For a good couple of years, writing The Windsors – Channel 4’s satirical soap opera about the royal family – was my full-time job and it was odd to think how bound up my livelihood was with theirs. Once, when our special on Harry and Meghan’s wedding was about to go out, I found myself jogging the Mall with Buckingham Palace in my sight. What if Harry were to emerge for a similar jog, I daydreamed, and somehow we got chatting and he asked me about my job? Would he want to give me a punch up the bracket? And if so, how would I talk him out of it?
Similar thoughts must have occurred to the creators of Spencer, the film about Diana, Princess of Wales, which is in cinemas now and tipped for an Oscar, not to mention The Crown, which has been in the headlines because one of the show’s contributors, Jemima Khan, demanded her name be removed from the credits because of a lack of “respect” and “compassion” for her late friend – whom she wanted to portray “accurately”.
On The Windsors we’re taking the mickey and often go into surreal flights of fancy, so inaccuracies don’t really count. In one episode, Kate was cured of Ebola by having Tony Blair in a mini-submarine shrunk down and injected into her. In another, Theresa May was poisoned by Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, but brought back to life by Wills with the kiss of a prince. I can’t imagine the critics of Spencer or The Crown getting in a flap about that.
But comedy doesn’t excuse everything and we too have had our share of flak in the press for being cruel. Often we’re having a go at the institution of the monarchy rather than the individuals; an institution that embodies the idea of hereditary privilege, one in which you can attain a position of power and wealth purely by an accident of birth, is surely fair game. Plus, we pay millions for the royal family in the form of the sovereign grant. With that sort of outlay, isn’t it right to hold them up to scrutiny (and then make off-colour jokes about Prince Charles and Camilla bonking each other while a footman watches on)?
Having said that, we do go after the individuals too: when you have Prince William presiding over wildlife charities while also hunting wild boar; Prince Edward, a man whose military service consisted of a three-month stint in the Marines, wearing a tunic covered in medals to a remembrance day service; and Prince Harry, a multimillionaire complaining about having to pay for his own security, then I’d say they’re fair game. And I haven’t even mentioned Prince Andrew.
As for cruelty, I’d humbly suggest the critics are off the money. We were always keen to have warmth in our scripts – to be too sneering and vituperative would make for very boring television. We might portray Beatrice and Eugenie as silly and lazy, but we also show them genuinely caring for one another and their family. In the stage version of the show, The Windsors: Endgame, their mission is to try to clear their father’s name, something that’s doomed from the start, which only makes you root for them more. They’re deluded about their dad, but that only adds to the pathos.
And our hero, Wills, is just that – a hero, a sort of cross between Hamlet and Henry V, tortured by doubt as he takes on his father. But he and Charles always make up at the end of our stories, because deep down they love one another. Which means, weirdly, that monarchists and republicans alike can get something out of the show.
Diana, with the tragedy surrounding her death, is a trickier character to tackle – as the makers of The Crown and Spencer have discovered. We didn’t write her into the original Windsors TV show, not out of any particular sensitivity, but because we were dealing with the royal family in the present. But she does come up in the stage play. At one point Kate says to Wills: “She was the queen of people’s hearts.” And Wills replies: “As she said to Martin Bashir. The whole interview was completely discredited but for some reason that bit still counts.” It is a Diana joke, yes. But it’s a joke about the perception of her, not Diana herself.
Likewise when our soap opera villain, Camilla, sings about her, it’s about jealousy, the fact that years after her death the British public still love Diana and will never love Camilla in the same way.
We’re talking about a new series of the TV show at moment, and if it returns we may well deal with Diana more directly. One idea is for Beatrice and Eugenie to find a time machine and travel back to the 1980s to meet her and their mum, Fergie (as well as pop into the Blitz club for a snog with Steve Strange).
I suppose we will have to tread a bit more carefully with Diana – given her status as a queen in public hearts (some members of the public, at least). Her favourite pop star was Chris de Burgh. Surely that’s worth a joke?
Bert Tyler-Moore is a screenwriter. The Windsors, which he wrote with George Jeffrie, is available on All 4, and The Windsors: Endgame will be touring in spring 2023