Royalist is The Daily Beast’s newsletter for all things royal and Royal Family. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox every Sunday.
If, as reports suggest, King Charles decides to dish in a TV interview in advance of his coronation in early May, what might he say about his relationship with son Prince Harry, the status of their relationship, and Harry’s various accusations of royal mistreatment—going so far as to call his family “abusers,” and Camilla Parker Bowles a schemer who left “bodies in the street” in her quest for royal power? Maybe Charles will say nothing; or maybe he will seek to match the dog bowl grievously harmed when William shoved Harry by smashing every vulnerable inkpot in sight.
Charles’ most infamous TV interview in June 1994—with his friend Jonathan Dimbleby, who may also conduct the coronation interview—contained his admission that he had committed adultery with Camilla Parker Bowles. A year later Princess Diana gave her own explosive interview to Martin Bashir, when she was famously open about the breakdown of her marriage—“There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”—and later for the revelation of Bashir’s underhand methods in order to get it.
Charles’ coronation interview will have to show a bit of leg. After all, it is coming after Harry and Meghan’s with Oprah Winfrey, their six-part Netflix show, and the memoir of endless OMGs. Will it be as explosive? The interviewer will ask about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, of course, and then the question is how much detail will Charles give. Will it be a trickle compared to Harry’s torrent in the memoir Spare? Will Prince William say something? Or will the royal principle of silence and non-engagement reign?
The latter is more likely. A lack of candor is the royal way; candor is seen dolorously, even if the only truly discreet royal—Queen Elizabeth—is now dead. She never divulged anything, believing secrecy and mystique were vital to keeping the monarchy interesting, and the taxpayer pounds and tourist coins rolling in.
Yet even the new king didn’t play by those say-nothing roles. He told the world he was an adulterer. He, his ex-wife, and his children have all been relentlessly focused on by the media, yet also—as the years have gone on, and as Harry made clear in Spare and in in interviews for it—the royals and their handlers have become adept players of the game too. So, after Harry’s literal tell-all, what is stopping Charles and William doing the same?
For one, something personal. They may not want to imperil already tender relationships damaged by the stories within the memoir, and all the media commentary that followed in its wake. If there is a way to eventually reconcile, what good will their own bitching session do? They may see no benefit for them publicly to be seen giving their side, or continuing the feud.
“The royals are practiced in the art of watching most scandals and blaring headlines recede in time. ”
Another thing is, the royals are practiced in the art of watching most scandals and blaring headlines recede in time. The Palace thinking may be: they survived the far more nuclear fallout of the Oprah Winfrey interview, which remains the Palace public relations disaster by which all others can be measured, alongside the queen’s initial handling of the death of Princess Diana.
There were two distinct reactions to both instances. The royal reaction to Oprah was frozen shock, then classic royal-head-in-the-sand, hoping, over time, the fuss would subside. That was only partially successful, because the allegations of race-related ignorance (still a mystery, Harry has stepped back from calling it racism) and a fundamental dereliction of care when it came to Meghan’s mental health both remain unanswered and unforgotten.
The second example of the week of Diana’s death shows an opposing mode of action: a grudging but emphatic piece of royal engagement, a visible changing of usually intractable minds, political necessity blowing open the doors of royal silence. The royals didn’t ignore what was right in front of them—immense public anger—but instead, spurred by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, the queen met the moment and gave a primetime TV tribute to Diana.
Harry’s memoir has necessitated a different kind of soul-searching for Charles, William, and their PR teams. For all the furore, all parties, now a few weeks later, have returned to their respective corners and are just—how British, after all bitching and bullets have been dispensed—carrying on, carrying on. Princess Kate is striking out on her own on a well-meaning mission to improve children’s “early years,” which would seem agreeably beneficent if the urgency of its intent didn’t underscore how governments and social programs have failed children over and over again.
Still, the royal message is: Kate does something. This is an important message in the wake of Harry’s memoir painting her and William as a judgy, sniping pair of scolds, admonishing Meghan for being inappropriate (about everything), and Harry for wanting something different. Kate comes off as clipped but hardly Cruella; William is spared nothing. He is painted as an arrogant, hectoring bully, and the split between the brothers remains the immovable thorn in family relations. (As well as Prince Andrew, of course. Everyone seems in agreement of being down on him.)
King Charles, by contrast, emerges as a classic upper-class twit—well-meaning (kind of), hopelessly at sea dealing with emotions, detached, worried for himself, worried about everything, ruthless-in-aspiration but also ineffectual. It tells you everything that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has been reportedly prevailed upon to mediate to get Harry and Meghan to the coronation in as functional order as possible, much to William’s reported ire.
William is likely still suspicious that anything said to Harry could one day be regurgitated for the next Netflix documentary or a possible volume two of memoirs for which Harry has already made abundantly clear that he has enough material for.
“The frosty royal silence solidifies Charles, William and co. as the immovable edifice, not even countenancing the various charges made against them.”
But in totality, all Harry’s memoir has amounted to so far is a restatement of familiar royal positions. The memoir solidifies Harry and Meghan as outsiders, saying things and telling (their) truths. The frosty royal silence solidifies Charles, William and co. as the immovable edifice, not even countenancing the various charges made against them.
The questions and answers that could have caused real harm—which senior royal said the remark about the color of Harry and Meghan’s unborn child—went unasked and unanswered. Harry even downplayed the idea that it had been an incident of racism.
And yet, the brutality of his memoir is in the fluently written (literal) execution and calculatedly bitter aftertaste—both the takedown, and the spirit of the takedown. Not much has been denied by the usual scurrying royal sources. Sure, a few dates and details here and there, but nothing of substance (and this is if you consider this whole endless saga as something of substance in the first place). The memoir instead laid bare family tensions starkly. It has done damage not of the immediately explosive kind but perhaps more longer-term and corrosive.
In the short term, it would have been humiliating and embarrassing for Charles and William to read. But the memoir was really a bitchy and very readable avalanche of slights and grievances that were at once familiar to so many families and many families—more than one person said to me, after Spare came out, “Oh, that’s just like me and my xxxx (insert family member here)”—while also dishily laying out the grand scale of royal wealth.
In short, instead of blowing up the royal family, Harry’s memoir showed that despite the outward fine costuming, the deep and shallow emotions, the arguments and pettiness, the squabbling and resentments, are universally familiar. William may feel the most mortified and betrayed of all—for the attacks on him and on Kate. But there it is, all out there.
“A revelation of fallibility and imperfection may be the most powerful and relatable thing the royal family could do.”
Maybe the royals—all of them—could usefully dwell in the frothing water of Harry’s revelation waterfall. After every Harry and Meghan gossip-bomb, sources within the Palace typically spin whatever line they can to discredit or muddy the claim. Maybe a better response this time, if not to be as candid as Harry was, is to at least be inspired or emboldened by his candor, and the response to it, to know that they too may tell their own stories. And however they tell them, the world will keep spinning on.
What if, at some point, that instead of “recollections may vary,” the royals—as Harry himself has signaled—tried to be honest with the world around them; to find their own way of saying, yes, things are not great in this family, but they’re not totally destroyed either. In essence: “We’re very rich, and very screwy. Busted.”
Of course, this goes against traditional royal practice, which is to make sure upper lips are kept as stiff as possible, but a revelation of fallibility and imperfection may be the most powerful and relatable thing the royal family could do. It doesn’t neutralize the behavior of Prince Andrew, it doesn’t nullify any debates about racism or the royal family’s wider purpose, or reason to be in a modern world. But, for as long as they are here, it might serve to make them seem a more positive kind of normal.