There was an extraordinary moment towards the end of the Jubilee Concert a couple of days ago when the band Madness, playing on the roof of Buckingham Palace, launched into their hit Our House and the familiar façade apparently peeled back as the images of a London block of flats and a row of terraced houses were projected onto it. The illusion deepened when a further layer apparently rolled back to reveal figures going about their daily life in cramped, ordinary English rooms.
In the emotion of a public event of this magnitude drawing to a climax, there’s a tendency to overlook such symbolism, but for those few minutes a vital part of the English relationship with the Royal Family – as opposed to the more abstract institution of “the monarchy” was laid bare. Normally, the front of Buck House is opaque and unyielding and we can only speculate on the nature of everyday life behind it. But the British public crave the illusion of intimacy and communion with their iconic figures, and pounce on any conceivable narrative to convince themselves that there is something ordinary about the Royals, a meeting point that goes to show that “they’re just like the rest of us.”
From that point of view, the hospitalization of Prince Philip, though undoubtedly unfortunate, was a gift. The way it was accepted and handled by both press and public showed how much the Royal Family has learned about public relations since their bungling of Diana’s death in the 1990s. It seems almost unbelievable that the notoriously stuffy and politically incorrect Duke of Edinburgh can inspire such affection that a huge crowd was chanting his name in solidarity, urged by the unlikely figure of the Prince of Wales.
A bit of mystery is PR gold, because it tantalizes with the endless fascination of imagining that one can occasionally peel back the veil. Diana challenged that ideology with the notorious Panorama interview which, though sensational at the time, has with the benefit of hindsight come to be regarded as a monumental error of taste and good judgement. We do not really want to be privy to the intimate details of Royal feelings; we prefer a screen on which we can project our chosen fantasies – Establishment iconography with a human face.
As Marina Hyde observes in the Guardian, the temporary widowhood of the Queen was precisely the kind of bittersweet narrative that captures the public imagination. They’re just like us. They have lonely grannies, embarrassing second-division relatives who don’t always know how to behave in church (yes, we’re looking at you in That Hat, Eugenie), high-spirited youngsters who eventually grow up and marry nice, sensible girls and the double-think necessary in order to overlook an awkward history and eventually draw second spouses into the inner circle. “How extraordinary,” the Queen is supposed to have observed (according to the Telegraph) as she opened her balcony doors to see the Mall lined with well-wishers. She probably sees herself as simply doing her job, and finds it more than a little bewildering that it should lead to such an outpouring of public affection. Perhaps what really “humbles” her is the yawning gulf between the reality of her role as she experiences it and what the people down there perceive it to be.
The real star of the Jubilee weekend was Brand Britain, symbolised by a number of facets of our history and national identity. The Royal Family was at its heart, but London in all its grey and scarlet familiarity, its skies white with cloud and unshed rain, was also transformed into a riot of colour and celebration. It has never looked more beautiful. And it’s all ours. Our house, in the middle of our world. In a world where Britain seems less and less important, it’s nice, and probably healthy, to indulge ourselves once in a while, even if we are celebrating a glorious past rather than an uncertain future.
- We yield at once, with humbled mein
Because, with all our faults, we love our Queen.
- (W S Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance)