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A Brief History of One Man’s Complicated Relationship With the British Royal Family

After the release of the third season of Netflix’s ‘The Crown,’ one self-proclaimed royal obsessive tries to make sense of his unwavering interest in the world’s most famous family, and what the show gets right—and wrong—about monarchy

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1. The Sordid History of My Relationship With the World’s Most Famous Family, Part I

Now that the dust has settled—now that my life has more or less resumed its normal course—I find it difficult to recreate the circumstances that led to me becoming obsessed with the British royal family. At the time, few of my friends could believe I was obsessed with the British royal family at all; even now, after I have published a book with the queen literally on the cover, people tend to look confused when I allude to the secret ancestry of the Battenbergs, or when I speak feelingly on the topic of Zara Tindall’s (née Phillips’s—my very own last name) hats. I suppose this is partly due to demographics. As a 43-year-old American man who can name upward of five members of the 1994 Green Bay Packers, I do not precisely conform to the profile of someone who would travel to multiple countries, eat crumpets in castle tea shops, Google corgis, track down long-out-of-print BBC documentaries containing rare interviews with the man who raises and lowers the flags at Buckingham Palace, voluntarily read editorials by Prince Charles on the future of the wool industry, and take notes on both documentaries and editorials with a liberal use of exclamation points, all in a quest to understand the appeal of this expensive, outdated, and frankly insulting institution (regardless of the quality of its hats).

Yet I have done all these things, and more. I have stood in a crowd under a starry autumn night while waiting for Prince William to emerge from a breakdancing demonstration. I have met and conversed with a royal carriage horse called “Dan.” I have been screamed at by royal tabloid photographers for standing in their line of sight and thereby perhaps ruining tomorrow’s issue of the Daily Mail. I have been pulled over by Canadian Mounties, while following a royal tour late one night, for driving with my lights off—driving blind in a Canadian rental car being perhaps the operating metaphor for any American who wants to follow the royal family.

The culmination of my royal fixation came in the fall of 2016 when I found myself drinking tea a few feet away from Kate Middleton at a condemned mine in the Yukon. It is hard to predict the swerves one’s life will take. One day you’re asking yourself whether it would be weird to order Postmates from Sonic, the next day you’re up in the mountains with the future queen, hoping the ground won’t cave in and swallow you both. Anyway, this actually happened to me, though for obvious reasons, it’s a challenging sentence to drop in casual conversation. Especially in these post-Meghan, post–The Crown days, when a lot of Americans are quote-unquote totally obsessed with the royals. There’s a subtle competitive dynamic that has to be treated sensitively lest you come across as His Highness the Grand Duke of Assholia.

“Oh my God,” someone says, “this is super embarrassing, but I buy every magazine with them on the cover.” “Oh my God,” you reply, “this is also super embarrassing, but I once traveled with them into the ethereal mountain fastness of snow-capped northern Canada.” You see what I mean. It’s like Trump threatening to use the bomb on some peaceful island nation for manually retweeting him or whatever. Don’t be that person. Keep it proportionate.

Will and Kate were making a royal tour of the Yukon—Canada and the U.K. are different countries, but the queen is also the head of state of Canada; it’s complicated—and I’d gotten myself added to their press retinue. One of the stated purposes of the tour was for the royals to reach out to Canada’s First Nations peoples, but a complication emerged in that several leading First Nations representatives had publicly dismissed the whole tour as a sideshow and declined to participate. I figured this would be a fascinating chance to watch the legacy of British imperialism undergo a political and moral stress test, as well as to see what would happen when one of the world’s most haute-civilizational institutions (antique harpsichords, bulletproof Bentleys, Elton John songs) attempted a charm offensive in one of the world’s most remote territories (just 35,000 people live in the Yukon, which is almost twice the size of the entire United Kingdom; zero Elton John songs have been written about any of them). How strange would things get?

For days, the tour wended its way northward along its preplanned route. Will and Kate visited villages. They frowned respectfully at speeches. They accepted flowers. They stood under flags. Every day the press pool was sent an email summarizing their recent activities. These emails—I don’t think I’m exaggerating to call them one of the great surrealist documents of our maturing century. I later wrote my own essay about this experience, and I did my best to produce what a professional literary critic would be welcome to go ahead and call a tender yet incisive look at the afterlives of colonialism, the evolving nature of power in the celebrity age, and the enduring relationships of landscape to mythology and mythology to politics. I like what I wrote, which I don’t always. You can find it if you’re interested. The point is, by the standards of sheer horror-poetry attained by the royal tour’s daily press dispatch, it’s garbage. Here’s a sample from one email; typos are preserved from the original.

William and Kate took stroll along a boardwalk in the Great Beat Rainforest. Screeching seagulls feeding on rotting salmon carcasses were among the extraordinary sights greeting William and Kate. The couple stopped on a wooded bridge to view the seagulls and the salmon. The air was putrid with the smell of rotting fish. William and Kate were met Bella Bella aboriginals who presented them with hand-carved wooden paddles. Ian Reid urged William and Kate to dip the paddles n the water because it will bring them back, he said.


2. I’m Not a Royalist, but I Play One While Watching TV

The first thing I can tell you about Season 3 of The Crown, which arrived this past weekend on Netflix, is that it is conspicuously light on rotting salmon carcasses. The air, in this decorous dramatization of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, is never putrid with the smell of decaying fish. Screaming seagulls do not dive into much of anything. If they did, the image would instantly be followed by a scene of well-dressed Tories scoffing at their rudeness.

In its third season, The Crown remains a polished, sumptuous, and reassuringly well-crafted piece of television. As befits its subject, it’s a luxury product in the old-fashioned sense, every joint tightened, every surface buffed to a sheen; you can imagine the heartening thwock it would make if you gave it a knock on the side. It’s acted with intelligence and sensitivity. It’s decorated with lavish attention to detail. (There is not a lot of historical guilt, for a show with so imperial a focus, but there is a lot of historical gilt.) There’s a lot to enjoy here, and I did enjoy the first two seasons, if sometimes a little uneasily: Are we really going to celebrate monarchy without even pausing to ask ourselves why? The new episodes, though, mostly left me with an impression of expensive hollowness, like a Chippendale cabinet with nothing inside, and I think the reason has to do with the show’s meticulous avoidance of mess, chaos, and surprise. The real royal family incorporates risk in its very essence; royalty is the risk. The Crown shuns risk in favor of smooth, predictable storytelling, as if knowing the outcome in advance means having to lead the viewer there via the most familiar train of subheadings, and it thereby flattens the most compelling aspects of its own narrative.

The Crown is interested in history—huge slabs of Wikipedia are rendered into montage by its formidable exposition machinery in each episode. It’s interested in ceremony—it loves nothing more than overhead shots of motorcades, processionals in which shimmering royals are flanked by men in antique livery, crowd scenes in which aristocrats in diamonds and medals listen to each other give speeches, and so forth. And it’s interested in feelings—the royal emotions, particularly when they pertain to the difficulties of being royal and when we know in advance that they cannot possibly change anything, are displayed as if they were crown jewels. The Crown is not very interested in the messy reality of monarchy’s projection into the regular, democratic, non-royal world—that is, in the space of strangeness that surrounds royalty wherever it goes, and that is the only window through which royals and non-royals can see one another.

That may sound like a minor complaint—it’s a TV show, not a French critical essay!—and for the first two seasons, when the time period was fairly remote and the drama concerned the young Elizabeth learning her royal role, the show could just about get away with its focus on personal feelings ensconced within impersonal history. The third season, however, focuses on the mature Elizabeth and brings us well into the David Bowie years of the 20th century (Princess Anne, in one memorable scene, hums “Starman” as she saunters through Buckingham Palace). And in this updated context, the show’s reluctance to grapple with the fundamental absurdity, even obscenity, of monarchy, and how those qualities shape the actual lives of the people inside the institution, turns out to be a bigger problem than you might think.

The big talking point before this season’s release was, of course, the long-planned turnover of the cast. Older actors step in for the stars of the first two seasons to play the same characters later in their lives: Olivia Colman replaces Claire Foy as the queen, Helena Bonham Carter replaces Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, Tywin Lannister replaces Greg Wise as Tywin Lannister (sorry, that should read “Charles Dance replaces Greg Wise as Lord Mountbatten,” but it’s honestly just as accurate the first way), Tobias Menzies replaces Matt Smith as Prince Philip, and so on. The release of a new season of The Crown has become an annual holiday for celebrating a particular kind of slightly left-field or underrated British actor, and fair enough. The acting is all very good. You are not going to catch me saying a word against Olivia Colman in this lifetime. The weakest aspect of the series is the writing, which is often the sort of writing in which one character says, “It will never work, unless … ” and another character leans forward and says, “Unless???” But the show looks great, and the actors invest their lines with as much humanity as humanly possible.

As befits the newly older ensemble, the story beats are also increasingly middle-aged. The Crown has never been afraid to be on the nose with its thematic juxtapositions—you sometimes wonder whether it’s aware of any other part of the face—and that tendency soars to new heights (lengths?) this season. So an abortive plot to overthrow the government is paired with the queen’s fantasizing about a different life and marriage. A miner’s strike that leads to crippling nationwide power outages is paired with strife within the royal family over the young Charles’s relationship with Camilla. Personal problems facing the royal family are broadly equated with historical problems facing the nation—the miners want a fair wage, Charles wants to marry the woman he loves—and the queen is consistently depicted as being on the side of the people. She wants the miners to have a fair wage and her subjects to have electricity. And so they would, presumably, if only she were not thwarted by their duly elected representatives in government.

The problem with this construction—does this really need to be said, in 2019?—is that to accept the idea of a monarchy “on the side of the people” requires us to embrace a deep, fascinating, and possibly poisonous contradiction. Do you believe some people are inherently better than others, entitled to vast wealth, prestige, and power for no reason other than the fact of their birth? If you answer “no” to that question but still love the British royal family, then you are starting out from a very strange, and very interesting, place. The Crown tries to elide that strangeness, but it’s the unacknowledged center of the entire viewing experience. And that same strangeness is not peripheral or irrelevant to the lives of the royals themselves. They’re not sheltered from it, as the show implies. It’s something they have to inhabit, sustain, and endure every day of their lives. It’s the basis of their whole existence.

3. The Sordid History of My Relationship With the World’s Most Famous Family, Part II

On the day in question, we went up into the mountains. In the village of Carcross, William and Kate sat under a totem pole and watched small children perform Raven and Wolf dances. Many of the villagers wore traditional costumes with fur hats, colorful vests, and ornately carved masks. The masks were stunning, though the only outfit most of my fellow riders of the press bus were interested in was Kate’s. Undoubtedly you already know this, but the media logic of a royal tour revolves entirely around outfits. The royals do things—open a new arts center, visit a mental-health clinic, tour the last factory in the world making traditional shad-basalt porcelain (I made that up, but it’s the type of thing Charles is into)—and the press distractedly records the bare minimum about these worthwhile events while racing to lock down the details of what Kate and/or Meghan are wearing. An actual Daily Mail headline from around this time read: “The lady in red: Kate stuns in dazzling £1,000 Preen dress at historic ceremony of reconciliation with Canadian First Nations.”

After Carcross we went up even higher, to a place called Montana Mountain. Will and Kate would watch a mountain-biking demonstration, and the rest of us would watch them watch it.

Here’s how it was explained to me by one of the organizers of the event. Will and Kate were using their presence on the mountain to support an organization called Single Track to Success, which gives work building bike trails on the mountain to local young people from the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. The bike trails they’d built were so good they’d been featured in mountain-biking magazines; bikers traveled from far away to ride them. Will and Kate were initially supposed to ride bikes down the mountain with some of the local young people. But then it occurred to the royal PR minders that it would not register as a win, majesty-wise, if the future king of England caught a stray tree branch and became unseated from his bicycle. Riding down the trail was nixed; carefully walking down the trail—that, it was felt around Kensington Palace, was the plan you could set your watch to.

Then representatives from the royal family actually flew out to look at the site. No, no, no, this would not do at all. Where were the mountain peaks? Obviously—obviously—if the soon-to-be dread sovereign of the scepter’d isle will be photographed in a mountain vastness, it needs to be high up, in a glittering clearing, surrounded by dragon’s-teeth peaks. Wellll, the Canadians said, there are some peaks over there, and there’s a clearing up at the old mine, but … you do know that mountain-biking trails generally run … downward, right?

After putting their heads together and whispering for a bit while lighting pipes and fiddling with their pocket watches, the British contingent arrived at the only sensible solution. The only sensible solution was for Single Track to Success to build a fake, perfectly flat trail over the old mine so that William could stroll, safely and photogenically, around it.

The decoy trail was a big ring of dirt in the clearing. The clearing was the kind of clearing you could imagine Gandalf landing an eagle in. The blue sky was visceral. The peaks were like CGI peaks. White, jutting. Little kids rode their bikes around in circles on the dirt track. They had to wait so long for the royals to arrive that they become bored and demoralized, and adult volunteers had to stand in the middle of the track and urge them to keep pedaling. Finally, the line of black SUVs crunched in. Prince William emerged from his SUV. Here it was: the moment the royal handlers had been dreaming of. William strode forward, accompanied by a Canadian official of some description, and began walking in a slow circle around the track. The peaks were indisputably behind him. It was happening.

Inside the press cordon (there was a press cordon), the assembled members of the world media confronted this spectacle of princedom. “Oh my God,” they murmured to each other, looking 12 feet behind him. “Is she wearing cowboy boots?”

4. The Disenchanted Glass

Monarchy, as an idea, is stupid, offensive, and insane. This has been apparent to many people for thousands of years. Yet it is possible—even easy; and maybe also fine?—to know this and still love a monarch. To love a monarch while believing in the fundamental dignity and equality of humanity requires certain mental maneuvers that are weirdly not very difficult for the human brain. To justify its continued existence in a democratic nation, the British royal family is under constant pressure to encourage and normalize those maneuvers. This is its main task, the main function it fulfills in society, and has been its main task and function for decades—at least since the abdication of Edward VIII, possibly since the coronation of Victoria. It has performed this task more successfully at some times than at others. Lately, it has performed it so successfully that a large number of Americans have also been encouraged to develop a sort of monarchical false consciousness, one even more complex and refracted than the British version.

The Crown imagines that the fundamental tension of monarchy is the tension between the monarch’s private and public lives. But this is a mistake. The fundamental tension of monarchy is the idea of monarchy, the obviously stupid and terrible idea that some people are born better than others and ought to be elevated over them by inherent and explicit social structures. The need to suppress this tension is so basic to the operation of monarchy that it is impossible to imagine the monarch’s private emotional life not revolving around it. Yet The Crown imagines that the central emotional crisis of the queen’s life is that she wishes she had more time for her racehorses.

The place where the idea of monarchy is dramatically alive—where it becomes most electric and wild—is on the border between the royals and their subjects. What do they see when they look at us? What do we see when we look at them? It’s not quite true that The Crown never visits this border; think of Anne humming Ziggy Stardust in the marble palace halls. But it’s reluctant to visit it. It prefers to divide the royals’ experience into twinned but safely separate categories of History (meetings with presidents and prime ministers, TV news clips, public ceremonies) and Private Life (stolen kisses, melancholy looks, cigarettes smoked in canopy beds). The result is that for long stretches, the show takes on the bizarre quality of an explainer video set in a fantasy world. It ducks the biggest, hardest questions, the ones that could make it come to life.

Maybe next season will be better? The story of Princess Diana, which will occupy the center of Season 4, really can’t be told without venturing into some of the hallucinatory depths of monarchic logic. It’s possible that this will shake something loose in the edifice, who knows. The night Diana died, I was home from college for the summer and working at a small-town steakhouse. To say that I couldn’t have cared less about Diana’s death is probably an understatement, but for some reason, two of my friends from high school who were upset about it came to the restaurant to find me. One of them was sobbing. I told the manager I was taking a break and we went outside and sat on a curb in front of some bushes and talked about it. Maybe this is delusional, but when I think about that image—the three of us sitting in a dark parking lot in Oklahoma, me in my steakhouse denim shirt and dumb bolo tie, Elizabeth crying and crying and lighting cigarettes with shaky hands, trying to come to terms with the mysteriously overwhelming meaning of an event that had no logical relation to anything in our lives—I think I see more deeply into the real drama of the royal family than I do when I watch The Crown.

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