LONDON – Britain’s royal family and television have a complicated relationship.
The medium has helped define the modern monarchy: The 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was Britain’s first mass TV spectacle. Since then, rare interviews have given a glimpse behind palace curtains at the all-too-human family within. The fictionalized take of Netflix hit “The Crown” has molded views of the monarchy for a new generation, though in ways the powerful, image-conscious royal family can’t control.
“The story of the royal family is a constructed narrative, just like any other story,” said Phil Harrison, author of “The Age of Static: How TV Explains Modern Britain.”
And it’s a story that has changed as Britain moved from an age of deference to an era of modern social mores and ubiquitous social media.
“The royals, particularly the younger royals, have moved from the realm of state apparatus to the realm of celebrity culture in recent decades,” Harrison said. “That’s worked well for them up to a point — but celebrity culture takes as well as gives and is notoriously fickle.”
So anticipation and apprehension are both high ahead of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan — the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — a year after they walked away from official royal life, citing what they described as the intrusions and racist attitudes of the British media toward the duchess, who is biracial. A clip released by CBS ahead of Sunday’s broadcast shows Meghan, a former TV star, appearing to suggest the royal family was “perpetuating falsehoods” about her and Harry.
A look at some other major royal television moments, and their impact:
The 1981 wedding of 32-year-old Prince Charles and 20-year-old Lady Diana Spencer at St. Paul’s Cathedral was a fairy-tale spectacle watched by an estimated 750 million people around the world.
But the relationship soon soured. The couple separated in 1992, and in 1995 Diana gave a candid interview to the BBC’s Martin Bashir, discussing the pressure of media scrutiny and the breakdown of her marriage.
“There were three of us in that marriage,” Diana said, referring to Charles’ relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles.
The interview prompted a wave of sympathy for Diana, seen by many as a woman failed by an uncaring, out-of-touch royal establishment — a pattern some say has repeated itself with Meghan.
Charles and Diana divorced in 1996; Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris the following year, triggering intense public mourning and a period of reflection for the monarchy, which has since tried to appear more modern and relatable — with mixed results.
The biggest scandal to engulf the family in decades stems from the friendship between the queen's second son, Andrew, and wealthy convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who died in a New York jail in August 2019 while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges.
One woman who says she was a victim of Epstein alleges she had sex with Andrew when she was 17, a claim the prince denies.
The prince tried to undo the damage by giving an interview to the BBC’s “Newsnight” program in November 2019. It backfired spectacularly. Andrew appeared uncomfortable and evasive, and failed to convey empathy for those who say they were exploited by Epstein, even as he defended his friendship with the man.
He called Epstein’s behavior “unbecoming,” a term interviewer Emily Maitlis suggested was an understatement.
Charlie Proctor, editor of the Royal Central website, said at the time that the interview was "a plane crashing into an oil tanker, causing a tsunami, triggering a nuclear explosion-level bad.”
After the interview, Andrew announced he was “stepping back” from public duties. He has not returned.
SARAH, DUCHESS OF YORK
Like Diana before her and Meghan since, Sarah Ferguson was a young woman who had a bruising collision with the royal family.
She was initially welcomed as a breath of fresh air for the stuffy royals when she wed Prince Andrew in 1986. But she quickly became a tabloid target, dubbed “Freeloading Fergie” for allegedly scooping up freebies and spending more time vacationing than performing public duties.
Some saw snobbery in coverage of a woman who, before and after her marriage, worked for a living and was open about her problems with weight, relationships and money.
After her 1996 divorce, the duchess used television to speak out — frequently. She appeared on Winfrey’s show in 1996, saying palace life was “not a fairy tale.” She spoke to Winfrey again in 2010 after being caught on video offering access to her ex-husband for $724,000. The duchess said she had been drinking and was trying to help a friend who needed money. The following year she appeared in her own reality show, “Finding Sarah,” on Winfrey’s OWN network.
The duchess was not invited to the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, in what was widely seen as a royal snub.
It may be fiction, but Netflix's “The Crown” is the most influential depiction of the royals in years. Over four seasons that have covered Elizabeth’s reign up to the 1980s, its portrait of a dutiful queen, prickly Prince Philip, oversensitive Prince Charles and the rest of the clan has brought the royal soap opera to a new generation.
It is widely seen as helping the royals by humanizing them, though British Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden suggested it should come with a warning that it’s drama, not history.
Prince Harry has defended the show — while underscoring that it's fiction — telling TV host James Corden that he was “way more comfortable with ‘The Crown’ than I am seeing stories written about my family or my wife.”
Now Harry and Meghan are getting their chance to tell their story. It’s a high-stakes strategy, especially since the interview is airing as 99-year-old Prince Philip, Harry’s grandfather, in a London hospital after a heart procedure — timing critics have called insensitive.
“I think this particular interview, like so many of those interviews, is going to do a great deal more harm to Harry and Meghan than anything to do with the British monarchy,” said royal historian Hugo Vickers.