Reality TV has never gone well for the royals before – the Firm will be holding their breath for I’m A Celeb
November 2, 2022 11:27 am(Updated 12:47 pm)
Mike Tindall, the husband of Zara Tindall, Princess Anne’s daughter, is entering the I’m a Celebrity… jungle to compete against other celebrities – and, apparently, Matt Hancock.
The relationship between celebrity and royals is an odd one. On the one hand, royals are regularly photographed in celebrity magazines or on celebrity news sites, they feature in “celebrity best dressed” lists, and we gossip about their personal lives like we do any other celebrity.
Yet, royals are so much more than celebrity. They are part of an institution of state – the monarchy – which has powers and privileges far surpassing most celebrities, even if their wealth is comparable.
This is perhaps why royals on reality television has always been so contentious. In the moment of appearing, they are reduced to mere celebrity. But they are representing something much bigger, so anything they do comes to impact the institution as a whole.
There have been various royal reality appearances throughout the 20th century, and many of them did not go well. In 1969, as part of the media representations commissioned for Prince Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales, BBC and ITV produced Royal Family. This was a 110-minute documentary meant to show the family’s day-to-day lives, for example the Queen and Prince Philip preparing a barbecue, and the family having dinner together. What this meant was essentially one of the first fly-on-the-wall reality shows – the Keeping Up With the Kardashians of the 1960s.
It was watched by 38 million people in the UK, and many more around the world. Despite this, the film has since been redacted by the Firm, not shown on British television since 1977. When it has appeared briefly online, it has been swiftly deleted. The controversy was because the film was seen to give too much access to the institution.
As David Attenborough – then controller of BBC2 – said: “The whole institution depends on mystique and the tribal chief in his hut… If any member of the tribe ever sees inside the hut, then the whole system of the tribal chiefdom is damaged and the tribe eventually disintegrates.”
Fast forward to 1987, and we have It’s a Royal Knockout. It followed the format of It’s a Knockout, a slapstick TV gameshow, and featured Prince Edward, Prince Andrew, Princess Anne and Sarah Ferguson heading celebrity teams dressed as squires and damsels to undertake various physical challenges in a fake medieval castle at Alton Towers. Again, statistically it was a success with 18 million people watching, but it revealed too much about the people behind the institution.
Royal historian Ben Pimlott claimed, “one of the mistakes of Knockout was that it gave the impression of the Royal Family using their privileged access to the media to sell themselves”. Of course, all royal representation sells monarchy. Yet because It’s a Royal Knockout specifically used the tenets of celebrity culture and earlier variety performances, which were stereotypically and derogatively associated with low-culture popular culture, this marketing ploy was exposed.
In the Daily Mail in 2017, commentator Max Hastings criticised the “vulgar Hollywoodising” of the young royals’ due to Meghan Markle’s introduction. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have been variously blamed for subverting royal protocol by engaging with global media outlets like Netflix. But the examples above, and Mike Tindall’s jungle stint, show that actually Harry and Meghan aren’t doing anything all that different.
Reality television has been used by the royals since its inception, to varying degrees of success. Referring to “vulgar Hollywoodising” creates hierarchies of taste, which suggest some media appearances – Trooping the Colour, perhaps – are more “worthy” than others. As media theorists like Professor Helen Wood have said, this merely serves to reinforce class boundaries.
No doubt the Firm is now hoping that I’m a Celebrity… won’t be another repeat of 1969 and 1987, especially given that all eyes are already on the monarchy after the death of Elizabeth II and accession of Charles III.
This does prompt the question of what might be next for the royals. Sophie, Countess of Wessex, talking about soggy bottoms on Great British Bake Off? Prince William putting his air ambulance skills to the test on SAS Who Dares Wins? Kate Middleton embracing her middle-class yummy mummy brand on Celebrity Fit Club? We can only hope.
Dr Laura Clancy is a Lecturer in Media at Lancaster University, and author of Running the Family Firm: How the Monarchy Manages its Image and Our Money