For a brief moment in 1999 it felt to me like they were. A cameraman and I had spent the day at Spion Kop, the site of the famous Boer War battlefield. The Duke of Edinburgh was being given a tour there and afterwards, summing up his day on camera, I somehow contrived to mispronounce the word ‘Kop’. That was bad enough, but having ‘cocked-up’, I then made it worse by ‘corpsing’. TV industry jargon for an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. It was embarrassing, but not ruinous. In fact it became quite profitable.
For years I received an annual cheque from a production company which collected and re-transmitted bloopers from people on television.
That royal tour to South Africa was memorable for another reason, and one I’ve been reflecting on since the death of Prince Philip. It was on that trip that I had my one and only conversation with the Queen’s consort. It turned out to be one of the strangest experiences of my life. One of those events that, when I’ve told people about it since, has produced a look which seems to inquire: “journalistic license?” But, I assure you, it really did happen.
All the press who were following the Queen and Prince Philip on that 1999 tour were invited to a drinks reception at a hotel in Durban. My great friend, an Irish cameraman also called Colin, had already made the evening memorable by getting the Queen to laugh at one of his (characteristic) comic asides.
Then it was my turn to talk to the Duke.
I can’t say whether he’d had a drink or two, but – after a long hard day’s reporting in the veld – I was certainly reviving with the help of a large gin and tonic or two. Thus fortified I took the plunge. In particular I wanted to share an observation I’d made on my first trip abroad with the royal couple. That had been to the Sultanate of Brunei. I noticed what I later recognised to be the modus operandi of those relaying home news of the sovereign’s foreign travels.
On the first day of that Brunei trip the royal ‘rat pack’ faithfully sent home stories and pictures that might be broadly categorised as being of the ‘travelogue’ variety. Serious portraits of the country we were in, its leader, and why the Foreign Office felt it necessary to send the royals there. Worthy copy, if a little dull. Not the sort of thing which thrifty news organisations would see as worth the considerable expense of covering.
So, by the end of our second day in Brunei it was clear that some of my tabloid colleagues, in particular, were straining at the leash. Another plodding report about the Queen opening a new school, or the Duke visiting a wildlife sanctuary, were not going to force their way into their papers. And it was at this point that I saw a couple of photographers come up with a solution. They had heard it said that in Brunei it was discourteous to point at someone.
Out came the photographic contact sheets and before long, they had their story.
A picture of Prince Philip – hand frozen by the camera in mid-air – seemingly pointing at a local dignitary. A gaffe! Not just any old gaffe, but a full-blown foot-in-the-mouth diplomatic incident (or so it was subsequently written up). Prince Philip, doing what he does worst. Being rude to foreigners!
It was nonsense of course.
But I saw a version of that contrivance appear on several trips. So, when I met him, I wanted to sympathise. And I did. It seemed unfair that this happened repeatedly, with His Royal Highness as a media Aunt Sally. Perhaps, I wondered, if the Palace complained about misrepresentation it might stop. But then, as I also pointed out, he did sometimes, justify his reputation.
Given that the rules governing these receptions forbid me to recount what the Prince said, I can only say that our conversation was enlightening. It went on for quite a few minutes, during which time I became aware that a hush had descended and a circle had formed around us, with all my journalistic colleagues eavesdropping.
Why didn’t the Duke complain about being made to fit the caricature?
Partly, the Palace wasn’t in the habit of complaining. But I think there was something else. By giving the newspapers their gaffe story, the Duke acted as a lightning conductor. The thunder-bolt of tabloid indignation was going to run to earth somehow. Those business class flights needed to be justified. Better it struck him, the Queen’s shield, than Her Majesty herself.
So much has been written about the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip, and their enduring interdependency. By submitting himself almost as a ritual offering to the press, we recognise something of what being a ‘double act’ meant in reality for Philip. That he did so cheerfully, says much about the love he bore for his Queen and country.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.