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Toby Banks

Who'll save the Queen?

'I'm so ugly. No boy will ever want me.' Thus spoke Sarah Ferguson in an early scene from 'Andy and Fergie's Love Story', a Sun royal comic strip, in 1986. In the final picture the couple walk down the aisle arm-in-arm. Andy turns to the reader and says: 'Gotcha!'

I can't vouch for the authenticity of this version of events, as the BBC has withdrawn all copies of the souvenir wedding video on the grounds that it would be 'distasteful' to sell it. On that, at least, we can all agree.

If newspaper 'royal watchers' like Andrew Morton are to be believed, an updated 'Love Story' would have to include Fergie running around the first class cabin of a plane with a paper bag over her head, throwing bread rolls and sugar at her father. Nor could there be any avoiding the mock-knighting of a dog at a party, or numerous other tales of misbehaviour.

In one scene, staff would be seen muttering that 'the shouting and screaming were more appropriate to a block of council flats than a royal palace'. And one footman would say 'quite openly' that 'come the revolution', things will change. Personally, I expect to hear even more regal screaming and shouting when the phrase 'royal separation' once again refers to the head-from-shoulders variety, but you know what he means. And it's shocking to hear him say it.

It's shocking because for the past 50 years or so there has been an unspoken agreement that it is wrong to criticise the royal family, on the grounds that they can't defend themselves. Now, it's plausible enough to argue against criticising those who have no source of redress. But the reason the royal family 'can't defend themselves' is that their loyal advisors and ministers make sure they don't have to. In this respect the royals have a clear advantage over child molesters, gangsters and other indefensibles who are forced to explain themselves from time to time.

Experience has taught the royals that it pays to keep their mouths shut and get on with minding the family business. After all, they've got nothing to gain from a discussion of their position, and a whole country to lose.

But all good things come to an end, and the end could be nigh, if you believe the newspapers. You know something's happening when 'The Sun says': 'The royal [note that little 'r'] story will run and run. Until the day the people finally recognise that hereditary rulers are an absurdity.' Even the specialist royal publications have been giving the Windsors some funny looks. The Elizabeth II Collectors Issue compliments them on being 'the epitome of privilege and the antithesis of popular democracy', and explains that the recent BBC documentary Elizabeth R was made to 'remind us that the Queen's there and why she's there'.

Of course, every royal documentary is carefully planned to deal with whatever image problem currently besets the monarchy, but the problems have grown more tricky. The first one, at the end of the difficult sixties, tried to pass them off as a regular family (look - no neckties!). Later efforts have emphasised their 'working lives'. But today the focus is restricted to the three members of the family who have not yet become an embarrassing liability: the Queen Mum, Gawd bless 'er, Princess Di ('the national dish') and the Queen herself.

Sir Alastair Burnett's portrait of the Queen Mother plunged to new depths of sycophancy, even by the standards normally inspired by this wonderful old girl. An offer of a rose to sniff was accepted according to courtly etiquette: 'Oh Ma'aaam, yes! Oh yes...yes...yes!' Later we see the ceremonial unveiling of a plaque. The cord snaps, but no problem - the Queen Mum skilfully opens the curtain by hand. Sir Alastair's voice coos dreamily: 'Makes it look so easy, doesn't she?'

That programme backfired disastrously, so the new film of a year in the Queen's life took a self-consciously business-like approach. 'You have a room of your own, do you?' HM inquires of an old lady in a nursing home, 'that must be rather nice, isn't it?'. A little later she is discussing the case of a prisoner who 'helped the authorities' during the Strangeways prison riot. 'I should think anything to do with Strangeways is rather interesting', she says, in the tone of a woman politely perusing a primary school nature table. We don't catch her equerry's reply ('Indeed Ma'am. They share cells - I'm told it's rather nice').

The Queen is the last monarch to be completely cut off from the real world. During her Jubilee, curtains were painted on to the windows of derelict houses on her procession route. When she visited a place where I used to work, a special toilet was built for her. It had a red velvet seat and nobody else was allowed to use it. When the great day arrived, the real 'royal watchers' were out in force. Not the debonair press 'insiders', but the loyal subjects who queue all night with tartan blankets and camping stools for the privilege of pressing their faces against the railings for a glimpse of the royal hat.

No doubt some of them will queue for The Victoria & Albert Museum's new exhibition 'Sovereign', subtitled '40 Years of Service'. But as services go, only British Rail is getting a worse press. You've Been Framed thrashed Elizabeth R in the TV ratings. Perhaps the future lies with those who also serve by sitting and waiting outside the gates. Although for many of them this service is its own reward, there are others who crave public acknowledgement. So they've begun to privatise one of the Queen's services - the Fount of Honour. 'Recognition for devoted monarchists' is now available - at a price - through the classified pages of Majesty and the rest. Buy yourself a title - you've earned it. Some may say this cheapens honours, but remember, not everyone can afford them under the official system.

Queen Victoria and Edward VII both expected to see the end of the monarchy in their lifetimes, and now the same concern seems to be concentrating royal minds once more. The Queen's Royal Anniversary Trust is funding a 'Royal Things To Do' education pack. The Queen Mother now has her own kettle, so she can spare her staff the trouble of fetching her tea. Grand gestures both, yet still the nagging feeling remains that it may be too little, too late.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992

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