Tabloids and the British Royal Family

By Simon Hodgson

In A.C.T.’s production of King Charles III, beginning tomorrow at The Geary Theater, the British royal family face what some consider their greatest nemesis: the British press. Here is a short history of their fraught relationship.

In the 1980s, the UK’s tabloid press was emboldened by its own success. Print runs were up, sex was selling, and the Sun newspaper was flush with the confidence of backing a political winner, after switching sides at the 1979 general election from the Labour Party to support Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Meanwhile, the royal family, so long considered untouchable, had gradually lost the goodwill it had built up during World War II. The Windsors were now fair game. And with a fresh–faced generation of princes and princesses getting divorced, Fleet Street smacked its lips.

British Tabloids. Photo by Graham Holliday, 2011. Courtesy of Flickr.
“The royal family’s popularity started to decline,” says King Charles III playwright Mike Bartlett, “when the generation of Edward, Anne, Andrew, and Charles got married, and then those marriages started to collapse. They collapsed in the way that any marriage would collapse. The decline was also down to the royal family making poor choices in how they presented themselves, with things like It’s a Royal Knockout [a dignity-destroying television fund–raiser, featuring royals in medieval costumes]. They started to look like an ancient, outdated joke.”

Over the next 25 years, the royal family would be slowly eviscerated, a death by a thousand cuttings by the British tabloids. Prince Andrew would be ridiculed for his marriage to rambunctious redhead Sarah Ferguson, who would later draw her own headlines for her relationships with various American lovers. Prince Harry would be excoriated by the Sun as “Harry the Nazi” after appearing in a poorly judged costume for a private party. And Prince Charles, the hapless, balding heir to the throne, would be derided as a loveless husband, labeled as a feckless father, and then cuckolded by his beautiful young wife Diana across the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

Royal kiss–and–tell stories in the tabloids continued to draw millions of readers in the late ’90s, but the tide of public opinion was about to swing against the press. In 1997, Princess Diana was killed in a car accident. Despite her string of affairs while married to Prince Charles, the princess was popular with tabloid readers thanks to her humanitarian work, her relaxed manner with ordinary people, and her photogenic looks. When the inquest was held after Diana’s death, the blame was directed partly at her drunken chauffeur and partly at the pursuing pack of press photographers and paparazzi.

Bartlett’s choice of press freedom as one of King Charles III’s critical issues shows a nuanced understanding of British culture. Even if Charles himself has suffered at the hands of the tabloids, his character in the play recognizes the need for free speech. But in the last act, the tragic hero fails to resolve the issue of privacy and press freedom. He takes a brave and lonely stand, but will the weight of parliamentary tradition, together with opposition within his family, unite to thwart his vision of tolerance and trust?

A.C.T.’s production of King Charles III runs from September 14 to October 9. Click here to purchase tickets. For more on the British tabloid press, along with other articles about the cultural and historical context of the play, purchase Words on Plays.

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