saw him.
There was a reference to a statement from representatives of Prince Harry – a man whose mother died while being chased by photographers – about his future father-in-law’s anxiety at being “harassed” on a daily basis by paparazzi.
Then the Mail on Sunday quoted a friend as saying: “Don’t underestimate how stressful and, at times, distressing the attention on him has been. Remember, this is a man who has intentionally tried to live on his own away from anyone he knows.”
Further details were added in Monday’s episode, the one where Mr Markle dropped the bombshell that he wouldn’t be attending the wedding or walking his daughter down the aisle because he didn’t want to embarrass Meghan or the royal family.
Mr Markle told TMZ that he only received a relatively modest sum for the deal with the paparazzo and it was less about money and much more about his assertion that “over the last year he’s been ambushed by paparazzi who have photographed him in the most unflattering circumstances ... buying beer, looking disheveled and reclusive.
“He’s especially upset that they made him look like a lush. Thomas says he doesn’t even drink beer ... he was buying it for the guards at the place where he lives.
“He figured there was no harm in it [the deal with the paparazzo] and it would help recast his image.”
As well as explaining himself to TMZ, Mr Markle revealed that he was in physical, as well as emotional pain. He said he had suffered a heart attack six days earlier, but had checked himself out of the hospital because, before the Mail on Sunday reported, he had been hoping to go to the wedding.
The next episode was delivered later the same day.
Mr Markle told TMZ he was going back to hospital because he was suffering serious chest pains. And he knew who to blame.
“He says the pains have been triggered by emotional upset,” TMZ reported. “He specifically mentioned his oldest daughter, Samantha Grant, who has been shading Meghan in the weeks leading up to the wedding.
“Thomas tells us, ‘I’ve been popping Valium for the pain, especially when I hear about my oldest daughter.’”
Enter, then, Samantha Grant, mother-of-three, 53-year-old former actress and model rendered wheelchair-bound by multiple sclerosis, the half-sister of Meghan Markle.
Exactly how well Samantha knows Meghan is a matter of some debate. Samantha says she “helped raise” Meghan for 12 years when they were growing up in California; other reports have claimed that however close they were in childhood, Meghan has not seen Samantha or any of her half-siblings for more than a decade.
Be that as it may, Samantha felt qualified enough to announce in April 2017 that she would be writing a memoir sensitively entitled: “The Diary of Princess Pushy’s Sister”.
Although it would, of course, be nothing like “some sort of slamming ‘tell-all’.”
Instead, Samantha promised, she would “go through and recount some of the beautiful nuances of our lives, our family home.”
These “beautiful nuances” were presumably nothing to with what happened in January when Samantha was quoted as responding to Meghan being photographed in a £56,000 designer dress by saying: “If you can spend $75,000 on a dress, you can spend $75,000 on your dad.”
Other apparent “shading” that may have upset Meghan and Samantha’s father came when the older half-sister realised she was not getting an invitation to the wedding.
Last month Samantha reportedly tweeted: “Smoke and mirrors cannot hide the elephant in the room.
“Out of respect and humanitarianism, the Markles should be invited if 2,000 complete strangers are.
“Our uncle, brother, me, best friend of 30 years, nephews. Our issue is not a matter of closeness. Family is family.”
Nor, if the gossip site TMZ can be believed, was Samantha the only one of Thomas Markle’s children to have upset him with comments about Meghan.
As slowly became clear over the course of Tuesday.
The morning episode had Mr Markle telling TMZ of a change of mind bought on by Meghan texting him to say she loved him and was concerned for his health.
This, Mr Markle said, persuaded him that he should go to the wedding after all: “Of course I’d walk her down the aisle. This is a historic moment. I’d like to be a part of history.”
But then came the Tuesday afternoon instalment: Mr Markle wouldn’t be going to the wedding, he would be having heart surgery at 3.30pm UK time on Wednesday.
TMZ reported that the doctors had discovered that the heart attack had done significant damage.
And then the website added a killer line: “BTW, Thomas also says he believes the open letter his son, Thomas Jr, wrote to Prince Harry discouraging him from marrying Meghan is what triggered his heart attack.”
This was a reference to the letter written by Meghan’s half-brother Thomas Markle Jr, a 51-year-old glass fitter who last year hit the headlines for being arrested after an alleged drunken argument with his girlfriend.
Meghan, the half-brother seemingly told Harry, was a “jaded, shallow, conceited woman that will make a joke of you and the royal family heritage.”
Slightly different in tone to the first message, this letter reminisced about “some great holidays together, even though we all didn’t share the same house”.
As this suggests, mixing with what seemed perilously close to being the personal tragedy of Mr Markle senior, there was a strong element of farce.
By Tuesday afternoon the sense of a circus had been completed by reports of bookmakers offering odds on who would walk Meghan down the aisle and by a cameo appearance from former tabloid editor Piers Morgan telling Samantha Grant she was a “media vulture”.
And then more of Meghan’s extended family turned up.
Tracy Dooley, the ex-wife of Thomas Markle Jr, arrived at Heathrow airport from Oregon accompanied by her sons Tyler, 25, and Thomas, 26.
Meghan hadn’t invited her. Ms Dooley, a florist who divorced Thomas Markle Jr in 2001, has previously admitted she has not seen the bride-to-be for 20 years.
But it was reported that the Dooleys had been recruited by ITV’s Good Morning Britain as “special correspondents” to report on the wedding from Windsor.
ITV has yet to respond to The Independent’s request for comment on whether this is true, but the newspapers have reported that the Dooleys are thought be staying at a £70-a-night hotel in Waterloo, while Tyler has posted images on social media with the comment: “Just touched down in London!!! Man what a journey so far.”
The royals may have defects of their own, but one is tempted to ask whether, with a family like hers, Meghan needs enemies.
The sadness and farce alike are perhaps only intensified by the suspicion that despite all the column inches devoted to it – with this article as guilty as any other – this may be a soap opera served up for the amusement of a public that is only half-interested.
A YouGov poll published as Tuesday’s stories unfolded suggested that 66 per cent of the British public were “not interested” in the royal wedding.
Prince Harry’s precise thoughts as he prepares for what should be the unalloyed joy of his wedding can only be guessed at. His anger at the paparazzi who hounded his mother, however, is well known.
After Diana’s death, of course, there were solemn promises all round that nothing similar would ever be allowed to happen again.
As he prepares for heart surgery, Thomas Markle may be entitled to wonder whether those promises have been kept.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies