The closest I’ve ever been to blue blood? That would be the Royal Highland Show when it was officially opened by Princess Alexandra. “And what do you do?” she inquired in the time-honoured way, disturbing my concentration during a preliminary round of the prize coo competition. “Nothing yet, Ma’am,” I replied, “I’m only seven.”
In the family album the photo of the princess and I is next to one of me and a man in a gorilla suit at Butlin’s in Ayr. The princess was fragrant, Guy the Gorilla smelled of Capstan Full Strength, but to my father who was no royalist there wouldn’t have been much difference between the two as both were reliant on our money, with an accomplice of the apeman stopping the old man taking a snap and insisting all images had to be purchased from him.
“Revolt against £369m Palace repairs,” ran a headline the other day. Buckingham Palace needs its 6,500 electrical sockets replaced, among other things, and I suspect that if dad was still around he’d be the most revolting of disloyal subjects you could find. Mum, though, loved the Queen and thought HRH did a grand job keeping the dysfunctional rabble together, and this was long before Squidgygate, toe-sucking financial advisers and the annus horribilis.
Me? I was caught in the middle of our dysfunctional rabble, enjoying my father’s jokes about “chinless wonders” but respecting my mother’s admiration for the woman she called Lizzie which was more than about sharing a name. I reckon, though, that Dad would have been won round by Claire Foy’s impersonation of HRH in the Netflix drama The Crown. I know I have.
Ten hours of privilege, footmen, gilt, banquets, posh voices where lots of things (eggs, black sheep of the family, racehorses) might be described as having “gone orf”? This didn’t sound like my idea of bunk-down-for-winter, boxset fun. Beginning with the coronation in 1953 and only making it to 1955 and Princess Margaret giving up on her attempts to marry Peter Townsend by the end of first series of a scheduled six, The Crown didn’t give the impression it was going zip along at a decent lick. But, like the Duke of Edinburgh’s MG, driven one-handed down the Mall on his way to a night of dubious entertainment at the gentlemen’s club, it does.
So unlike the home life of our own dear Queen? The drama’s winning formula is that it shows royal life to be just like ours, only with superior cutlery. This family boozes, smokes, lusts, squabbles and watches a heck of a lot of TV just like other families. Television indeed kicks off the story with Prince Philip urging Lizzie to allow the coronation to be piped into the nation’s parlours, and initially it seems he might become the House of Windsor’s great moderniser.
This family smokes when it’s ailing and is still puffing like a lum with its last breath. The Queen Mother is knocking back a large scotch and glued to the idiot-lantern - vaudeville act Wilson, Keppel & Betty, if I’m not wrong - when the Queen says: “I want to ask you a question about my education.” Queen Mum: “What about it?” Queen: “The fact I didn’t receive one.”
Russia is testing the H-bomb and the ill-educated monarch, taught only sewing and needlework, feels compelled to turn the chat to dogs and horses when in the company of her prime minister and other leaders. You couldn’t call the Duke of Windsor ill-educated. Lizzie phones him to ask what she should do about Mags wanting to marry her Group Captain, given he’d been faced with a crown vs love dilemma. He says she must feel like a “strange hybrid creature such as a sphynx or gamayun as I am ganesha or minotaur”. One half is sister, the other queen and he warned her that the “fearful civil war” between them would ever end.
The insults are diamond-studded and fantastic. “What a sunless, frozen hell we both escaped in England,” writes the Duke in a letter to his Duchess, “and what a bunch of ice-flaying monsters my family are. How cold and thin-lipped, how dumpy and plain, how joyless and loveless ... ” Well, weirdos exist but an average number. Maybe the coldest and thinnest of lip is Tommy Lascelles, not actual family but a private secretary of fearsome power and influence. Presumbly he thinks Lizzie, still in her twenties at the time of the coronation, don’t forget, will be easily managed but her needles are sharp.
“We taught you how to be a princess,” says the Queen Mum, “what do you want - a degree?” Lizzie gets herself a tutor. After standing up to Winston Churchill she charms him. The pill-popping, self-injecting Anthony Eden, too. And she doesn’t take any nonsense from her husband either. After failing in his bid to have the Queen take his name - not Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg but Mountbatten - he then behaves like a spoiled brat for two years, sulking in his garters before whizzing orf to ogle waitresses. He accuses HRH of “matronising” him so she sends him to Australia to open the Olympics.
Great period dramas don’t have to try too hard to find resonances with the here and now. The Queen is being lined up as the government’s “secret weapon” to charm Donald Trump while her grandson Prince Harry is romancing an American divorcee.
The Crown is fantastic and only a cynic would claim it’s PR gloss to help push through those £369m repairs. Did I say this is a sexy Queen, too? Give her an extra layer of gold on the bath-taps, I say.