It offers a portrait, too, of how the family’s woes have been orchestrated and amplified from within by a series of press advisers — (including Mark Bolland, aka “Blackadder”, Prince Charles’s Deputy Private Secretary from 1997-2002) — who used their respective press offices in Buckingham Palace (the Queen and Prince Philip), St James’ Palace/Clarence House (Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall) and Kensington Palace (William and Catherine, and prior to 2019, Harry and Meghan) to jostle for media exposure and control of the royal narrative.
A picture emerges of a family that does what all families do, i.e. gossips about one another, but also briefs against each other.
Brown recalls how “during the so-called War of the Waleses”, Charles’s camp did as much backgrounding and leaking as Diana’s via the tabloids they both professed to hate. “Charles spun furiously; he was just less good at it”.
And “whatever the high-minded stance towards the vulgarity of publicity”, the competing press offices are still at it today:
There is an unwritten rule that they will not step on one another’s media moment in deference to the royal hierarchy … though in Prince Charles’s case, new bombs from outlier family dramas have a habit of exploding whenever he is about to step up to a podium.
Prince Charles pictured in February. He ‘spun furiously’, according to Brown. Chris Jackson/AP
The Palace Papers offers a glimpse of the intersection of “prime ministers, influential courtiers, powerful spin doctors, lowly hangers-on, lovers, rivals and even outright enemies” in the royal drama, although it is often uncertain which individuals are the powerful spin doctors (the press officers or some of the royals themselves? ), or the hangers-on or even the “outright enemies”.
The fact that tales about royal shenanigans so often blur these boundaries makes for some entertaining reading.
Too much complaining, too much explaining
Perhaps the royals themselves, in their efforts to curate their own publicity, are shown to create the greatest threat to the Windsors’ long held mantra of “never complain, never explain”.
The key transgressors in this regard were the late Diana, whose “going on the record” revelations about life as a royal set the pattern for the royal whinge-fest of the next 25 years, as well as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle who are laid bare as the most desperate and ill-judged architects of their own fumbling narratives about feeling miserable, misrepresented, and misunderstood.
British newspapers on a stand in London after the US television interview by Oprah Winfrey of Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, 08 March 2021. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA
Brown doesn’t add any startingly new revelations about Harry’s and Meghan’s move away from the royal family but she chronicles the saga of their discontent and eventual exile from the royal fold in the same considered and reflective way she captured the Diana years.
Read more: If Princess Diana needed a legacy statement, she’s got it in Harry and Meghan
In the period immediately after Harry’s and Meghan’s wedding,
There was a histrionic (even hysterical) quality to the way the Sussexes declared they wanted to be private. A desire for privacy is understood (if not respected) by the media; an obsession with secrecy is not, particularly when combined with high-profile socializing.
The key to being private in the Royal Family, she writes, “is to truly — not performatively — want to be so.” Ouch.
She says of Meghan in particular:
[S]he couldn’t wait to cram down every cake offered on the celebrity buffet … An invitation from Elton John to fly private to his South-of-France villa just two days after a sun break in Ibiza to celebrate Meghan’s 38th birthday? Two big slices please! A hop back to the US Open in New York to watch her pal Serena play [tennis]? Yummy, yummy!
Meghan Markle and a friend watch Serena Williams play at Wimbledon in 2019. Will Oliver/EPA
The Sussexes’ dummy spit and royal exit reached its climax, Brown claims, when they noticed their family portrait — so prominently on display at the Queen’s elbow during her 2018 Christmas broadcast — was missing in the 2019 line-up of family photos.
The Queen told the director of the broadcast that all the displayed photographs were fine to remain in the shot except for one. Her Majesty pointed at a portrait of Harry, Meghan and baby Archie. ‘That one,’ said the Queen. ‘I suppose we don’t need that one’.
The Queen’s no nonsense approach to dispatching troublesome family members (although not her son, Andrew) is captured in another anecdote told by a top royal courtier about how the scene in Stephen Frears’s 2006 film The Queen, where the monarch shoos away a noble stag (symbol of Diana?) before it can be hunted down, is highly inaccurate. Far from acting as the stag’s protector, he said,” ‘The Queen would have shot it'”.
When the Sussexes’ prematurely announced on their website “Sussex Royal” their proposal for a new working model of how they would remain members of the royal family, half-in and half-out, it was the Queen’s turn to have a dummy spit. The declaration that they would continue to “collaborate” with her “as if the monarch were the co-executive producer of a TV series” sent the Palace ballistic.
The Queen, Brown reminds us, “does not collaborate. She commands … as her impetuous grandson was about to find out”. No royal highness status, no royal patronages, no military titles, no publicly funded security, and no money from the Sovereign Grant.