CBS will open the bomb-bay doors and roll Oprah’s made-in-California high-explosive fusion device, featuring the Queen’s self-exiled, half-abdicated grandson and his wife as the detonators, out the belly of its lumbering broadcast Superfortress at 8 p.m. ET sharp tonight. At last count, broadcasters in 68 nations had lined up for the rights, not least among them, Britain’s Independent Television (ITV), so that they, too, can invite Meghan Markle and Prince Harry to pound away on the British monarchy, the press, their new lives in Los Angeles and any other subject that moves them, or Oprah, for the two hours.
It’s an exercise in presenting a narrative of redemption, at which Ms. Winfrey excels. Crucial to the redemptive power and success of the broadcast is the extreme prominence of the couple’s primary “villains” — the entities that forced their young-married lives into the narratively-required crisis, which in turn set the stage for their attaining, nominally anyway, freedom-from-danger in Los Angeles and its entertainment industry. There could be lively debate about the clear and present back-stabbing dangers they face in their new chosen industry, but that won’t be at issue this evening.
Every great story wants a villain. There would be no Bond film worth watching without its Auric Goldfingers and Dr. Nos, no charming 101 Dalmations were it not for fabulous Cruella de Vil. In Oprah’s televised confessional cosmos, occasionally the villains are within her subjects, demons who must be fought and conquered, as in narratives of drug or alcohol dependency. In Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s case, the bad actors are external. The first is the British monarchy, and the second is the British press.
Imagined as a night-time soap television script, we know the shape and resolution of the “Meghan Markle” narrative going into the broadcast’s extended delineation of it: Though initially all seemed delightful, if a bit foreign, in all the palaces she inhabited after she married the Prince, the new duchess soon became distraught, threatened, and imperiled. After a close, wearying, and occasionally horrific two-front battle with both the monarchy and the press, the couple found salvation by declaring their freedom and by doing the only thing they could, by magically liberating themselves from the palace confines, and, with the help of more reasonable, non-royal friends based in Los Angeles — very much including the friend with whom they are sitting and discussing this on the veranda — they moved to Los Angeles and were instantly liberated by their philosophy of giving and by their production deal. There is a second baby en route, a joyful symbol of their vanquishing of their enemies, and of their regained freedom. All is well now. Thank you, roll credits.
The couple will be at pains to add much personal filigree to that storyline, and Oprah Winfrey will be excellent at eliciting that.
The difficulty with this narrative is twofold. In the real world, both of these “villains” are, generally, also treasured institutions, peopled by a wide variety of actors who cannot be characterized as being of malicious intent, from Harry’s grandmother and father on down to the lowliest sub-editors of Fleet Street. It’s a big world out there, and not everybody in it has a knife in the boot. Some people do. That, too, is a factor one learns to deal with in life.
The second difficulty with the storyline is that, in the real world, both Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had agency within their own narratives. They weren’t simply or totally suppressed, boxed-in, and betrayed, and the battle they led in royal service wasn’t just a forced defensive one, although at times they did make wholly natural, human defensive moves. They also chose to do many things that they liked, and they chose to make certain offensive moves, thrust and parry. Tonight’s broadcast is one of those chosen thrusts, and quite an aggressive one at that. There is nothing perjorative about that. It’s Newtonian. That’s what agency in battle is.
Buckingham Palace’s senior public relations courtiers are at an interesting disadvantage going into tonight’s broadcast because there is no “villain” upon which they can hang the blame for the still-large conflagration. Put another way, Meghan Markle’s and Prince Harry’s narratives can certainly be contested — and it will be fascinating to watch the Palace machinery get to that daunting task next week. But, Harry remains Harry, son of Charles, the next king of England, Scotland and Wales, and Meghan Markle is at the moment all but untouchable. Because: To attack them too broadly, personally, or intensely is to confirm any “victimization” theme in their narrative. That’s what a battle for control of a narrative is.
What will be discussed tonight will be how these two institutions were, over the last three years of arrayed against the new Californian couple. It remains to be seen whether Ms. Markle or Prince Harry will cross the line and name names of specific courtiers, or specific members of the press — although in the latter case, Meghan Markle’s ongoing London lawsuit against Associated Newspapers’ Mail Online and Mail on Sunday names quite a few. If CBS’ very popular trailers are anything to go by, including Meghan Markle’s strong intimation that Buckingham Palace was actively placing news stories against them, the gloves are off.
In global reach, the CBS marketing team has been working overtime: ITV paid CBS the not inconsiderable sum of £1 million for the privilege of pushing this live in England on Monday, March 8. Not unexpectedly, ITV also came under considerable fire for not postponing its broacast in light of Prince Philip’s recent heart surgery and ongoing hospital stay. Naturally, the Commonwealth and large parts of the world wish the sinewy, peppery, ramrod-straight 99-year-old former Royal Navy officer a speedy and felicitous recovery, but wartime broadcast rules are wartime broadcast rules, and this show is nothing if not an offensive in a larger war.
In old-school broadcast TV-language, what we can call the serried international “affiliates” in this massive event, all 68 and counting, will provide follow-on bombardments in the very second their contracts with the mothership CBS allow them to go live with it. It’s global and unstoppable.
Canada will go live tonight in lockstep with the United States. Loyal Commonwealth members Australia and New Zealand will follow on March 8. Like Britain, continental Europe — Germany, Italy, the Nordic Countries, Belgium, the Netherlands — will broadcast on March 8. Remarkably, Spain and France have not bought in, preferring simply to cover the towering news-tsunami that the broadcast will heave up. Sub-Saharan Africa — including massive Commonwealth television markets such as Nigeria but also including smaller markets such as Chad, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic — have bought in. It’s somewhat difficult to see what stake the combatants in South Sudan’s vicious civil war, or for that matter the Chad militias, could find in watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle kick back on the idyllic stone-flagged, beflowered California veranda with Oprah, enumerating their many complaints against the British monarchy. But in essence, those are the metrics of a global audience. It touches everybody somehow.
In framing what will be said tonight, it’s important to remember that the broadcast, itself, is and was always going to be a tactical element of battle in the ongoing conflict between the Windsor-Markles of California and the Windsors of Buckingham Palace. The broadcast will simply lead the fight in a bit of a new direction well beyond this evening. This is why all sides in the matter — the Windsor-Markles, their lawyers and spokespeople, the Queen and Charles and their senior courtiers, and not least, the baying hounds of the British royal press — will all be mightily spinning whatever is said tonight in the days and weeks to come.
Oprah Winfrey, Meghan Markle, and Prince Harry are an unstoppable broadcast force in this moment for a host of good reasons. Ms. Winfrey’s massive, painstakingly-assembled entertainment empire grinds on and on, having made her more or less a force of nature in the American landscape. It isn’t just her friendship with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry that got the famously media-chary couple to give her this staggering no-holds-barred access for such a mind-boggling amount of time on camera. Bluntly, Ms. Winfrey got the “get” because she has the most ferocious and immediate popular reach of any television producer/host in the country. She is peerless.
Prince Harry is peerless in a different way in the exclusive circle of his family, by virtue of his own habit of honest insouciance mixed with more than a bit of his mother’s popular touch. Instantly loved for the bundle of contradictions that make him, and for the open charm with which he lugs that freight around, he is at once a devoted husband and father, a shoot-from-the-hip, slightly mischievous boy, and a resolute military man. He had a natural bond with the whole of Britain, now fairly well dented and banged up. But they don’t make them like that often, a great loss that the Crown and his family will come to feel.
Meghan Markle’s wattage is more nuanced than Oprah’s or Prince Harry’s. Her moderate night-time soap success as an actress certainly honed and burnished her for the camera, but on camera or off, her talent lies in creating expectations — whether she lives up to them or dashes them doesn’t matter. She makes them. Those expectations offer her a certain kind of path, and she is strong in picking her way through it.
Put another way, we may think at this or that bend in the “Meghan Markle” narrative that we can come to know what she might do, but, as the last four roller-coaster years of watching her has demonstrated, we can’t really know that. If, in the teeth of her unilateral declaration of “freedom”, she wants to have her dogs flown to Canada, as in January 2020, she’ll darn well fly her dogs to Canada.
A timeline is helpful in determining what the couple themselves have actually done in their careers as full-time royals, and when they did it. First, it’s important to remember that Meghan Markle was a working royal for a whirlwind 18 months, counting, as Buckingham Palace does, from the moment of her wedding, when she entered duty to the Queen. Ms. Markle left Britain and royal life in November of 2019 for Canada and was in effect AWOL from the country and her role in it until five months later, after Harry and Buckingham Palace had determined how to set up some face-saving last few official events in which he and she could perform as royals in March 2020. She wasn’t part of the “Megxit” negotiations, she was its catalyst. When she returned to England to engage in the short final flurry of works, she was in-country for something like 72 hours. She, and her dogs, had already voted with their feet.
In short, that can be all be the result of happenstance or other exigencies, but it reads as wholly calculated and quite chilly. It would be splendid to hear more from the couple about why their exit from royal duty had to be accomplished that way, but it’s uncertain that Ms. Winfrey will dig for these details tonight. Because: They don’t necessarily fit the dire interior narrative that Meghan Markle would like to promote.
As many people who marry into royal families discover, and as Meghan Markle failed to calculate over her contentious 18 months of service as one, membership in the innermost family circle at the Court of St. James comes at a stiff price. Ceremonial events, patronages military and civilian, charitable causes of all stripes, diplomatic and government functions, Christmas at Sandringham — the price is deceptively large, with duty to it lasting one’s entire life. Prince Philip retired in 2017 with some 20,000-plus events to his credit alone, not counting the dozens of thousands of events he attended as husband to the Queen. The hilariously brusque, straight-spoken Duke of Edinburgh accomplished it with old-fashioned grace and an even more old-fashioned lets-get-on-with-it savoir faire. It’s a long, rough road.
Meghan Markle was not cut out to travel it. She’s clearly highly intelligent, and it doesn’t mean she couldn’t have learned — many less remarkable royal spouses have. In the early post-wedding public performances, as a good enough actress and a lighting-quick study, she understood instinctively how to demonstrate the mannerly sort of gravitas required of, say, laying a wreath with Harry at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day in November, when pretty much all thought turns in the direction of Flanders’ poppy fields.
But the larger point is that, on arrival in the British royal family, there is a tremendous amount to know, and Ms. Markle was thrust into the position of having to know it all at once. She didn’t arrive with much of the kit to buttress her presence; in fact, her freshness at it was part of her initial charm in the role. She simply got dropped into the hottest landing zone of all, right up next to the Queen herself.
This meant two things for her during her eighteen months’ service to the Queen. First, however many whip-smart aides she had at her beck and call to brief her on protocol or historical detail, and she had a few, the fact that she was on this or that patch of uncertain ground would inevitably reveal itself. It also meant that the British press would care, greatly, about each and every one of her lapses, be they lapses of etiquette or lapses of knowledge. Meghan Markle is a very fast study, and it can be argued that she knew how far back this put her in formal banquet hall chatter with one’s high-ranking military tablemates, if nothing else. If we’re lucky, she’ll address some of that tonight.
But in general it must have been a suffocating and, depending on the Palace or royal-service circumstance, even slightly terrifying grind of a life. Buckingham Palace has a schedule for the Queen, Charles, and their families. It doesn’t re-arrange the calendar to give the royal family members who may need it time to bone up. It comes with the territory of being in the Palace, as does the tenuous back and forth with an always testy, if occasionally hostile, royal-watching press. In the overall arc of her narrative, it’s clear that Meghan Markle never felt comfortable enough to give herself time to evolve a longer Palace game. But that doesn’t automatically make Buckingham Palace courtiers, or even the most avid bloodhounds of Fleet Street, villains out to do her in.
It just means that this much of the narrative she will hopefully expound on tonight is undeniably true: She came in cold with a lot to learn, and, surprising very nearly all of Britain after catching her prince, chose to leave.
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