Star player in the Nineties' fame game

Mark Lawson
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:06

THE PRINCESS OF WALES, making her speech of attempted resignation from the public eye last Friday, inevitably reminded a lot of people of Greta Garbo. But, for me, there was a resemblance to someone else. I am not exactly sure who, but I think it was Arthur Scargill, Michael Heseltine, Michael Jackson or Mr Blobby.

First, the Scargill connection. One explanation of the Princess's announcement is that she has gone on strike. The Duke of Edinburgh has famously referred to his family as the Firm. Well, the Firm is now subject to industrial action. Its key employee has withdrawn her labour. Her hope - perhaps even belief - is that the product will so decline in popularity that the management will be forced to reinstate her on better terms. We can imagine what these might be: improved access to the children, first choice of national tragedies, Mrs Parker-Bowles to do extended missionary work - in Nepal.

The management of the Firm is talking tough, but this is what bosses traditionally do in such circumstances. Indeed, suggestions in the press that Prince Charles is now determined on divorce - to formalise his wife's banishment from the family - have the classic shape of a management 'lockout'. But in industrial conflict such positions are essentially rhetorical. The Firm will be forced to look closely at its future performance graphs and decide whether to swallow pride and take the striker back.

And, if she is on strike, the Princess has two advantages denied to her more common models. The first is that the Firm cannot plausibly try the traditional strike-breaking strategy of replacing her with someone from Korea at half the cost: at least not without giving the Archbishop of Canterbury a queasy moment or two. The second is that she has learnt from one of Arthur Scargill's mistakes. In 1984 he launched a coal strike in the heat of summer. The Princess has timed her industrial action for the Firm's busiest month, giving the Queen a tricky problem of tone and content in the annual report to the shareholders on television on Christmas Day.

If not strike, then what about spite? Here arises the Michael Heseltine comparison. In this scenario, the Princess of Wales has done the royal equivalent of gathering together her papers and storming out of cabinet. Convinced that damaging leaks were finding their way into the papers, the temperamental blondes, conveniently ignoring their own mastery of the press when it suited them, flounced out, thinking: Let's see how you all get on without me, then. It can be argued that the politician, unlike the Princess, had reason to hope that he might take over the top job, but I think this underestimates the aspect of tantrum, rather than calculation, in Mr Heseltine's behaviour over Westland. His main aim then - and perhaps the Princess's now - was pulling out one building brick to see what happened.

And so to the third comparison. There are many obvious similarities between the Princess of Wales and Michael Jackson. For example, neither could plausibly use their passport photo from 10 years ago: they illustrate the chrysalis possibilities of modern cosmetics and fashion.

But the strongest connection is an alarming one. Here we have the people who were almost without doubt the most famous woman and the most famous man of the Eighties, personalities who almost redefined the concept of celebrity. And where are they now? Both are in kinds of hiding, both have suffered from exposure-related illnesses (pill addiction in his case, an eating disorder in hers), and both have been reported to have contemplated suicide.

Without necessarily blaming the media for this - and, in my view, celebrity is a far more complicated arrangement than the prey-and-hunter image offered by advocates of press censorship - it is possible to remark on the alarming consequences of modern international fame. Any parents whose daughter brings home Prince William should perhaps direct their offspring's attention elsewhere. Those whose children show precocity in song and dance should rapidly buy them a computer or a chemistry set.

The argument that Diana 'knew what she was letting herself in for' is unfair. When the match was made - when the honey-and- money trap was laid by a dynasty needing a virgin princess - she was 19 and knew very little about anything, including, as is now clear, her husband. It is perfectly true that she initially relished - and frequently engineered - celebrity. This should not, however, preclude the possibility of her complaining that she did not fully understand the process and its consequences. There was no precedent in royal experience for the attention she received and, even in the world of general celebrity, it is clear that the game has changed during her time under the spotlight, in terms of what could be said and printed, particularly by the British media.

It is in this respect that I call, as the final parallel, Mr Blobby, who, some readers may need to know, is a pink-and-yellow spherical puppet created for a Noel Edmonds television series. If the Princess of Wales seriously believes that she can reduce the extent of press and public interest in her by withdrawing from view, then she has no idea of the workings of supply and demand in relation to fame. She should study carefully the recent history of Mr Blobby.

He recently released his first record, a musical contribution limited by his one-word vocabulary (the word is 'blobby'). Radio 1, in a fit of musical correctness, refused to play the song. Two weeks ago - at one of the lunches for distinguished cultural figures that this column occasionally hosts - a senior figure in the arts argued: 'Well, that's blown it for Mr Blobby's hopes of being Number One. Radio 1 have left him off the play list.' Rather presciently - although I do not wish to sound like Lord Rees-Mogg about this - I replied: 'No, no, no. Radio 1 refusing to play the record has guaranteed that Mr Blobby will be Number One.'

And so he is. For hard-to-get is the smartest tactic in the contemporary fame game, and Radio 1 played it for Mr Blobby. The Princess of Wales has just played it for herself. She cannot be unsophisticated enough to think that she can become a private citizen with one speech. So, although there is some similarity to Michael Jackson - in that the deal she made with fame backfired on her - I think we are looking at something more knowing, at strategy. Strike or spite, Scargill or Heseltine.

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