As I watch the courts of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the Prince and Princess of Wales go head-to-head from opposite sides of the Atlantic, I can’t help but think of Harry’s cri de coeur in the first volume of his recently released TV documentary series Harry & Meghan: “How did we end up here?”
The royal, no longer allowed to use his HRH for official work, looks bereft, head in hands, as well he might, for not only has Harry’s relationship with the family he was once so close to fallen apart, he and brother William are barely on speaking terms.
With their non-profit company, Archewell, whose production arm was a partner in the documentary made by streaming network Netflix, Harry and Meghan seem to be setting up a rival royal court in the US. Not content with pursuing projects entirely separate from their old stomping ground – the monarchy – they are using the collateral of their previous royal life to monetise their new one.
Many see this as an exploitation of their royal titles and are calling for the duo to be stripped of their dukedom. While I would be surprised to see that happen – there are plenty of titled royals who don’t work for ‘the Firm’ – there is an uneasiness about the way the couple continues to rake over the coals of a fire that is surely now just smouldering embers.
The Queen was reportedly bewildered by Harry’s need to express his “truth” so publicly. While she famously challenged his and Meghan’s excoriating version of events in their 2021 Oprah interview saying “recollections may vary” in a public statement after the show aired, the monarch was always at pains to add that the couple remained loved and valued members of the family.
“The Queen was always more concerned for Harry’s wellbeing than about ‘this television nonsense’ – the Oprah interview and the deal with Netflix,” notes royal biographer and family friend Gyles Brandreth in his revealing new book Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait.
“I know she liked Meghan, and Meghan’s mother, and was sorry the Markle family was ‘fractured’ and was anxious that Harry should ‘find his feet’ in California and ‘find really useful things to do’.”
However, I can’t imagine the late Queen would have found the Netflix documentary a “useful” endeavour for her grandson and no doubt Harry may be sitting more comfortably knowing his grandmother is no longer here to see the show.
Harry & Meghan, which dropped on TV screens around the world on December 8 and 15, has been widely slammed for being disrespectful to Her Majesty.
While that disrespect is not always overt, there’s no question Harry’s laid-back willingness to take aim at the royal world that has given him and Meghan the platform to garner multimillion-dollar deals like this one with Netflix has an air of hypocrisy about it.
Meghan’s embarrassing comic re-enactment of the first time she had to curtsy to the Queen certainly shocked British viewers especially.
As she tells it Meghan was incredulous that the formality in public situations carries on behind closed palace doors. She thought Harry was joking when he explained she would have to curtsy to Her Majesty before sitting down for a cosy chat at the Royal Lodge in Windsor.
“I guess I started to understand very quickly that the formality on the outside carried through on the inside,” she says.
In her rendition of that first meeting with the Queen, when she and Harry called in for tea, Meghan dramatically bows her head in a deep mocking curtsy as she sarcastically takes issue with the idea of the deference required of her, laughing with the interviewer. It’s an awkward scene.
After the death of his grandmother Harry released a tribute to the Queen saying “the first moment you met my darling wife” was a time he cherished, which places this piece of playing to the gallery by the Duchess in particularly poor taste.
“The couple’s most shameful moment was Meghan’s mock-curtsy to the Queen with Harry looking on, totally in awe of his wife,” says royal biographer Christopher Wilson.
“The level of hypocrisy and betrayal really surprised me. For all of Meghan and Harry’s accusations of being used and abused, they exploited the memory of the Queen and turned their firepower on an institution which traditionally never answers back.
“Also… to permit Netflix to use film footage of the Queen’s most sacred moment of dedication – her crowning at the 1953 coronation – was nothing short of cynical exploitation. In the eyes of many, the first three programmes were a farrago of deceit, barbs, and half-hinted slurs at the institution which made them who they are today.”
Some commentators however think the Queen would have seen the funny side of Meghan’s performance, but I suspect she would have been less tolerant of the documentary’s critique of the Commonwealth.
The friendly family of nations, of which Australia is part, was very close to the Queen’s heart and seen as one of her most potent legacies. In the show a main commentator is writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch. She declares the Commonwealth is no more than “Empire 2.0” even though it includes nations not in the British Empire and implies the organisation was rooted in racist colonialism.
“That was unexpected. This was a full-scale attack on not just the Commonwealth, but the Queen’s association with the Commonwealth. It is an attack on her life’s work,” a former royal advisor told The Times newspaper.
But the content of the show hasn’t been the only issue. Its timing also proved brutal for the royal family. The first sensational trailer was released while Prince William and Catherine were in the middle of an important official three-day tour of Boston, the couple’s first visit to the United States in eight years and their first as the Prince and Princess of Wales.
Was Prince Harry trying to hijack the limelight and scupper his brother’s inaugural overseas tour as Heir Apparent? It certainly felt like it.
Prince William went on to host the second year of his Earthshot Prize Awards – which by the way included a fabulous £1million win for Australia’s Women Rangers of the Great Barrier Reef. But in the background the Harry and Meghan show was reaching its crescendo.
The date for the Earthshot Prize had been set months before. This clash was surely no coincidence.
But deliberate or not, there is a lingering sadness to this battle royal. Harry’s pain is palpable. It’s the pulse beating through everything he does and the heart of that is Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, a guiding light and an aching loss who is there in pictures and anecdotes throughout.
“My mum made most of her decisions if not all of them with her heart. I am my mother’s son,” Harry declares as he recalls a childhood “filled with laughter, happiness and adventure”.
He was 12 when his mother died, and her “cheeky laugh” is an abiding memory. “I’ll always be that cheeky person inside,” he says proudly.
Other memories are less jubilant – being “swarmed by paparazzi” was Harry and William’s ground zero and especially traumatic on holidays. Harry says he is haunted by that “drama, stress and tears – I would always see it on my mum’s face”.
When he met Meghan, Harry says he recognised his mum in this wonderful woman who had popped up in his world. “Meghan is so similar to my mum,” he says beaming.
It felt like their union was meant to be. Diana was looking down on her youngest boy and smiling. “Meghan has the same compassion, empathy, confidence … this warmth about her,” muses Harry.
It’s no wonder he fell in love so quickly and so deeply. He was longing to find a life partner but following the breakdown of earlier relationships, as a result of the pressures of living inside his “gilded cage”, Harry was starting to believe it would never happen.
“How can I ever find someone who is willing and capable of being with me?” he posits. Meghan ticked all those boxes.
“This is a great love story,” notes Harry. And it is. In the documentary we see inside Meghan and Harry’s relationship in intimate detail.
We learn that they met online, that they had only been out twice before Harry invited Meghan to spend five days with him in Botswana. They would be together 24/7, sleeping in a tent in the African savanna with elephants roaming around outside. It was a bold move from the Prince that resulted in both falling head over heels in love.
Their giggly passion is displayed in a gallery of selfies and personal snaps taken throughout their courtship. Both were smitten and living in an exciting paradise of secret trysts jetting between Toronto and London.
But when their relationship broke in a UK tabloid newspaper, everything changed. The media intrusion was intense, and Harry and Meghan claim they received no support from within the royal household.
They decided to record their own video diary so they would have a personal account. Their story from their point of view. Those recordings make up a good part of the Harry & Meghan six-hour series.
Also in the documentary we hear from Meghan’s mother, Doria, for the first time and see their children, Archie and Lilibet, growing up in their lavish home in Montecito. Despite the couple’s long-protested wish for privacy they open their lives to viewers in a way no royal couple has ever done before. The scenes are intimate and yes, private.
They even include Harry’s marriage proposal! But this is not hypocritical in Harry’s eyes, it’s all about “consent”. They are in control here he says, rather than their story being told through the lens of people who don’t know them at all.
Doria says she was impressed with Harry from the moment she met him and especially loved his manners, but like her daughter was floored by the intrusion of the media who immediately doorstopped her. She felt unsafe. It was as if she was being stalked, she notes.
From this moment on we are in familiar territory, with the series covering the same grievances the couple aired in the Oprah interview. Meghan blames the media for trying to destroy them and claims her “very small” palace communications team did nothing to protect them. It’s an outlandish version of events which is simply not true.
As a royal correspondent watching on, I was well aware of how much the palace courtiers did to help Meghan and Harry, bending over backwards to support them. But the couple sees it differently. The attacks on Meghan were racist at source, says Harry, and the show paints Britain as a racist country founded on slavery. A version of history many commentators have taken issue with.
But it is the personal attacks that hit hardest. In a particularly galling claim Harry brazenly suggests that he is the only royal to truly marry for love. “I think for so many people in the family, especially the men, there can be a temptation or an urge to marry someone who would fit the mould as opposed to somebody who perhaps you are destined to be with. The difference between making decisions with your head or heart.”
While this is pretty insulting, especially for William in his relationship with Catherine, it’s hardly accurate. We all recall how Kate was criticised for being “middle class” rather than “blue-blooded aristocracy” and to suggest that theirs is not a love match flies in the face of what is patently obvious when you see the couple together.
The next barrage is expected in Harry’s memoir, Spare, on sale January 10, and in the lead up to King Charles III’s coronation in May, such bombshells are certainly not helping the reputation and future of the monarchy at a key time of transition.
“Inevitably they are inflicting significant damage on the House of Windsor. But the secret of royalty is that it is what you want it to be – keen royalists will soon forget the attacks, anti-monarchists will walk away from it with their convictions confirmed,” says Christopher Wilson.
“The House of Windsor will survive, but in my estimation what Harry and Meghan have done is every bit as damaging to the institution as King Edward VIII’s Abdication was in 1936. In times of trouble – and the UK is suffering badly at the moment – the nation looks to its first family for stability, but when the royals are rocked by this level of attack it just adds to the atmosphere of chaos. It’s very unsettling.”
While a fraternal reconciliation feels increasingly unlikely, for the moment Prince William is refusing to be drawn into a public feud.
“William is very much in the mould of the late Queen, devoted to the monarchy and to the job ahead,” explains Christopher.
“Harry has taken a wrecking ball to the House of Windsor, while William’s mission – for the rest of his life – is to preserve and enhance its reputation. With the Netflix series, Harry and Meghan have passed the point of no return. They’ll never be seen on the Palace balcony again.”
Read this story and more in the January issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly.