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Is a TV drama about the royal family sacrilege?

Clemency Burton-Hill, who appears in the new ITV series The Palace, muses on the outrage it has provoked and the taboos that still govern fictional portrayals of the monarchy

2 January 2008

12:00 AM

2 January 2008

12:00 AM

Filming on The Palace was only a few weeks in when the rumours started flying. ‘A tawdry and offensive affair’ trumpeted the Sunday Telegraph; ‘dreadful and offensive and very near to the bone’, added Lord St John of Fawsley; ‘a real danger [it will] undermine support for the [royal] family’, weighed in a media watchdog. To the cast and crew, such reports were flabbergasting, not least because those talking so authoritatively about the television series in question were yet to see an episode. We wondered if this hatchet job might be some sort of publicity stunt (it bore similarities to some of our storylines, after all) — before it became obvious that no, it was simply that we had dared to stray into sacrosanct territory. If we were to assume the lives of a fictitious British royal family, we must be prepared to take the flak.

And yet the vitriolic response to the very idea of The Palace (rather than its finished product) has been an instructive one, raising questions about the peculiar relationship the British public enjoys with its monarchy. While people are often delighted to have a good moan down the pub about the royals and their weird, tax-evading, toe-sucking ways, it seems they are invariably all too quick to jump to their defence at the prospect of having such ways exposed to the outside world. Or are they? If we are queasy about seeing our monarchy portrayed in dramatic form, the extent of that queasiness seems to vary depending on who is doing the portraying. When the esteemed director Stephen Frears made a film about the ‘real’ royal family — the ‘real’ monarch, no less — initial concerns were tempered by the fact that, with Dame Helen Mirren in the lead and a stellar supporting cast, it was likely to be a classy affair. And it was: The Queen went on to scoop a clutch of awards and became one of the most successful British films ever.

But that was Frears and film; this is TV — and ITV, to be precise: the home of such edifying offerings as I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! Is it any wonder that, in hands such as these, staunch monarchists should feel edgy about their beloved family having the tables turned on them and becoming ‘subjects’ themselves?

Well, yes, actually, it is. Not only because The Palace does not deal with a royal family that is recognisably ‘ours’ — the characters live in a contemporary Buckingham Palace and that’s where the comparison ends — but because this series is hopefully an incisive, witty and ultimately respectful examination of the monarchy as institution. It may also be a prime example of what Tom Grieves, the creator and executive producer of the series, calls ‘the new ITV’ under chairman Michael Grade, who called for better quality drama when he took control of the channel in January last year.

‘The Palace is neither an apology for, nor a critique of, the monarchy,’ explains Grieves in his office at Company Pictures (the production house behind The Palace and Mirren’s Elizabeth I, as well as such popular hits as Shameless). ‘I think it’s fair to say that we road-test the very idea of the monarchy, throw some pretty major challenges their way, and come out in favour. Yes, we may occasionally be cheeky and irreverent — but somehow that’s a way of showing more reverence. You can’t spend that much of your life involved in writing about something that you hate.’

In any case, the central idea behind the show makes its royal context almost an afterthought. ‘Initially, I came up with the idea of a young woman operating within the shadow of power,’ admits Grieves. ‘I wanted to write a talky, aspirational, sophisticated show like The West Wing that dealt with that relationship. I thought — who should this girl be working for? The Prime Minister? Rupert Murdoch? Mick Jagger? Eventually I came upon the idea that she’d be employed by the royal family.’ And why not? It throws up questions that sit right at the heart of who and where we are in this country. ‘Exactly’, he agrees. ‘But at the end of the day, it’s also a family saga — with a family’s jealousies and politics. And it’s a workplace, with the dramas and tensions of any office.’

The greatest concern among instinctive detractors of the eight-part series — which will hit television screens later this month — seemed to be that it would be modelled on, and satirise, our actual royal family. Such critics have focused on the fact that The Palace’s fictitious family includes two 20-something sons. But if audiences expect Rupert Evans’s Richard and Sebastian Armesto’s George to be based on William and Harry, they will probably be disappointed, finding that they no more resemble the real princes than Jane Asher’s Queen Charlotte does Elizabeth II.

‘I was probably more influenced by Hamlet than I was by our own royal family,’ jokes Grieves. ‘Richard is 25, he’s a complex kid — when his dad suddenly dies of a heart attack, he is terrified he won’t live up to the role he has been born to assume. Here is this ancient, ritualistic institution that demands that somebody’s child will wake up one morning and may never again express an opinion. I wanted to explore that — what do these people do? How will this boy become a man, overnight? A king, overnight? It had nothing to do with what Prince William might do.’ With Richard’s assumption of the throne, moreover, a modern conundrum about succession that we may yet face in our own monarchy is debated. Although there are indeed two princes in The Palace, there are also two princesses. When the king dies in episode one, his eldest child Princess Eleanor is overlooked in favour of his elder son, Richard. Believing she is more suited to the role of monarch, Eleanor is riven with jealousy and launches a plot against her brother which leads to a great twist at the end of the series. On that, however, I’ll say no more….

If nothing else, The Palace exposes the bizarre constraints that are still placed upon the monarchy in the 21st century. In doing so, it questions the very things — beyond the vital constitutional checks and balances we invariably take for granted — that we demand of them. ‘We expect our public servants to be superhuman,’ Grieves points out. ‘Not human beings. The idea that they can have really complicated emotions, really complicated lives, doesn’t even enter our heads.’

So will The Palace, celebrating as it does the more human foibles of this very special family, help matters? ‘Who knows?’ chuckles Grieves. ‘At the end of the day, it’s a television series. What were the Reithian principles? To educate, to entertain, to inform. I hope we’re doing all three. Very soon, whatever the furore, people can make up their own minds.

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