Magazine article The Spectator

Is a TV Drama about the Royal Family Sacrilege?

Magazine article The Spectator

Is a TV Drama about the Royal Family Sacrilege?

Article excerpt

Filming on The Palace was only a few weeks in when the rumours started flying. 'A tawdry and offensive affair' trumpeted the Sunday Telegraph; 'dreadful and offensive and very near to the bone', added Lord St John of Fawsley; 'a real danger [it will] undermine support for the [royal] family', weighed in a media watchdog. To the cast and crew, such reports were flabbergasting, not least because those talking so authoritatively about the television series in question were yet to see an episode. We wondered if this hatchet job might be some sort of publicity stunt (it bore similarities to some of our storylines, after all) -- before it became obvious that no, it was simply that we had dared to stray into sacrosanct territory. If we were to assume the lives of a fictitious British royal family, we must be prepared to take the flak.

And yet the vitriolic response to the very idea of The Palace (rather than its finished product) has been an instructive one, raising questions about the peculiar relationship the British public enjoys with its monarchy.

While people are often delighted to have a good moan down the pub about the royals and their weird, tax-evading, toe-sucking ways, it seems they are invariably all too quick to jump to their defence at the prospect of having such ways exposed to the outside world. Or are they? If we are queasy about seeing our monarchy portrayed in dramatic form, the extent of that queasiness seems to vary depending on who is doing the portraying. When the esteemed director Stephen Frears made a film about the 'real' royal family -- the 'real' monarch, no less -- initial concerns were tempered by the fact that, with Dame Helen Mirren in the lead and a stellar supporting cast, it was likely to be a classy affair. And it was: The Queen went on to scoop a clutch of awards and became one of the most successful British films ever.

But that was Frears and film; this is TV -- and ITV, to be precise: the home of such edifying offerings as I'm a Celebrity. . . Get Me Out of Here! Is it any wonder that, in hands such as these, staunch monarchists should feel edgy about their beloved family having the tables turned on them and becoming 'subjects' themselves?

Well, yes, actually, it is. Not only because The Palace does not deal with a royal family that is recognisably 'ours' -- the characters live in a contemporary Buckingham Palace and that's where the comparison ends -- but because this series is hopefully an incisive, witty and ultimately respectful examination of the monarchy as institution. It may also be a prime example of what Tom Grieves, the creator and executive producer of the series, calls 'the new ITV' under chairman Michael Grade, who called for better quality drama when he took control of the channel in January last year.

'The Palace is neither an apology for, nor a critique of, the monarchy, ' explains Grieves in his office at Company Pictures (the production house behind The Palace and Mirren's Elizabeth I, as well as such popular hits as Shameless). 'I think it's fair to say that we road-test the very idea of the monarchy, throw some pretty major challenges their way, and come out in favour. Yes, we may occasionally be cheeky and irreverent -- but somehow that's a way of showing more reverence. You can't spend that much of your life involved in writing about something that you hate. …

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