Though the indefatigable Gyles Brandreth met and interviewed Prince Philip over a 40-year period, His Royal Highness managed to give very little away. ‘He would just look at me balefully and say nothing,’ Brandreth writes. Wondering what Prince Philip’s philosophy of life might be, ‘I didn’t get very far’. When asked about his childhood,‘he brushed away the subject’. Prince Philip’s attitude to parenthood was a flat: ‘We did our best.’ His opinion of the Queen Mother: ‘He would not be drawn.’ His summing up of the consort’s existence: ‘I tried to find useful things to do. I did my best’ — e.g. by introducing a footman training programme or building a log cabin at Sandringham.
The encounters often seemed to splutter to an inconsequential halt, with the Prince shrugging his shoulders and muttering: ‘You can’t argue with the inevitable... I just had to get on with it. You do. One does.’ Brandreth, compelled to retreat, finds himself, like Shakespeare’s Polonius, babbling a series of arch, ironic clichés:‘He guarded his privacy. He kept his own counsel. He did not wear his heart on his sleeve. He hid his light under a bushel.’
We are shown enough, however, to form a picture of Prince Philip as a defensive man who’d never risk looking inadequate, and was seldom calm. He could appear charming and easy-going, and suddenly he’d be formal and distant, ‘sullen and crabby’ for no apparent reason. When you said something, his response might be ‘a snort, a snub or a merry laugh’, as what he wanted mostly to do was disconcert. When Brandreth made speeches at charity functions, he good-humouredly endured the Prince’s heckling — ‘Get on with it!’, ‘We’ve heard this story before!’, ‘What on earth’s he going on about now?’ But this is the banter of a bully who’d sit you in an ice-bucket and who had ‘perfected the art of saying hello and goodbye in the same handshake’.
Impervious to his own rudeness and ‘cantankerous and tetchy’, he didn’t even spare the Queen. After a contretemps aboard the royal yacht, Her Majesty was heard to say: ‘I’m not going to come out of my cabin until he’s in a better temper. I’m going to sit here on my bed.’ In a wilder mood, the Prince was known to chase his wife along the corridor of the royal train wearing a set of joke false teeth.
Brandreth puts it all down to the Prince’s early days. Contrary to rumours that he was raised in poverty in Corfu, with orange boxes for furniture, Philip, ‘a beautiful baby’, was indulged from the outset, and closely related to kings, queens, emperors, kaisers and tsars. His mother was born at Windsor Castle; his grandmother lived at Kensington Palace and his father had been aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V — though he was on the Riviera with a mistress in 1921, at the time of his son’s birth. Nevertheless, Philip apparently inherited ‘a stubborn streak, a wilful contrariness’ from this source.
From his mother, Princess Alice, he inherited resilience, and his volatility. Stone deaf, and able to lip-read in several languages, she displayed, says Brandreth, ‘the most extraordinary courage, compassion, determination, energy and organisational skill’, while dressed as a nun. She also suffered from bipolar disorder, or as Brandreth puts it, was ‘hungry for sex and no longer getting it’. Freud himself was consulted, who prescribed an exposure of the uterus to X-rays in order to accelerate the menopause.
With all this going on, Philip was placed under the guidance of his uncle, Dickie Mountbatten, ‘a well-intentioned control freak’. He was sent to Gordonstoun and sadomasochistically enjoyed the cold showers, runs in the rain, corporal punishment and compulsory games, which he agreed made youngsters into ‘self-contained, considerate and independent adults’. Thence Dartmouth, where he studied signals, navigation and gunnery, and where, in 1939, he met Princess Elizabeth. ‘He was tall and slim, blond and blue-eyed, and his dark blue naval uniform suited him. He was 18 and achingly handsome,’ in an old-style, spruce, Michael Wilding way. When Brandreth asked Philip about the courtship, ‘he was not particularly forthcoming’.
He had a good war (Malta convoys, night action off Cape Matapan, a somewhat less dramatic posting to Pwllheli) though, when given command of his own vessel, even the Axis powers thought he had ‘a tendency to intolerance’. But his sisters were worse. They married Nazis, and when one of them, Cécile, was killed in a plane crash, her funeral was attended by Hermann Goering.
The royal wedding took place in November 1947. ‘Did Prince Philip marry for love? It is not a question I dared ask him,’ says Brandreth. The bridal gown cost £1,200 and 300 clothing coupons. Presents included 500 cases of tinned fruit and a loin cloth, or possibly tray cloth, personally woven by Gandhi. Accompanying the couple on their honeymoon were footmen, dressers, a detective, a corgi and 15 suitcases.
Once Elizabeth acceded to the throne — she was photographing baboons playing with a roll of Treetops lavatory paper at the exact moment George VI died — the Prince was plunged into a life as dull as all be damned: horses, dogs and duty; parades, processions, receptions; everywhere cameras and cheering crowds. ‘Cars come, guards salute, breakfast is served, valets press your suits.’ By the time he died, the Prince had clocked up 22,219 engagements. He was the founder, fellow and patron of 837 organisations. He recorded 5,986 flying hours in 59 types of aircraft.
Impressive as the statistics are, is not the real reason he was so hard, distant, ‘forbidding, even frightening’ to be found here? I’ve done my own bit of research. In 1966, Philip came to Hastings and a picture in the local paper was captioned: ‘His Royal Highness displays keen interest as Mrs Hollier grades her apples.’ Decade upon decade trapped watching professionals doing their jobs would daze most people. Brandreth explores a temperament on the brink of anger and agitation with immense tact, even affection.