Panic down at the production office/palace/wherever. “The Royal Family” might be the original and best tawdry reality TV show out there, predating actual television by several hundred years, but even they must know a scandal involving allegations of racism against an unborn baby could be too big – even for them.
It’s not 2007 anymore. You can’t just weave this stuff into the narrative of the show. You can’t take Shilpa Shetty being told to “f*** off home” by Jermain Defoe’s ex-girlfriend and turn it into an interesting talking point for the nation.
No, you can’t just haul into the Diary Room whichever one of the royals it might be who is alleged to have enquired “how dark” Harry and Meghan’s child’s skin might be, and tell them that it really won’t do, and if they say anything racist again, then they’ll be on their final warning.
The world’s a different place, now. Things have changed. Life’s tough out there for even the jovial racist, even the one with only the very best intentions. These days, even an allegation of racist abuse is enough to find a real housewife of Cheshire suddenly “pursuing other projects” and replaced by her own hairdresser, so what are they going to do? What are they going to do?
It has already been suggested that, given Harry and Meghan chose to tell Oprah Winfrey that a member of the royal family had asked how dark the colour of the skin of their baby might be, but declined to provide the name of said member, and have thereby cast potential aspersions over them all, it might be possible for all of the rest of the family to retaliate by suing them for libel.
The English – and, later, British – monarchy has been at it in various guises for more than a thousand years, so one must talk of season finales with great care. An extremely high-profile legal action to defenestrate a casual racist in their midst would put “Who Shot Phil Mitchell” to shame, but do bear in mind that the main character getting publicly executed was only sufficient to have the show taken off-air for eleven years, and the reboot is now in – to season 360.
The problem they’ve got, and they must surely know it, is one of ratings. If alleged casual racism won’t do at 9pm on ITVBe, it’s probably not going to work in and around the apex of the British governmental system either.
The premise of the show has been flawed for a while, now. It is only really the Nanna Pat character keeping it all together, the only one entirely absent from all the many plot lines and scandals that keep the subjects tuning in, and the near-universal adoration of whom is drawn only from her never having expressed an opinion on anything, ever.
And she, to be grimly blunt, can’t keep at it forever. At some point, the allegations of racism, the explanations about the nature of the friendship with the convicted paedophile – this will be all that’s left. Too many opinions have been expressed. Too many bad things have happened.
This is not to blame them. All families are dysfunctional, even without the absurd pressures placed upon them. Eventually, maybe the royal paradox will resolve itself. Namely, that those who purport to love and “support” them the most are the ones that inflict upon them the cruellest torture, and the most miserable lives.
In Britain, and absolutely nowhere else, it is not considered especially hypocritical to be outraged at a paparazzi photographer snapping a celebrity couple’s child, and then to demand an eight-page colour spread to mark its first birthday. If they’re royal, they’re our property. Republicans, on the other hand, long to liberate them from their suffering.
But the people involved seem just as conflicted, too. “Why won’t you just let me be normal?” a teenage Prince William once shouted at a gaggle of reporters. Normality is always an option. You really can just walk out and leave. His brother’s just done it. Trouble is, one of the many barriers to doing so, we now know, is being disowned by your own flesh and blood. They don’t want to be normal, really. They want to cling on for dear life.
There are not as many versions of the format elsewhere as there used to be (just seven per cent of the world’s population live under a monarchy), but those that are faring best, at present, have worked out that a semblance of normality might be the key to survival.
King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, for example, still works an albeit fairly relaxed schedule for KLM, occasionally delighting airline passengers over the Tannoy with the news that they’re about to be flown to their destination by their actual king.
Prince William tried this for a bit, saving actual lives in a rescue helicopter, but jacked it in not that long ago, having tragically – but correctly – calculated that his people expect him not to be wasting his time putting his several-hundred-grand’s worth of pilot training to good use when he could be cutting ribbons instead.
The problem they face, in the coming years, is clear to see. The cast list needs radically freshening up, which is not so easy to do when the whole concept of the show is the hereditary principle. You can’t just send the junior researcher to hang around outside Essex nightclubs scouting for anyone who looks like they’ve got what it takes.
And it contains, within it, an even clearer problem. It’s not like they don’t have the option of bringing in new talent. They just seem to have a remarkable knack for hounding it out again.
Of course, rarely are stories as binary as they seem. You don’t have to take a side. But it is a matter of historical record that the public did get their say in the end, via telephone vote, and Shilpa Shetty won by miles.