It was, even by the standards of the British royal family, an extraordinary revelation. The Duke of Edinburgh, according to a report by the veteran court correspondent Talbot Church, had been causing more concern than usual in royal circles with his unscripted, off-the-cuff comments.
Shortly before Prince William married Kate Middleton in 2011, he had accompanied the Queen to meet the bride-to-be’s parents. Hearing that Carole Middleton had been a flight attendant, he had asked her, “Is it true what they say about air stewardesses?”
Weeks earlier, during the state visit of President Sarkozy of France and his wife, he had glanced at Mme Sarkozy and muttered to the president, “Punching a bit above your weight there, aren’t you, old chum?”
The problem, Church revealed to readers of the Independent, was that the Duke was now suffering from an unusual royal form of Tourette’s syndrome. When he met someone, he would say the first thing that came into his head, no matter how inappropriate. As the royal wedding approached, there were worries about what he might say to President Obama, should he attend.
It was all nonsense, of course. Talbot Church, whose byline was “The Man The Royals Trust”, was my parody of the worst kind of ingratiating, oleaginous court correspondent. Nobody could be taken in, surely.
They were. The next day, the editor of the Daily Mail Paul Dacre stormed into his morning conference and furiously demanded to know why a rival newspaper had landed the great royal Tourette’s scoop.
Now that the Duke is retiring from his royal duties, it is worth remembering that there are indeed mental issues associated with the Queen’s husband, but they have nothing to do with his state of mind: it is those who admire him one should worry about. Prince Philip has become a perfect, unimprovable example of how the royal family can reduce millions of people, some of them quite bright and normal, to a state of unquestioning imbecility.
If he were plain Mr Philip Windsor, he would be seen as a tiresome old toff, something of a bully with some drearily old-fashioned prejudices: an older, snobbier version of Nigel Farage but without the roguish charm. While other members of his family can be credited with certain public virtues – a desire to do the right thing, a willingness to play the game with reasonable good humour – the Duke remains predictably himself. He is a bit of an old bore and always has been, even when he was young.
Here is the mystery. Such is the extraordinary grip that the royal family have on the national psyche that, down the years, this very ordinary man has become a sort of fantasy figure, full of the qualities we long to see in our public figures.
Such is his wit, apparently, that countless collections of brilliant aperçus and stunning one-liners have been published. Here’s one: to a child who had said he wanted to be an astronaut, the Duke said, “You look like you could lose some weight.”
No? Let’s try again. To a woman solicitor, “I thought it was against the law to solicit.” Before you fall off your chair with mirth at these witticisms – solemnly collected and published, remember – here is one more rib-tickler. To a photographer who was trying to get the right shot, “Just take the fucking photograph.”
To get a better sense of how a charmless man can come to be revered in this odd way, it is instructive to look at interviews he has given. Those privileged enough to be allowed to ask him questions, from Alan Titchmarsh to Sir Trevor McDonald, adopt a simpering tone and say ‘sir’ a lot. When he cannot be bothered to answer a question and replies dismissively, they behave as if something utterly brilliant and rather outrageous has been said. How difficult had it been to go from being naval officer to being consort to the Queen, Titchmarsh asked. “How long is a piece of string?” was the weary reply.
Just as class deference runs deep in this country, so do double-standards when it comes to gender roles. The Duke has often been gushingly praised for doing what countless wives of public figures do unnoticed every day – putting their own careers second to that of their spouse and keeping him company as he works.
Perhaps one should be generous. After enduring years of pampered boredom, the old boy deserves a rest. And so do we.
This piece was first published in the Guardian, 5 May 2017