If Harry & Meghan, the series, didn’t please everyone, Prince Andrew must have adored it. Beyond group pictures, not even a glimpse of Andrew (the Epstein/Maxwell favourite still embedded in a Windsor mansion after the £12m settlement of a contested sex claim) was deployed to underline the non-compromised couple’s contrasting exile from their tribe, for reasons that seem largely to do with resentment, carelessness and pettiness.
Since likewise overlooked are the King’s mishaps with donors and honours, his grotesque first marriage and ditto enthusiasms for Laurens van der Post and Jimmy Savile, there was much for him and the extended family to celebrate. What an example to The Crown! The Windsors’ many embarrassments scarcely featured, even in sections where scholars offered long views on the ducal couple’s struggle, including unexpected connections with Brexit, Stephen Lawrence and the Grenfell Tower fire. What little, after some baleful trailers, the programmes firmly alleged about Harry’s relations – shouting, plotting and neglect – left them looking not much worse than the dysfunctional, emotionally stunted zoo exhibits we already know them to be.
In fact, if William, as in one of the few specific claims, did scream at Harry, it has been Netflix’s achievement over an eternity of tastefully curated confession, to reduce even Sussex sympathisers to something like numbed indifference. Two houses, both alike in idiocy. An outcome so strikingly unhelpful for a show designed to dignify the Sussexes’ experience that, even factoring in Netflix’s interest in outrage-generation, you could see it as yet another betrayal – possibly justifying another bombshell interview in which the couple watch themselves watching themselves do Oprah and whisper, again: “They would still find a way to destroy us.”
Incompetence or cunning? I suppose a far-sighted streaming company might want to anticipate the moment when adult Charlotte or Louis also conclude that a traditional royal upbringing has left them low on options, if they evacuate, which don’t include monetising their complaints about being royal in a six-part TV series. If so, on the basis of this effort, they might want to try elsewhere.
It’s not that ill-wishers or satirists couldn’t have done a better job of making the fugitives ridiculous, but why, to give just one example of many instant sympathy-dispellers, would a supportive collaborator include the exchange about the inadequacy of their first free establishment, Nottingham Cottage? “As far as people were concerned,” Harry broods, “we were living in a palace. And we were in a cottage.” His wife confirms this wretched truth: “But Nottingham Cottage was so small!”
Similarly, Meghan’s misfired pretend curtsy; Harry’s cynicism about his wedding (probably news to everyone whose contributions look so idyllic in this film); the refugee family’s luxury “freedom flight” to LA. And while some of her old Vogue associates probably comprehend the sacrifice, it’s odd Netflix couldn’t alight on more heartbreaking attempts to conform than Meghan’s willingness – mentioned twice – to dress unobtrusively beside royals, in “camel, beige, white”. Someone with her interests at heart might have spotted, if only at the editing stage, that Meghan dresses for Netflix interviews, long after her colour martyrdom, in white and neutrals, in what looks very like an overwhelmingly beige home.
That the couple can seem silly matters less, however, than the way the excess trivia and melodrama smothers a story of real press persecution – being “constantly just picked at by these vultures”, as her mother memorably puts it. As with the repeatedly invoked Diana, it’s possible for the couple to be both irritating and wronged: they have more claim even than Harry’s occasionally collaborating mother (who preceded drones and Twitter) to charge the press with stalking and harassment. Whatever explains Netflix’s willingness to provide so generously for the same vultures, it has allowed the most shameful aspects of the Sussexes’ treatment – character assassination, threats and pile-ons – to be relegated to the level of a challenge (eagerly accepted) to renewed assault. Even the disgraced Martin Bashir – almost as reviled as Meghan – ensured, as Harry confirms, that she “spoke the truth of her experience” – and was heard. Though concision and zero production values probably helped. Little Nell-wise, there are only so many times you can see (in the Netflix subtitles) “poignant music playing”, “sad music playing”, “wistful music playing”, “melancholic music playing”, without wanting to laugh.
It was hard to imagine, in the years when influential journalists were obsessively going after Meghan, how she survived the incessant denigration, some discernibly racist, for everything from disrespecting Piers Morgan and serving avocados, refusing to pose hours after giving birth, to – in the Mail on Sunday’s culminating assault – believing a letter to her father was private. The new series shows that it was, naturally, unendurable and calculated to provoke an extreme reaction in Harry, whose contributions on his pursuit by a pack who tormented his mother are the most powerful parts of this series. True, his comparison with a “soap opera” of a family that still exhibits tiny children in fulfilment of the old contract, “you pay, we pose”, is hardly new. In 1955, Malcolm Muggeridge was denounced by royalists for diagnosing “a royal soap opera”: “tedious adulation of the royal family is bad for them, for the public, and ultimately for the monarchical institution itself”. In 2011, Christopher Hitchens urged Kate Middleton (who had been mocked for her parentage) to shun the family’s “daytime-soap incarnation”, a system “whereby unexceptional people are condemned to lead wholly artificial and strained existences and then punished or humiliated when they crack up”.
Now Harry, following Diana, has spoken the truth of that experience. “The majority of my memories,” he says, “are being swarmed by paparazzi.” The impact of this warning can perhaps be measured by the doting coverage, last week, of a massed royal event at which George, nine, and Charlotte, seven, were dressed identically to their parents. Maybe, after all, there is still room for Harry’s book.
Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist
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