British Royalty, the industry that keeps giving

Why is there something so captivating about people born into privilege, people born to rule?

Published - September 15, 2022 01:35 pm IST

Netflix’s The Crown

Netflix’s The Crown | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

First there was Downton Abbey. It taught us that a ‘valet’ is called a valet, not ‘vallay’. And that you could have so many servants in your house that they’d have their own parallel fiefdom downstairs. We got sold British nobility, not as aspiration but as nostalgia. But nobility can be limited in its allure. One must graduate to royalty.

ALSO READ Nostalgia as currency: is Kolkata cashing in on Raj memories?

So then there was The Crown. It taught us the correct order in which to curtsy to a bunch of royals should you run into them. It also taught us that the lives of some of the richest, most privileged people on earth are inventories of unalloyed misery. No more nostalgia; just gleeful pleasure to be had at the spectacular suffering of the high and mighty.

It’s fatuous to claim royalty has no relevance in the ‘modern’ world, especially since fewer and fewer people seem to want to live in that modern world. British royalty as a pop-culture phenomenon could have ended with the death of Princess Diana. But no, the industry was too lucrative to abandon. A nation of shopkeepers must keep selling its meagre wares. It’s not a hard sell anyway. There’s something innately captivating about people born into privilege, people born to rule. This illogic of fate, this injustice of inheritance is what we all desire. This is why stories of diligent politicians or self-made billionaires appear vapid to us. It is inborn wealth for which there is eternal appetite. Serve it over the top — in both senses of the phrase.

A young girl stands beside Queen Elizabeth II, both looking through binoculars, during the latter’s visit to Hyderabad in 1983

A young girl stands beside Queen Elizabeth II, both looking through binoculars, during the latter’s visit to Hyderabad in 1983 | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Changes afoot

Had it not been for Netflix’s most expensive venture, we would perhaps not be chewing over this transition unfolding in front of our televisual eyes. Britain has a king after 70 years, a king who’d been a prince for more than half a century. Even BBC presenters, days after the transition, are struggling to add ‘King’ before Charles’s name. Such is the island’s tradition that they’ve had to change their national anthem. All the queens of England — beginning perhaps with the right honourable Elton John — have had their divine protection snatched away; God saves their preciousness no more. (J.K. Rowling must be feeling rather chuffed about this bit).

But more serious changes may be afoot. The New York Times reports that the Queen’s death is ‘rekindling discussions about a more independent future in Commonwealth nations’. Now that the headmistress is gone, the younglings shall be obstreperous. But in Britain there must be reassurance too. The ancient monarch died a day after her new prime minister announced a Cabinet with no white men in the top posts. Buckingham Palace quickly righted that grievous wrong by putting up one of its own. Relief also from the Queen’s high-pitched shrillness over the telly every Christmas; from now, the soft baritone of the new King’s voice will harmonise well with the sputtering firewood. Goodbye, hopefully, to quotations from the Bible or The Pilgrim’s Progress; hello to phrenic incantations from Hamlet.

British TV series Downton Abbey

British TV series Downton Abbey | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Royal show

The protagonist is dead, but the show must go on. Not a rare occurrence in the soap-opera universe. Besides, what else has Britain to offer? Without its royal palaces, towers, country houses, pilfered jewels and artefacts, it’s left with a henge of large misshapen stones standing unpurposefully in the middle of a field. As journalist-writer Tina Brown recently quipped: “What do people come to London for? They want to see Buckingham Palace. They want to see the changing of the guard. They go to Windsor Castle. Take it away and what are you? The Netherlands!”

What repercussions here, though, in a former colony, 75 years into its independence? The papers are resolutely low-key: it’s simply the death of another head of state. (Compare this with the all-caps headlines when George VI died seven decades ago.) But some recalibrations are in order. The Queen is dead; whose English will now Shashi Tharoor speak? Will the gender reversal roil the generations of woeful Indian youth licked into speaking some semblance of Queen’s English? What if Adhir Chowdhury of ‘rashtrapatni’ fame had to suddenly greet the new king? What’s more, we too have witnessed how a (political) dynasty’s authority can dissipate into bumbling idiocy over decades. Will it be the same for Britain? No — for it won’t be allowed to happen.

So let’s sit back, relax and watch the pageant. The other day, I read about an American woman who said she was enjoying the show since she, unlike British taxpayers, didn’t have to pay for it all. I thought we could say the same about ourselves. But no, generations of colonised Indians have paid for this royal extravaganza with blood and sweat; we are real stakeholders in this drama. So bring it on — we’ll be glued to the screen even for the golden-jubilee season of The Crown.

The writer is a Kolkata-based book editor and phone photographer.

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