Magazine article The Spectator

Duty Calls

Magazine article The Spectator

Duty Calls

Article excerpt

I spent last weekend in Rome with friends A, B and C. The city was reliving Roman Holiday. Not one of those bacchanalian pagan feasts of Trimalchio but the film of the Fifties featuring that marvel of the molar-cular arts, Gregory Peck, and a crazily crystalline Audrey Hepburn. Oh sweet symphony of tooth.

All over the city there were gigantic posters from the film, some, like black and white fishes in an aquarium, gazing out from the windows of the shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo, who shod Miss Hepburn, some lolling in all their monochrome glory by the entrances of modest trattorias.

Roman Holiday was the film in which Hepburn played a princess on a European tour who escapes from the palace for a few days and falls in love with Gregory Peck, a former war reporter turned hack on hard times. The denouement has the princess renouncing Peck in order to do her duty.

Eh, what? Exactly. She does her duty. Duty. Most people today think it's something excise officials put on whisky and cigarettes. In our Happiness Dependency Culture untramelled self-fulfilment has become a right, one no less inalienable than the right to universal benefits - nothing is considered more iniquitous than personal unhappiness.

Friend A pointed out that a film like Roman Holiday would be impossible to make today. Hepburn's was a pre-Diana princess. The status quo ante-hellum. The idea of a beautiful young girl relinquishing romantic love to shake hands with middleaged dignitaries in reception lines is not one that would be swallowed by today's audiences. The young have grown up to believe that personal happiness supersedes the traditional requirements of the social contract every time.

No matter how incongruous the union, it must have indefinite consummation. Thus the unlikely scenario of Julia Roberts's film star living happily ever after with Hugh Grant's penurious bookseller is posited in Notting Hill. One can imagine some Los Angeles studio magnifico balking at the plot of Roman Holiday. `For Christ's sake. Get her to abdicate or something. Or let him become a prince. Honour shmonour. This old-fashioned honour crap is gonna die at the box office.'

The idea that there is something admirable in being a practising member of a royal family, too. And modest with it. …

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