Thursday, September 22, 2022

The King’s problems with pens break the royal spell

 Stylophile are not impressed 

The King’s problems with pens break the royal spell

Britain’s monarchy is a charismatic enterprise that has to balance intimacy with invisibility

The funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of King Charles III have been planned in detail over several decades. But someone forgot to script how the King should react when faced on live television with a leaking fountain pen. Of such accidents is history made. “I can’t bear this bloody thing . . . every stinking time,” exclaimed the King, walking away irritably from the table after signing a visitors book in Northern Ireland. It was his second pen revolt in a week: at his accession in London, he was shown grimacing at aides, while gesturing for one to move a tray of pens.
 It was an awkward peek behind the curtain at a king once described in the New Yorker as “a ninny, a whinger, a tantrum-throwing dilettante”, although many felt sympathy for a tired, grief-stricken man taking out his tensions on inanimate objects. This was the first accession on camera and some official may already be redrafting plans for the next one.

King Charles III gestures for an aide to remove a tray of pens during the ceremony proclaiming him Britain’s new monarch on September 10 © Youtube

All businesses now face the perils of a transparent media world in which slips and gaffes blow up into Twitter storms or TikTok clips. The Firm, as King George VI dubbed the royal family, is no exception. A viral meme gets halfway around the world before the King puts on his crown. 
“I have to be seen to be believed,” was the late Queen’s aphorism, and the Firm arranges regular shows and parades, along with public appearances to reinforce the family’s appeal. Such is the flow of royal documentaries, podcasts and dramas such as Netflix’s The Crown that the monarchy often seems to be in the entertainment business.

Primarily, it is not. It is a charismatic enterprise that works constantly towards a single target: succession. The monarchy is a selfish gene, working to pass itself down generations, with the sovereign occupying the throne at any one moment part of that effort. We are witnessing a once-in-a-generation product launch. 
The product has required marketing since belief in the divine right of kings started to expire with Charles I’s execution in 1649. Lord Halifax wrote in the 1860s after Queen Victoria’s unpopular withdrawal from public life: “The mass of the people expect a King or Queen to look and play the part . . . They want the gilding for the money.”  To maintain both popularity and authority, the monarchy has to combine intimacy with distance. “Visibility must be tightly stage-managed and balanced with . . . invisibility,” Laura Clancy, lecturer at Lancaster University, writes in her book Running the Family Firm.
 “We must not let in daylight upon magic,” the Victorian essayist Walter Bagehot once warned. His words are often echoed. Winston Churchill worried that televising the Queen’s coronation in 1953 would turn a constitutional ceremony into “a theatrical performance”. David Attenborough was a BBC executive when it made the fly-on-the-wall documentary Royal Family in 1969 and wrote to the director, “You’re killing the monarchy, you know, with this film.”

But the monarchy did not die as a result of being portrayed on television. It instead developed a symbiotic, if sometimes tense, relationship with the mass media, which has served it rather well. “I very much hope . . . that this new medium will make my Christmas message more personal and direct,” the Queen told her subjects on television at the end of 1957, and so it did.
 Although Prince Harry complains about the “invisible contract” with royal journalists, it afforded the Firm plenty of control. The Queen appeared enough in public to forge a bond, without giving all of herself away. “The showman is not material unless you care about the show,” Bagehot wrote, and the long lines for her lying-in-state indicate deep loyalty to both. The King’s irritation about pens is trivial in itself. But the way in which those images spread rapidly on social media, despite initially being ignored in the UK papers and on television, is a warning. 
Not only is a new sovereign being tested, but the new media is tougher to corral. Recommended Payne's Politics podcast38 min listen King Charles III begins his reign The Firm faces tighter constraints than other family enterprises. If one generation is not up to the job, it cannot hire a professional chief executive instead: it must work with what the genes provide. The King needs to be a good constitutional monarch because only he qualifies. 
He has handled himself gracefully in other respects, making an articulate and affectionate address after his mother’s death, and greeting crowds of mourners sympathetically. His approval ratings have risen sharply as a result, with a majority confident in him. But while royal officials can manipulate photo opportunities, they cannot block 2.7bn TikTok views of videos of his flashes of temper.
 So there are two alternatives for the Firm in its mission to secure the next succession: either King Charles stops snapping at things, or it must be hidden. “The annoyance at the pens not being moved will never not be funny,” wrote one TikTok user. It is better for a king to be ridiculed than executed, but neither outcome is ideal.