interviewsir peregrine worsthorne
Worsthorne is a columnist for The Sunday Telegraph



q:  Can you describe, for someone of your generation, what were the public's perceptions of the Royal Family during the War and what was their standing by 1945?

worsthorne:  I think the general view of the Royal Family during the War was that they were an essential part of Britain standing alone. They were at the center of our national struggle against Hitler. You had a picture of them in your mind of pinning medals on the troops they were inspecting, visiting the blitzed parts of London and sharing in the hardships of the rest of the population, of standing with us and not going off to Canada, not trying to leave Britain in its hour of peril and it was a great feeling of admiration and you saw them as an essential part of the war effort and therefore an essential part of the victory. And my most vivid recollection - and I think this would be true of most people of my generation - would be of the Royal Family standing on the balcony on VE Day with Winston Churchill and taking the, the plaudits of the crowd. I mean in congratulating the Royal Family and sharing them and being moved by them, we were really congratulating ourselves because they were the embodiment of the nation.


And then I remember when the Queen, shortly after the end of the War, became, succeeded to the throne, one of the first things she did was to go and visit Churchill that was in the fifties of course when he was back in power - and Churchill received her on a bended knee and one thought here's the most powerful man in the world, the great war hero or victor, going down on the bended knee to this slight slip of a girl and that seemed to embody the prestige and the way one thought about the Monarchy as something out of this world, almost God-like.

And in those days, of course, there was absolutely no criticism of the Monarchy. You didn't sort of think about it and have to defend it because it was so much part of your life, so much part of the nation's life. It was absolutely the center of our imagination about being, being, being British, being English certainly and so I just think of it really in those days the Monarchy as something one took for granted, a given. One didn't argue about it because nobody was criticizing it.

q:  Looking back on those days how much was the fact that they were a little family - the mother, the father and the two little girls - part of the way they were thought of in a popular mien?

a:  I don't think that we'd begun to analyze the difference between the Royal Family and the Institution of the Monarchy. I think the Monarchy and the Royal Family just blended into one and we didn't think of it, I don't remember thinking of it as a sort of representative family. It was just something there that one had, one felt was, had always been with us and one also felt of course that this is something that no other nation, no other important nation, a great big sort of power, has. We were unique. It was one of our great advantages over the Americans, over the French, over the Italians. We had this marvelous institution which had done so well for us in the War and I think it, this wasn't just imaginary. I think it was an absolutely essential central part of our struggle against Hitler was having this Institution and one can't over-estimate the importance it played and the extent to which one was appreciative of that contribution in those days.

q:  And given this background, the national sentiment about them, what tone or in what way were they written about by journalists in both the popular and quality press?

a:  There was absolutely no writing about the Institution of the Monarchy in the sense of a great debate on should we have it or shouldn't we have it. In those years during the War and I would say-- until the end of the 1950's--it was something that you didn't need to write about, you didn't need to argue about. It was reported of course because it did things like opening Parliament but it wasn't an issue. It was just a bonus, a blessing that you took for granted really like it was just something that we had and we're lucky to have. And I don't think, I mean I certainly don't recall - and I was a journalist and obviously writing comment pieces - one didn't really write about it.

q:  How prominent was the figure of the Queen Mother in the family after the War? Even after the late King's death, did she appear to be quite a central figure in the Institution?

a:  The Queen Mother was very much a favorite I think with the public right from the moment she came to the throne and it was obviously the sort of human face of the Institution because her husband, George VI, was a withdrawn and shy man and she was this glowing, loving, friendly, happy face, so I think she caught the public's imagination and went on in that way, and still goes on in that way. So I don't think there has really been much change in the way she's been seen almost ever since she came, well her husband came to the throne.

q:  Now I don't know if you can remember this but, during the sort of glory surrounding Princess Margaret's romance with Peter Townsend....Do you think the Press wanted or didn't want her to marry Peter Townsend at the time?

a:  The popular Press, loving a romance, wanted her to marry and wanted her to disregard all the constitutional or particularly of course religious arguments against-- on the grounds that she shouldn't marry a divorced man. But the Press, and I daresay the man in the street or the woman in the street perhaps more appropriately, wanted her to be dictated by her heart but I think papers like, well Sir William Haley's Times and the Daily Telegraph would have taken a more strict view and felt that she should do her duty and give up personal happiness for the public good, for the good of the Monarchy.

q:  Now in the light of the kind of atmosphere and world that you described earlier on in our interview can you tell us what it's like, what reaction of people was when Lord Altringham, as he then was, wrote his piece in the National Review about the Monarchy in which he actually criticized some of the Queen's mannerisms and her court and made some suggestions as to how it could be modernized? That, could you perhaps sort of explain that came as a real a:  There were two bolts out of the blue which came roughly speaking at the same time about the Royal Family and about the Monarchy, totally unexpected and with tremendous impact. One was Lord Altringham, not John Grieg, fairly mildly criticizing the Queen's strangulated tones, that particular Royal voice and criticizing what he described as the stuffy atmosphere of the Court, calling upon it to let him open the windows and let in some fresh air.

And then, of course, Malcolm Muggeridge did the same kind of attack in Punch and it illustrates really just how much everybody had taken until then the Monarchy as a given in their lives and not criticized it or not even thought about it because you don't think about things that you take for granted, was that we couldn't believe our eyes when we read these attacks and there was tremendous anger and outrage that two men should choose to attack the Queen in this kind of impertinent really way, commenting on the way, her voice and her, and the corgis and that kind of thing.

And it was thought to be lese-majesty. And I think the, the popular Press was outraged and, of course, John Grieg was I think attacked in the street. I think the Press, the media then was totally on the side of the Monarchy and leapt to her defense in the way that Burke wanted people to leap to the defense of Marie Antoinette. It was the real feeling that this pure, good girl had been brutally assaulted by these barbaric monsters and I think Malcolm Muggeridge's career, he got the sack from Punch. It was really, it was it was felt to be quite unacceptable.

q:  What was your own personal reaction to the television film Royal Family? Can you remember some of the remarks you made in an article you wrote at the time?

a:  I remember this famous film Richard Cawston made when it came out and it showed the Queen and the Royal Family picnicking on the shores of Balmoral with the Queen in a little apron and Prince Philip doing the washing up and Prince Charles frying the chipolatas. And this was received generally I think in the media as a great new opening up of this secret Institution to the public gaze. It was very much welcomed. It was thought to open a new chapter. The Monarchy had much to gain by seeming, making themselves seem human.

My own personal reaction, which I think was probably very much a minority view, was this was a very dangerous precedent. Once you let the cameras into the private lives of Monarchy the aura of mystery will be removed, they will become much more, seen as ordinary human beings and this may make them temporarily popular but as soon as there's any grounds to criticize them they will become very unpopular and once you open yourself up to the media, the media will not rest until they've taken over in its entirety. So this was a very dangerous thing for the Monarchy to do to humanize this semi-divine Institution, nothing but trouble could spring from it as I think for once I've proved prescient because this is what has happened. I mean a picnic, which is what they chose to do, a picnic has always been associated in the public mind with adultery or with loucheness, with languorous ladies lying on the lawn. This kind of image of the Royal Family was asking for trouble.

And the next development in the sort of Royal saga rather illustrates the danger of the picnic. Because, of course, the next time was the pool stage ceremonial of the Investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in Caernarfon Castle wherever it was . And you had the problem of seeing this human figure you'd seen on the banks of the River Balmoral frying the chipolatas suddenly dressed up in ermine being consecrated as the Prince of Wales. And, of course, somebody you thought of as a human being suddenly having to go through this archaic ceremonial.

It must have been very difficult for him and I think one remembers an expression on his face as he had to make these solemn vows thinking this is pretty odd in the late part of the twentieth century to be going through this rigmarole. And thow does the public switch from seeing the Prince of Wales as a human being picnicking suddenly to being this semi-divine figure being consecrated in this ancient ceremonial. So the sort of conflict between the humanity which the media was being encouraged to admire suddenly having to switch to taking him seriously as an almost iconic figure, emblematic figure of the national history.

How do you switch from being informal to being formal, to being human, to being divine? And this is a difficulty. This is a conflict which is continuing and I think that one sees it all the time. They're called upon at one moment to sit in a fancy dress opening Parliament and that kind of thing, looking very decorous, very dignified, very mysterious, very ceremonial, and the next you see them doing something like the rest of us do and the human side and I think this is a conflict and I think it is causing trouble and it was really inherent in the decision to humanize the Monarchy.

q:  Now can you pinpoint a moment maybe in the late 1970's if you agree with that when the Press's attitude towards the Royal Family began to alter. That it became more aggressive and would you link this to any particular development either in the Press or in the sort of constitution of the family itself?

a:  I think the problem for the Monarchy tended to come to the fore in a way strangely enough during the Thatcher years because Thatcherism was primarily the triumph of meritocracy. New men came into positions of influence, particularly of course in the City - the entrepreneurial spirit - and this really, it wasn't exactly called into question or challenged, but never, never, but nevertheless cast a sort of cloud of doubt about all the old-fashioned side of the British class structure, the inherited privileged side, and meritocracy was the flavor of the period and meritocracy and Monarchy don't marry. The more Britain becomes a meritocratic society, which of course it did under the Tories of Mrs. Thatcher's kind much more in a way than it had under the Labour Governments before. The whole idea of new men coming in, sweeping away the cobwebs of inherited privilege in the City and the institutions, in the universities and so on, this all reached a crescendo under Mrs. Thatcher and I think without Mrs. Thatcher actually intending to call the Monarchy into question, I think the logical consequence of this meritocratic acceleration was to call the Monarchy into question. As I say Monarchy and meritocracy are different principles and I think this was sort of perceived in the 1970's and '80's or 1980's really - the Thatcher period - much more by the people who did well under the Thatcher years - people like Andrew Neil of the Sunday Times, anti-Establishment people - and of course the Monarchy is part of the Establishment, and it was this kind of new egalitarian, right wing egalitarian, Essex-man kind of egalitarianism which I think became much more vulnerable if you like to Republican arguments, much more susceptible to Republican arguments.

q:  Rupert Murdoch. I think he actually spoke to you about the Monarchy and his feelings about it. Could you recall?

a:  I've talked to Rupert Murdoch at that period and he was passionately against fuddy-duddy Britain and, as I say, the Monarchy's part of fuddy-duddy Britain by, almost by definition, and he felt it was holding us back and we'd become a much more dynamic economy if we got rid of these kind of handicaps. So basically, and he's of course very much the central figure of the right wing Press. So, when you get the right wing Press in fact adopting the same attitude to the Monarchy as you might expect the Daily Mirror to adopt, which it never did actually but I mean the Daily Mirror was the radical paper, but of course in those days, as I said, it, the Monarchy hadn't been attacked even from the left. But any case Murdoch and the right wing Press became, I think, critical of the Monarchy as a something which didn't fit into the zeitgeist of the time, the spirit of the 1980's when we were going to set the economy free, get rid of all these ancient cobwebs and start a new, a new life as a dynamic, economic sort of European version of Singapore.

q:  So given that analysis what was your reaction to the Sunday Times "rift" articles in 1986 which caused terrific furor because they were claimed to have come directly from the Palace and what do you think they sort of said to you as another journalist?

a:  My feeling was that the Sunday Times story that there was this rift between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street with Buckingham Palace critical of the harsh tone of the Government's policies to the poor and so on, -- I thought probably the Sunday Times as always was exaggerating but basically there was a reality there.

And I think it's significant in a way that the Monarchy taking the sort of father of the people, the caring for all classes, I mean in a way the Monarchy, although it is the sort of pyramid of the social hierarchy, is also classless in the sense that by comparison with the altitude of the Monarchy the rest of us from Winston Churchill down to the dustman so to speak, the Duke to the dustman, to them seemed very humble. I mean I remember when the Queen came to visit the Daily Telegraph and we were all waiting for the Queen to arrive for her visit and the proprietor, Lord Hartlepool, was in the hall and there were the messenger boys also in the hall. Now the proprietor was just as nervous as the messenger boys. Everybody in the presence of the Monarch felt equally sort of humble because the altitude of the Monarch by comparison which these little peaks, you know, the proprietor and the messenger boy, that was all ironed out.

So we were all--the Monarchy had this egalitarian attitude. The Monarch was the father of the people. We were all part of the people. Well that idea of the Monarchy as the father of the people was I think in conflict with Mrs. Thatcher who didn't like the idea of paternalism, noblesse oblige, and we all had to stand on our own two feet. It was a jungle if you like and so there was this, and the Monarchy and Thatcherism were antagonistic .

So when I read the Times article describing this rift I thought perhaps it's exaggerated but it rang true because I think at that period there was a genuine conflict between the sort of noblesse oblige attitude to the Monarchy and everybody standing on their own two feet and fighting their way to the top and that being encourages, which was the Thatcherite philosophy. The two philosophies were incompatible.

q:  When Prince Charles asked you about the media, what you said to him and what his reaction was to your suggestion?

a:  Prince Charles - I think it would have been towards the end of the eighties or perhaps the beginning of the nineties - invited three or four editors, and I was an editor then, I was the Editor of the Sunday Telegraph then. The Editor of the Times, the Editor of the Economist, one other I can't remember - to lunch and basically the purpose of the lunch was to ask our advice, to consult us about how he in particular, the Royal Family perhaps in general, could get the media to pay more attention to their public works rather than their private lives.

And he was worried that it wasn't happening and he wanted to know how we thought it could, they could make it happen more. And I said we all gave different advice but mine was that the best thing really, perhaps no longer practical, would be for him to have a lower profile and not to try and break new ground. I said the traditional low profile conduct of the Monarchy was the only one that would solve the problem and that he shouldn't be looking for more and better publicity but he should be looking for less bad publicity and to keep his head much more below the parapet and lead a much more traditional Royal life without trying to break new ground and become a modern figure.

And this was met with really extreme horror by the Prince who buried his head in his hands literally not just metaphorically and said that the idea of going back to the role of just launching ships and opening bazaars and that ceremonial Royal role was totally anathema to him and that he couldn't imagine himself going back to those days when Monarchy, when members of the Royal Family behaved, limited their attitude, their sort of public role to those kind of formal occasions and this wasn't acceptable and he wasn't, couldn't imagine ever going back to that, would rather wish he hadn't been born rather than go back to that.

And I think this is a problem. I think that the modern members of the Royal Family do find it impossible to envisage being low profile, mysterious figures, not constantly doing things which are being reported on the front pages of newspapers. And I think this is a problem for them and I can understand perhaps a new generation of Royalty come into being who find the old idea of Monarchy boring, too dull, too unexciting, but I think that is what a Monarchy has to do if it's to survive - be boring and be unexciting and be prepared to be highly orthodox, highly respectable and, if not respectable, only disreputable very, very secretly. It can't be all, let it all hang out and I think that the sooner that penny drops with them the better.But I don't think Prince Charles at that period at any rate wanted to hear that kind of advice. In fact, I nearly didn't because he was extremely unresponsive to it.

q:  Was this the occasion when he said that he wished that he could be treated or taken seriously as Bob Geldof who was doing Live Aid at the time? And, if it was, what did that kind of say about his perceptions of his own publicity if you like?

a:  I don't recall him saying ever that he wanted exactly to be treated like other celebrities, Bob Geldof doing Live Aid or whatever it was called at the time, raising money for charity. But basically that is the logical implication of what-- that is how the media now-- I mean people who do these kind of great public acts do get treated like that and Princess Diana, when she visits aids patients, I mean it could be Liz Taylor doing it or, or Hugh Grant doing it.

I mean a film star doing it would get the same kind of publicity. And I think if you do that, these kind of very admirable things-- but they are in fact what Bob Geldof does, what Liz Taylor does, what any celebrity does. You are putting yourself in the same category as other celebrities and in the public mind a Royal celebrity becomes like a television celebrity or a film star. And I think this is dangerous and I think that is what they must stop doing.

q:  Were there any incidents or moments in the history perhaps of the eighties which seemed to symbolize a dangerous confusion that seemed to be growing up perhaps in the behavior of the younger members of the Royal Family. They were failing to draw the line between being Royal, part of the Monarchy, and celebrity? Symbolic moments if you like.

a:  The more members of the Royal Family - and this perhaps applies more t to the females than the males - get involved in doing charitable front page newsworthy charitable things like visiting an aids patient in Princess Diana's case, like all the charitable work that the Prince of Wales does I daresay too, which he certainly as well-- how does this differ in the public mind from say Bob Geldof doing the same kind of thing or any TV celebrity doing the same kind of thing? And I think you see a, one week, one day you see a photograph of Princess Di doing charity work and the next day you see one of Bob Geldof doing the same kind of thing and in the public's mind the Royal celebrity and the show biz celebrity become completely indistinguishable. I think this a reason why the Monarchy must be very, very chary of doing things which are equally newsworthy when they're done by show biz personalities. There's got to be a distinction in the public's mind between the kind of figure, newsworthy in its own way, the members of the Royal Family and other celebrities and I think one of the dangers in recent years is no distinction of this kind has been made and the only way I think you make this distinction is by the Royal Family not being photographed constantly doing things which other celebrities do.




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