A royal run of bad luck

East speaks with Dickie Arbiter, Queen Elizabeth’s former press secretary.

Queen Elizabeth II is the constitutional monarch of 16 of the 53 member states in the British Commonwealth. She is also head of the Commonwealth itself and supreme governor of the Church of England. Though as a constitutional monarch her personal power is ‘soft’ rather than direct, she is one of the best-known political figures in the world. Her long reign, which began in 1953, has been marked by the dissolution of the British Empire and decades of spectacular family scandals that, while never touching her personally, have kept “the royals” on the front pages of tabloid newspapers the world around.

The collapsing marriages of her two sons, Charles and Andrew – with, respectively, Lady Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson – once caused her to define 1992 as her “annus horribilis,” saying it was “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.”

In March 1992, it was announced that the Queen’s second son, Andrew, would separate from his wife, Sarah, the Duchess of York. Photos emerged shortly after of the Duchess, topless, having her toes sucked by a close male friend. In April, Elizabeth’s daughter, Anne, the princess royal, divorced her husband, Captain Mark Phillips, who had fathered a child with another woman.

In June 1992, the Princess of Wales’ tell-all book, Diana, Her True Story, was published, revealing details of Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles; Diana herself began an intimate relationship with her riding instructor, Major James Hewitt. The book also laid bare the Princess' near-suicidal unhappiness with her marriage, causing a media firestorm.

In November, the royal castle at Windsor caught fire and was badly damaged. It became necessary to cover repair costs by periodically opening royal residences to tourists.

That horrible year was only a shadow of worse to come, with the tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997, a year after her divorce from Charles. Mr Dickie Arbiter was royal press secretary between 1988 and 2000, an eyewitness to – and a professional victim of – one of the worst runs of bad luck ever to afflict British royalty. East asked Mr Arbiter about his long experience as Queen Elizabeth’s chief spokesman: “There never really was a typical day. We would start invariably by checking all the newspapers for anything that vaguely resembled a royal story or a mention of the royal family. I could then go out on engagements with either the Prince or Princess or the Queen, or check with reporters about their coverage. There would be a lot of telephone work and a lot of paperwork. Going abroad for four or five days to scout a royal trip beforehand was a bit of a breather.”

Some moments stand out above others. “I suppose there are two, one obviously would be Diana’s death. It was a tough week and I believe we gave her an incredible send off, having planned the funeral in five days. Another would be the Windsor Castle fire. I was there within an hour of it starting and left it a couple of days later. Those are memorable moments, but if you were to ask me what really stands out from my time at Buckingham Palace, I’d have to put my hand on heart and say the entire 12 years. That’s quite a long time on the frontline.”

Some critics have felt that the Queen’s public personality is at times too rigid.

“That’s difficult, sort of subjective. I can only talk from the opinion of others; they would say the Queen was standoffish, so if there was a walkabout or a group encounter, she would say to everyone she met, ‘Have you been waiting long?’ or ‘What do you do?’

“She would be criticized for that, for how she came across, but people get tongue-tied when they first meet the Queen. When they don’t say anything, she’s got to break the ice, and when she’s walking into a crowd of people that she doesn’t know, the natural thing is to say ‘What do you do?’ – Maybe after looking out the window and saying ‘Isn’t it a lovely day today?’ when it’s pouring rain! – giving the other person a lead in to reply, ‘Well, I’m the chief executive of a manufacturing company,’ and the conversation takes off from there.

“She’s been highly reliable in everything that she does; she’s been very good in representing UK as an economic power, and she’s met every world leader: some of them are dead, some no longer world leaders, some might even be in jail. But she has provided continuity for the United Kingdom in terms of the country’s place in the world.” A happier period for the royal family has come with the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton, which has focused attention on the future rather than on a troubled past, especially with the announcement of another royal baby in the works.

“Well, it’s good news for William and Catherine, they obviously want a bigger family. It’s fairly normal that in a family they’ll have an ‘heir and a spare’ and William and Catherine are producing a ‘spare’ given that the second baby, whether it’s a prince or princess, will be fourth in line to the throne and will move up as and when William and Prince George move up.”

That’s pretty much what dynasties are ultimately about and, as far as Dickie Arbiter is concerned, that is a good thing.

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