Simon Hoggart

Princely war

The Duke at 90 (BBC1) was another engagement in Prince Philip’s ongoing war against the media.

Princely war
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The Duke at 90 (BBC1) was another engagement in Prince Philip’s ongoing war against the media.

The Duke at 90 (BBC1) was another engagement in Prince Philip’s ongoing war against the media. As usual, he won this skirmish. There was a difference between this programme, presented by Fiona Bruce, and the earlier ITV effort with Alan Titchmarsh, who had decided that constant fawning was the way to the Duke’s heart, as he had done last year with the Prince of Wales. Presented with Sir Walter Raleigh’s problem he would not have laid his cloak down for the Queen, but would have placed himself in the puddle, a human duckboard.

The Duke attracts stories. Take the media party at Windsor Castle held nine years ago to celebrate the Queen’s 50th Jubilee. We had nametags, and at the start stuck nervously close to our colleagues. The Duke spotted a group from the Independent, which for years refused to cover royal events. He examined their tags, and said, ‘Independent, Independent, Independent. What on earth are you doing here?’

One brave soul said, ‘For one thing, sir, you invited us.’

Duke: ‘Well, you didn’t have to come!’

There was the occasion at some cartoonists’ function — he is a patron of cartoonists — when he was approached by one who introduced himself as working for the Times, perhaps assuming that was the paper of choice at Buckingham Palace.

Apparently not. ‘Bloody awful paper,’ said Philip, ‘I won’t have it in the house.’

A clue to that remark emerged in the programme when Fiona Bruce asked him about his famous remark to British students in Xian, China, in 1986. ‘If you stay here much longer you’ll all get slitty-eyed.’ Who had reported that? asked the Duke, as he pressed her hard to say exactly who had told the story.

Finally he said, ‘It was the Times correspondent, called Mr Hamilton. But for him it wouldn’t have come out.’

True. But it was a surprising show of annoyance, after a quarter-century, from someone who had spent much of his time showing how little he cared about the media or anything they might say.

By goodness, Fiona had to work hard. Even her opening remark — ‘You’re 90 this year’ — was greeted by a sarcastic ‘Well done.’ This was the Duke ignoring the so-called grammar of television by which people say things they would never say in real life, simply because the viewer needs to know why the programme has been made in the first place.

She tried, oh how she tried, to make him open up. Almost all his contributions boiled down to the notion that, like ageing, life is something that happens to you and there’s little you can do about it. This might have been true of his own childhood, when his father decamped to Monte Carlo with his mistress, and his mother went mad, so that Philip was left to be raised by various British relatives. But for the man who decided to marry the future Queen to maintain that you merely play the cards that circumstances have dealt is disingenuous.

So the show consisted of a very short interview with very short exchanges. (FB: ‘Are you well?’ Duke: ‘Why, do I look ill?’) It had to be padded out with history and old film stock, which was fascinating, plus the usual tiny grains of fact which were puffed up and coated with sugar by a gang of royal ‘experts’, all of whom could make a silk purse out of a single whisker from a sow’s ear.

So Gyles Brandreth — who, to be fair, does know the Queen and Duke — noticed him raise a glass to her across a crowded foyer and elucidated that this was proof of a happy married life. Some other fellow solemnly claimed to have noticed that, during Princess Di’s funeral march to the Abbey, the Duke had waited until they were under an archway, out of the cameras’ range, before reaching out to give a reassuring pat to William and Harry. This showed what a deeply caring and thoughtful grandfather he was. In fact, the TV cameras had pictures, and they showed a ducal hand flapping against William’s back for about half a second. But not Harry’s. So it wasn’t true. For royal watchers, fools’ gold is all they have.

In the end we had a picture of a crisp, ‘let’s get a bloody move on’ naval man who not only doesn’t suffer fools gladly but doesn’t suffer some quite sensible people gladly either. Anyone who knows members of the armed forces will recognise the gaffes as the kind of daft ward room or mess banter that goes on all the time. And, like them, he is a stranger to self-examination. FB: ‘What are your greatest achievements?’ Duke: ‘No, that would be asking too much.’