It will take more than a gold piano to bring down the house of Windsor | Catherine Bennett

The furore over the Queen’s Christmas message was so much sound and fury

Could the gilded piano, rage-inducing star of the Queen’s Christmas message, have been put there on purpose? Even the most fervent anti-conspiracist, aware of the risk of attributing skill or foresight to senior palace advisers and their associates (recall the Paul Burrell theft case, dismissed for lack of evidence, or the fatal neglect of Thomas Markle), may have wondered if mischief, as opposed to fathomless idiocy better explains the appearance of this eye-catching piece, so jarring with the Queen’s homiletic as to overturn, at least for some protesting on social media, her lifelong reputation for thrift. Years of eating from Tupperware, of heating Balmoral with two-bar fires, all erased, in minutes, by a global selfie gone wrong.

Can we ignore the possibility, for instance, that the gold piano, a newcomer to the Christmas message, was included by some unusually cunning republican who’d infiltrated Sky News, the broadcaster whose turn it was, this year, to produce the short film?

Conventionally, the setting in which the sovereign, seated at her desk, mulls instructively alongside some family photographs is a compact section of light soft furnishings, flowers, a Christmas tree and fireplace, an urn or two – roughly as provocative as a Harley Street waiting room, minus the dog-eared Country Livings.

How was the Queen transformed, unprotesting, into this year’s heartless cartoon imperialist? Or, as one writer put it: “Pampered old scrounger preaching about the values of home from a golden chair as thousands of her citizens starve and sleep in doorways.”

Only because they could not have resisted adding a throne and a line about eating cake can we confidently dismiss involvement by the propagandists of RT (Russia Today), who have just distributed chocolate models of Salisbury Cathedral, a playful reminder of the British civilians killed and injured by their employers.

To be fair, maybe a responsible palace person did ask, this year, if the gilded piano would be in shot while the monarch discoursed on the child born in a stable, only to be assured by a – presumed – Sky operative, naw, trust them, it’ll hardly show on the scarlet carpet, or that, if viewers did spot this potentially piety-undermining anomaly, they’d realise that the Queen, a frugal person, couldn’t be the original buyer.

No, before they denounced on Twitter the flaunting of solid-gold booty said to have been looted from its legal owner, reputedly the late Saddam, and worth enough to buy an individual palace for every rough sleeper in the land, the piano-averse would surely go online, discover it was acquired new, in 1856, by Queen Victoria and now belongs to the royal collection. They could then usefully redirect their ire, at, say, the Windsors’ concealment of far more important treasures, or the non-disclosure of the cost to the public of refurbishing a country house for Harry (estimated worth, £30m), or the secrecy around the public cost – estimated at between £2m and £4m – of protecting his cousin at her wedding to a tequila salesman.

For some reason, recent sightings of a largish castle and similarly showy palace, along with virtual tours around some of the eight homes accumulated by Prince Charles (estimated worth, £306m), have not inspired anything approaching the piano-related clamour. The reintroduction of Fergie and continued ascent of Camilla, fellow high-maintenance low-achievers, seem also to have left the piano’s detractors unmoved. Rather, the Queen, reliably the most astute and useful member of the royal family, courtesy of what must have been the least extravagant episode in an absurdly excessive royal year, finds herself selected for Twitter’s Christmas hate and thus a neat positioning device for any influencers keen to emphasise their own humility. “Alas I have no footage of me in front of a gold piano to share,” volunteered the Labour MP Rupa Huq on Facebook.

It’s not impossible, of course, that this unhappy episode, now officially added to a list of PR disasters already featuring It’s a Royal Knockout, Camillagate, Show us you care, results from an innocent aesthetic misstep by the Christmas message’s producers. Dictator chic, the look defined by Peter York, may not be greatly to the taste of online social justice advocates, but, as we know from interiors favoured by, say, Donald Trump, Liberace and any number of psychopathic autocrats, the world is full of people whose only objection to the Queen’s gold piano will be that it is not, in fact, made of gold. That they were not prominent in #pianogate doesn’t mean many viewers weren’t also content that the furnishings of the hereditary head of state, so long as the country maintains one, should rival Tamara Ecclestone’s gold bath.

How much actual republicanism featured in #pianogate? True, for the hopeful, the piano-focused online rage could represent a long-suppressed explosion of discontent, after a year of provocations by a family whose entitlement is, following its 90s humiliations, demonstrably returning to the limitless setting. Maybe public affection for royalty will, thanks to the piano, begin falling away, from a 2016 poll showing 76% in support.

Then again, reassuringly for less endearing members of this family, the fizzing irrationality of the piano mutiny, after months of imperceptible protest against the royals’ increasingly baroque line in self-congratulation – including Charles’s protracted birthday celebrations – has yet, critically, to resemble anything structural. In contrast, at the time of writing, Republic, which campaigns for a directly elected head of state, had not joined the piano denunciation.

And if piano-shaped excess seemed to resonate, particularly, among Corbyn sympathisers, that could even be one fewer reason for Harry to fear for his refurb. Following a principled refusal to sing the national anthem, Corbyn announced that the monarch was safe with him: “I don’t think she should be brought into political discussion.” Admittedly, he said nothing about her pianos.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist


Catherine Bennett

The GuardianTramp

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