The British monarchy is a soap opera, says Tina Brown, the author of The Palace Papers

Over lunch in the Hamptons, author Tina Brown chats about the legacy of the late princess Diana on her 25th death anniversary, and the future of the British royal family

Updated - August 27, 2022 05:20 pm IST

Published - August 25, 2022 01:01 pm IST

Author Tina Brown

Author Tina Brown | Photo Credit: Ed Miles

The noon sun is blazing when Tina Brown, the Anglo-American journalist, editor and author walks into the outdoor alley of Sant Ambroeus, the well-known restaurant in Southampton on the east end of Long Island, New York. Dressed in a navy blue buttoned-down shirt and white trousers, her trademark short blonde hair perfectly in place, she tells me, over lunch, her eyes slightly wistful, that it happens to be her wedding anniversary. The 68-year-old was widowed in 2020 — her husband, the celebrated journalist Sir Harold Evans died at 92 — and she spent the past year writing a new book, The Palace Papers, a sequel to her 2007 The Diana Chronicles, on the British royal family. The monarchy, according to Brown, represents an institution of national unity, rising above fraught political currents engulfing Britain today.

Tina Brown’s book ‘The Palace Papers: Inside The House of Windsor - The Truth and The Turmoil’

Tina Brown’s book ‘The Palace Papers: Inside The House of Windsor - The Truth and The Turmoil’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The former editor of TatlerVanity FairThe New YorkerNewsweek and The Daily Beast, and the founder of the Women in the World summit, weaves a page-turning portrait of what she describes as the world’s only global monarchy, a never-ending family soap opera that continues to rivet audiences around the world. The Palace Papers doesn’t just part the curtains, it offers us a wide open window into the British monarchy.

From hilarious nuggets like Prince Charles not leaving home without his favourite Kleenex Velvet toilet paper to the interpersonal dynamics between various family members, to the mutually dependent yet toxic relationship with the media, Brown spoke to more than 170 people to understand the House of Windsor.

Also read | The royal obsession

If Harry continues to write his reported $20 million royal memoir, there will be “no reconciliation”, says Brown. “I am sure the Queen is outraged by Harry’s behaviour.” But while we may be talking about Meghan and Harry now, in 10 years, “no one will care”, she says. “We will be talking about who Prince Georgie is dating. We will be focused on the children. A whole generation of new stories will emerge.”

Ahead of the 25th anniversary of Diana’s death, excerpts of our interview, where Brown talks about how the beleaguered Princess would have evolved into a very popular humanitarian if she were alive today:

If Diana had been alive today, what would she have made of the monarchy?

Diana wearing a protective suit walks through a minefield being cleared in Angola

Diana wearing a protective suit walks through a minefield being cleared in Angola | Photo Credit: Getty Images

I think she would still be attached to the monarchy, because unlike Harry and Meghan, she understood its potency. Diana didn’t want to be a breakaway, she wanted to stay. She never left Kensington Palace and she was upset about losing the HRH title. She would be the biggest promoter in the world of William. She would have had some difficulties with Kate because Diana was quite competitive. Everyone always says Diana would have loved Kate. I am not so sure. She would have been deeply upset about Harry. She would have turned her humanitarian global power into something even bigger. By now she would have been as big as the Gates Foundation.

I often find myself thinking about Diana when things happen. Like during the big refugee crisis of 2012, I think Diana would have been in those refugee camps. She would have been a very popular humanitarian.

Do you think the royal family has changed since Diana’s time?

Queen Elizabeth appears in a sketch with storybook character Paddington Bear as part of this year’s jubilee celebrations

Queen Elizabeth appears in a sketch with storybook character Paddington Bear as part of this year’s jubilee celebrations | Photo Credit: BBC

Yes, I think they are more understanding but it is still really tough to be in it. It’s a firm and they all sort of compete with each other. It’s stuffy.

The Queen went from being viewed as a tone-deaf monarch during Diana’s time to now being seen as a lovely grandmother whom everyone admires. What changed in the intervening years?

I think pop culture helped a lot. The movie The Queen and the Netflix show The Crown helped enormously. As the Queen went into the last 20 years, she was even able to play with pop culture, and make a cameo at the British Olympics in 2012 with James Bond, something she would never have done earlier. There’s a certain point when you get to an age where you are a legend so you can take some liberties. The Paddington Bear skit during the Jubilee, those moments have made an enormous difference. As everybody just behaves worse and worse, people are uncouth, venal, bad-mannered, publicity seeking, the Queen represents the last best hope of British values. Duty, probity, lack of pretension, lack of greed, a sense of decency: people long for those things.

The Queen in India
When the Queen came to India in 1997, she did not apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, much to the disappointment of Indians. But Brown says the Queen would have seen that as a political act. “And she cannot speak to a political act. Charles and William have spoken about slavery but they are not the monarch. She takes her constitutional role with absolute severe purity. She is never going to step outside of that. If she starts to respond to a change in tone to what we want now it’s very difficult for her. The Queen’s training is not to emote, to just be. The Queen’s role is to be emblematic, to be representational and to not have a view.”

If Charles is more respected today than in Diana’s lifetime, what would Diana have been like today, as an influencer?

Diana would always find a way to win. Just imagine how many social media followers Diana would have had. She would have had the killer Instagram account! She was such a media natural, she would have found a way to stay relevant. People tend to confuse the early Diana with the late Diana. She was a victim when she got married. She was the only one who didn’t know she was in an arranged marriage. Everybody else knew he had a mistress, except for her. It’s sad and cruel what happened to her at age 20. By the time you get into the 90s, Diana had grown up. She did understand how to manipulate the press and she did. That’s what made Charles absolutely insane because he’s never known how to do that.

A file photo of Camilla Parker Bowles in 1992

A file photo of Camilla Parker Bowles in 1992 | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Back then we never would have thought Camilla would be rehabilitated the way she has been. Are you surprised by how we now see her?

I’ve always admired Camilla’s tough, stoic, humorous, salt-of-the-earth approach to the world. And I think the public has finally come around to that. The trouble for Camilla is that because she should not or will not give TV interviews, people don’t really know her. It’s hard for people to get to know her. She has done it in England by simply showing up, and doing her job. Her big mentor was Prince Philip. She had a very good, close relationship with him. In America, they have no concept of her at all. They see her as the woman who stole Diana’s husband. Even today she has no profile globally.

Prince Charles’ pet causes, which were seen as fringe when Diana was alive, are now mainstream. For instance, the environment and climate change. How has he evolved?

The royal family on their annual summer holiday at Balmoral Castle, Scotland in 1972

The royal family on their annual summer holiday at Balmoral Castle, Scotland in 1972 | Photo Credit: Getty Images

There’s a real respect for him and how prescient he has been. His causes as you say — organic farming, environment, climate change — he has an authentic leadership position on that. But the British people are never going to warm to Charles, which is a source of great agony to him. I am told he is getting a bit piqued about Camilla being so popular. His insecurity runs very deep because he has always wanted to be loved by the British people. I think he will take on the modernising of the royal structure. He’s talking about opening up Buckingham Palace much more to the public and just having an apartment on the top floor, making it a show palace if you like.

Why do you think the public has this enduring fascination with the British monarchy?

It’s one thing you can’t buy. Britain is the only global monarchy and that’s because of the Commonwealth. The Queen’s Commonwealth presence hasn’t just been about her duty and desire to be present, it is also about keeping the global footprint of the monarchy. And it’s an ever-replenishing soap opera. In a world where we are so splintered, the royal soap opera is the one TV show we are all watching. The one big mainstream global network show is the royals. I actually feel they are going to bring Harry and Meghan back purely for the reasons of show business. The younger generation finds them less interesting but princesses in castles hold an abiding appeal for young women. I can see when William and Kate take over, it will be much more like a European monarchy. They want to be so normal. They have to be careful about constantly saying how normal and ordinary they are. But I rather like the heir to the throne to have some trappings. Don’t get too normal on us!

Is the British monarchy still relevant?

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018 | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It’s 1,000 years old, and it provides a focus for national unity. You should have seen the crowds that came out for the Jubilee. People wanted to celebrate their national identity in a way that wasn’t about the sinister shadow of nationalism. We are not talking about crowds coming out for a dictator because they’ve been told to. We are talking about a celebration of national unity and identity without those sinister overtones. There is something benign about the presence of the monarchy, which is above politics even though it’s only ceremonial. Monarchy keeps politics in its place. People hate politicians. And it’s a massive tourist attraction apart from everything else. 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!

A source in your book said Meghan and Harry were mutually addicted to drama. How has the media treated them?

The media was racist to Meghan when she first burst on the scene. As I reported in the book, I was shocked at some of the stuff Harry had been through. What the News of the World did, they persecuted this poor boy when he was an adolescent. Unfortunately it has made him very paranoid. William understands that it’s a co-dependency with the media in a way that Harry doesn’t, but the irony is that now Harry is in this California lifestyle that he’s adopted. And he seems to be seeking publicity non-stop. The people I spoke to at the palace all thought Harry would go off and be a park ranger in Africa or a farmer in Scotland but no one thought he would become a full-time celebrity, inviting the cameras in and doing all these interviews. It really shows how mixed up he is.

Meghan said in her Oprah interview that she didn’t do any research before coming into the royal family. Do you think she was being disingenuous?

Completely disingenuous. She didn’t want to know. She was superficial. She wanted to be a glamorous princess in a castle. She wasn’t looking, listening or thinking. If she didn’t do the research, shame on her. She was about to enter a very important family. If you are going to be entering the Ambani family, don’t tell me you don’t understand what that’s going to be like. She could have read The Diana Chronicles for a start! She saw that once she got all the global fame and attention that she could leverage it. Being in the royal family prevented her from leveraging it financially. But the royal role is to have no voice.

Harsh truth
“I believe Meghan and Harry are clawing to come back to the royal fold. I think it’s going to go all wrong in entertainment. I think they are going to get their Netflix deal cut and they are going to realise they can’t maintain this lifestyle. No one is going to give her a big movie and she won’t get big endorsements from brands. She’s a little tarnished for that,” says Brown

Meghan accused the royals of being racist. William denied that accusation. What are your feelings on this topic?

I’ve explored this topic in the book. I think it was very hard for Meghan being the only woman of colour in the bastion of white protestant values. She didn’t meet anyone who looked like her throughout her entire days in the palace. The staff is not diverse: I think it’s about 8%, so a very poor record on racial components. The wedding was one of the most inspiring moments where you felt a new diverse England all the way to the bastions of white royalty. Yet it was very hard for Meghan. The older generation of royals still maintains those colonial attitudes. Princess Margaret was a flagrant racist, no doubt about that. Princess Michael of Kent and Prince Philip said the most appalling things. So that generation were the deplorables. The Queen is much more sophisticated. But at the same time I don’t think William and Kate have any people of colour in their circle. I can’t swear to that but I have never seen it. So they have a lot of work to do, let’s put it that way. The irony is that Britain has changed so much.

One thing that comes out in your book is that whom the royals marry is so critical. Could you elaborate?

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry with Prince William and Kate Middleton at the Buckingham Palace

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry with Prince William and Kate Middleton at the Buckingham Palace | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It’s such a lonely position with so much flattery and sycophancy and privileges. The only person you can share that with is your spouse. If that spouse can’t adapt to that role it’s agony for all concerned. Elizabeth would have been a lonely conformist if she wasn’t married to Prince Philip. He really brought her out. He was her truth-teller. She could trust him and it was an amazing partnership. He was devoted to her. Look at what Kate has done for William. It turns out he was so wise to marry Kate. She has this extraordinary composure, sanity, warmth. She dated him for 10 years, so she got to see the life up close. Meghan gave it 20 months. Diana was 17 years in the royal family. People often say to me ‘do you see similarities between Meghan and Diana?’ I really don’t. Diana didn’t seek to leave the royal family. When I last saw her in July 1997 she was still regretting being divorced.

Watch | Tina Brown in conversation on magazine.thehindu.com

The interviewer is a Mumbai-based journalist and author.

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