The wonderfully silly new cocaine-and-coronets E! drama ‘The Royals’ is not a big hit at the real seat of the British monarchy.
“No, nothing from us on this,” says one courtier when the Royalist enquires whether there has been any reaction in the palace to E!’s first foray into the world of scripted drama.
While we imagine the Queen and Prince Charles may not be amused, it’s hard not to imagine Camilla nursing a fag and a G&T in front of the telly and cracking up with laughter at the carefree characterization of a fictional British royal family immersed in backstabbings, blackmail plots, and bad behavior a-plenty.
And while we’re not entirely sure how Prince Andrew would feel about the plotting, bisexual, drug-abusing Prince Cyrus or his two idiotic red-headed princesses, clearly (albeit very loosely) inspired by his daughters Eugenie and Beatrice, it’s a safe bet that more than one member of the extended royal clan has uttered a disloyal chuckle at the girls’ conversation about whether the funny smell is from their feet or their…well, let’s just say, from elsewhere.
It should of course be noted that the show’s producer—One Tree Hill’s Mark Schwahn—has been careful to emphasize in interviews that ‘The Royals’ is most definitely not a reality show.
“One of the biggest things for me that I really want people to understand is that we are not telling stories about the actual British monarchy,” he said. “This is completely fictional, it’s meant to be fictional. I think people might get confused because it’s modern day, so the references are actual real references but it’s not a biopic or a docudrama. If anything, it’s just ‘royal adjacent.’”
OK, so, it’s made up - we get it. As much as we might like to imagine the Queen played by Elizabeth Hurley, natch—picking up on her rebellious daughter’s slang and muttering to herself ‘FML’ (‘Fuck My Life’) this is a fantasy, pure and simple.
Or perhaps not. Because in many coincidental and circumstantial details, the producers’ knowledge of the life of the British upper classes is quite extraordinary.
One example is a scene where the Queen is surprised by her lover, an army captain, in her bedroom. When the captain leaves her boudoir, he departs via an invisible door, which has no frame and no doorknob, and melts back into the wallpaper when it is closed.
This is a really wonderful piece of verisimilitude, as every (really) big house in England used to have these small doors in the public rooms and bedrooms.
They were staff doors, and their purpose was to make sure that the staff had a different method of moving about the house and gaining entry to the rooms than the guests or residents of the house, who would hardly wish to be sharing corridor space with a butler or maid. These small doors—often no more than 18 inches wide—connected in turn to dark, narrow passageways concealed inside the walls of the house. Again, the purpose was that staff could service the rooms without cluttering up the throughfares or tripping over guests.
No doubt the secret door plot device is a happy byproduct of the fact that the series is being shot at Blenheim Palace (pronounced ‘Blennim’), the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough in Oxfordshire, which is about 90 minutes from London by car.
Baroque Blenheim—the birthplace of Winston Churchill and the largest private house in the UK—is said to have the finest views in Britain and is the principal interior and exterior location for the Royals.
There were other wonderful examples of aristocratic life that the E! show got more right than Downton Abbey. For example, the ludicrous heart-to-hearts that take place between staff and their bosses in Downton have no place in the Royals (other than hunky Prince Liam, clearly based on Harry, who seems endlessly to be badgering his security detail to have a pint with him).
Another major plot device of the E! show is the incognito public walkabout. The Queen is only believed to have gone out secretly without security once in her life—after the end of World War II when celebrations were taking place on the streets outside Buckingham Palace.
William still uses his motor bike trips (and helmet) as an excuse to escape his public profile. Kate goes shopping in Waitrose, and Harry is fiercely protective of his right to walk the streets of Fulham (with no more disguise than a baseball cap and shades can offer) where so many of his mates live.
There were of course several obvious plot points taken directly from real life—the embarrassing photo of the princesses’ ‘beaver’ taken on a phone when she falls off a table in a Paris nightclub recalls Harry’s Vegas debacle, and the womanizing, free-spirited and rebellious character of Prince Liam is clearly based on Prince Harry’s reported antics.
The central narrative of the series concerns what happens when Prince Liam’s elder brother dies, in a mysterious military accident which his father, King Simon, frequently and darkly hints was in some way caused by his royal status, resulting in his desire to abolish the monarchy.
The younger, roguish ‘spare’ heir becomes the scion set to inherit the crown. Prince Harry is of course spared this possibility in real life by the birth of his nephew Prince George who would now become heir in the unhappy event of William’s death. (The palace staying silent at Prince Robert’s death is a conscious echo of the official lack of reaction when Diana died.)
Fundamentally what the series really does capture correctly is the fact that although they may talk in funny voices and live in ancient houses with oddly dressed staff, at the end of the day the British upper classes—and I include royalty in that catch all term—interact with each other much like anyone else.
Sometimes they are kind, sometimes they are nasty, sometimes they are altruistic, sometimes they out for what they themselves can get, just like al the rest of us.
So in the very broadest sweep of its view of the Royals, ‘The Royals’ is oddly faithful for such an out-and-out fiction. The invented details, of course, are non-stop, and are one of the pleasures of the show. Where to start with these fictional embellishments would be anyone’s choice, but for many British viewers the biggest, boldest and most guffaw-worthy one of all might just be this; the head of security has his office behind the clock face of Big Ben.
You couldn’t make it up.
Oh, wait, they just did.