Proper Gander – Dukes And Rebukes
The royal family get enough coverage in the media without a need for fictional retellings of its excesses. Netflix’s ongoing series The Crown has been the most prominent, reframing the dynasty’s recent history in whatever way will win the most awards. In what looks like a dig at The Crown’s pretentiousness, Channel 4’s Prince Andrew: The Musical makes a song and dance of the life of the now-disgraced Duke of York, the eighth person in line to the throne. Andrew is played by comic actor Kieran Hodgson, who also wrote the show’s deft, droll script. He portrays ‘randy Andy’ as smarmy and self-aggrandising, enjoying an extravagant lifestyle because he’s ‘Elizabeth’s favourite son’ and doesn’t have the expectations of being the heir.
The show takes us through Andrew’s life with jaunty musical numbers and real archive footage narrated from the character’s perspective. We begin with the 2019 interview with Emily Maitlis on Newsnight, which Andrew reluctantly realises didn’t put him in a good light, before rewinding to his younger years, believing that he was a hero in the Falklands War. His marriage to Sarah Ferguson is presented as a transaction from which Sarah sought to benefit, much like her later attempt at selling access to Andrew to an undercover reporter. A role as a trade envoy gave ‘air miles Andy’ opportunities to continue his jet-setting ways, no sweat. The frothy format of a musical is supposed to be an impudent way of telling his story, but jars when the subject of sexual abuse comes up. After Andrew’s association with convicted sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein became known and he was accused of sexual assault by Virginia Giuffre (the latter glossed over in the musical), he ‘stepped back from public duties’. He reached a financial settlement with Giuffre which (in a logically puzzling way) did not include an admission of guilt. The programme risks minimising the seriousness of the allegations against Andrew by putting them in the frivolous context of a musical. In it, Andrew makes the point that he’s a useful scapegoat to take attention away from the wrongdoings of the rest of the royals.
The show was commissioned as part of ‘a collection of irreverent, thought-provoking and hugely entertaining shows that no other broadcaster would air’, according to Ian Katz, Channel 4’s Chief Content Officer. This may have felt like a last throw of the dice for the channel which at the time was planned to be privatised, a decision since reversed.
Prince Andrew: The Musical isn’t the only Channel 4 show to present the royals in a cartoonish way, being close in tone to The Windsors, a sitcom which has been running since 2016. In both programmes, members of ‘the firm’ are characterised too loosely to be particularly insulting. In the musical, Munya Chawawa portrays Charles as a stern boss who tries to keep Andrew in line, and who also unfortunately reminds us of his infamous ‘tampon’ remark. The late queen was immune from being lampooned in either show, though, not appearing as a character. While Elizabeth was treated with too much veneration in the mainstream media to attract much criticism, the caricatures of Charles demonstrate that there’s less reverence for him, even now he’s the monarch.
Prince Andrew is probably secretly relieved that media attention has largely switched away from him to his mother, brother and now towards the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The latter’s criticisms of the attitudes of other royals towards her were the focus of last December’s documentary series, Harry & Meghan. This was hyped up enough to attract Netflix’s highest number of viewers in the UK for the year, although how many really did endure its almost six hours of self-promotion from the estranged and bitter Sussexes? Harry has since courted even more attention with his tell-all memoir Spare and another round of interviews, for which he’s no doubt received a princely sum of money. But this hasn’t bolstered his popularity, as measured by YouGov’s Royal Favourability Tracker, which has reported a drop in support for him as well as for the monarchy as a whole. Harry’s salacious confessions about drug-taking, being knocked to the floor by William, having frostbitten genitals and killing members of the Taliban have chipped away some of the mystique which the royals have traditionally attracted.
Being born into a life of privilege has damaged Harry and Andrew in different ways, raising the issue of what kind of institution produces lives like theirs. Questioning this can only be a good thing if it’s a step towards a wider rejection of the social system which includes having a monarchy. If the figureheads for capitalism are so dysfunctional, what does that say about the system? Presumably, the House of Windsor is hoping that the pomp and pageantry of Charles’ coronation in May will push away recent bad press and declines in popularity. Even if it does to some extent, more pointedly, the spectacle will be in stark contrast to the privations much of the country will still be trying to cope with. The coronation will be a reminder of the gulf between how the vast majority have to live and the indulgences of the elite.