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ROBERT HARDMAN: Prepare for a lesson in what duty looks like 

We haven’t had such a bumper day of royal binge-watching since, well, that glorious Saturday in 2018 when Harry and Meghan walked out in to the Windsor sunshine.

By any measure, March 7 is going to leave royal-watchers goggle-eyed. And for those of a republican bent, it would probably be advisable to switch off and curl up with a good book.

For, whatever else you are doing on Sunday week, you will find it hard to avoid seeing – or hearing – members of the Royal Family.

This is the date the world awaits the inner thoughts of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex; the moment they spill the beans to American talk show host Oprah Winfrey – plus a global audience of hundreds of millions.

By any measure, March 7 is going to leave royal-watchers goggle-eyed. And for those of a republican bent, it would probably be advisable to switch off and curl up with a good book. For, whatever else you are doing on Sunday week, you will find it hard to avoid seeing – or hearing – members of the Royal Family

Arranged without a word to the rest of the family, let alone the Queen, their interview has already invoked comparisons with the bombshell BBC broadcast by the Princess of Wales in 1995.

Except, now, this day will not just be about the Sussexes. We learn that we can also look forward to another programme featuring the Queen, the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Countess of Wessex.

For they will all be appearing in the early evening of the same day in a BBC1 special broadcast from Westminster Abbey called ‘A Celebration For Commonwealth Day’.

We will, therefore, see two very different aspects of that public duty of which we have heard so much in recent days. On the one hand, there will be the Head of the Commonwealth and the UK-based side of her family, inside Edward the Confessor’s 1,000-year-old church and talking about the Commonwealth themes of ‘unity’ and ‘friendship’.

I am told that we will hear a message from the Queen, watch an address from the Prince of Wales and see other members of the Royal Family in conversation with young people from across the 54 nations of the Commonwealth. The Duchess of Cornwall will talk about literacy, the Cambridges will discuss social care and the Countess of Wessex will explore the role of women.

There will be star turns from singer Lianne La Havas and athlete Denise Lewis. It will all be warm, worthy and beautifully produced by the same BBC team who do great state occasions like Remembrance Sunday.

This is the date the world awaits the inner thoughts of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex; the moment they spill the beans to American talk show host Oprah Winfrey (pictured) ¿ plus a global audience of hundreds of millions

This is the date the world awaits the inner thoughts of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex; the moment they spill the beans to American talk show host Oprah Winfrey (pictured) – plus a global audience of hundreds of millions

And then, for something completely different… A few hours later, over on CBS America – plus its international affiliates and on the internet – we can tune in to see a rather groovier slice of royal life as the Sussexes talk about making their home in California and their self-proclaimed path of ‘compassion in action’, ‘systemic change’ and so on.

Plus all the royal nuggets which wily old Oprah can extract, of course. A US audience – even a woke one – will only put up with so much stuff about ‘courage, healing, and connection’ before they want a peek inside the Sussexes’ fridge.

It’s all rather reminiscent of the old adage about buses. You wait all year for a royal appearance – and then the entire House of Windsor comes along at once. In other words, it’s going to be a double-bill of royal Through The Keyhole plus royal Songs of Praise. Of one thing we can be clear, however. This is neither a case of the Palace trying to spike Oprah’s guns, nor vice versa.

In fact, the BBC’s royal programme was scheduled weeks ago. It was certainly being discussed long before last week’s sudden splurge of Sussex publicity as the duke and duchess let it be known that they are expecting a second child, that they are going to tell all on American telly, that they are not bothered about not being royal, that ‘service is universal’ and so on.

So why, then, is all this coming to a head on the same evening? It is simply because Commonwealth Day is always on the second Monday in March.

Last year, it happened to be the day the Sussexes chose to take their leave of Britain with that final starry appearance at the Abbey (just days before the coronavirus brought normal life to a halt). The Oprah show is simply timed to mark the anniversary. These two very different programmes will unintentionally highlight the glaring contrast between the Sussexes’ new life and the one they left behind.

Arranged without a word to the rest of the family, let alone the Queen, their interview has already invoked comparisons with the bombshell BBC broadcast by the Princess of Wales in 1995

Arranged without a word to the rest of the family, let alone the Queen, their interview has already invoked comparisons with the bombshell BBC broadcast by the Princess of Wales in 1995

No doubt some will applaud them for ‘finding freedom’ from the stifling, dusty world of royal protocol; for casting off those pesky suits and hats and embarking on a 21st century voyage of self-discovery.

Others, however, will see a steadfast, record-breaking monarch quietly honouring one of her greatest achievements – the ‘family of nations’ she built and nurtured from the remnants of empire.

They will see a shrinking royal team who are now left dutifully plugging the gaps left by others in the ranks. They will see a family wedded not to ‘systemic change’ but to those traditional, unglamorous, plodding but vital royal virtues of continuity and stability. Unlike service, those are not universal.

It wasn’t very long ago that the Queen earmarked the Commonwealth as Harry’s special patch. In fact, it feels like just the other day.

I remember watching him at the 2018 Commonwealth Summit as he nervously but proudly took up his new appointment from the Queen – Commonwealth youth ambassador. It was why the monarch put both him and Meghan in charge of the splendid Queen’s Commonwealth Trust.

March 7, then, will not just give us a glimpse of the sunlit uplands of Sussexville, USA. It will also be a reminder of what might have been.


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