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David Knight: The monarchy is not crumbling yet – but ambivalence could soon turn to apathy

Writer David Knight (right) meets Prince Charles in the P&J offices during the 1990s
Writer David Knight (right) meets Prince Charles in the P&J offices during the 1990s

What struck me most about Duke of Edinburgh tributes was his ability to put people at ease with a laugh and a joke.

As the Queen steamed serenely ahead at official events – enrobed in a dignified cloak of duty – Prince Philip was often creating a music hall commotion in her wake.

Despite detractors, he was purposefully easing tension and lightening the mood.

David Knight

Nothing matches the dread of a royal visit if you happen to be a lowly commoner paralysed by fear of messing up.

Sadly I never met Prince Philip, but I did chat briefly with the Duke of Rothesay when he visited the P&J a few years ago.

I noticed that Prince Charles was a dab hand at breaking the ice, too.

I’ll never forget the first thing he said to me after being introduced by my boss.

“What do you think of your boss?” he asked with a mischievous grin, “You can tell me.”

He knew my boss was standing in earshot and taking an eagle-eyed interest. I have a picture which recorded this very moment. I look like a flustered semaphore operator waving my arms around as I said something like: “I couldn’t possibly comment, sir”.

It was a funny moment which dispelled my nerves. You can see from the picture that the heir to the throne thought it was hilarious.

Today’s sheep prices

Something even funnier happened a few moments later. As his tour had paused at the news desk he said he was keen to see the big story we were working on that day.

His royal peepers swivelled past my elbow to stare at a colleague’s computer screen.

“And what’s this?” He asked eagerly as he leaned in towards an item on screen.

It was too late for distraction tactics.

“Er, today’s sheep prices from Wick market, ” I announced as regally as I could. This was not, I hasten to add, the main story of the day; it was some of the more humdrum material passing through for the farming pages.

For a split second, I thought HRH – a keen fan of the classic Goons comedy show – would crumble. He must have summoned every ounce of iron will forged from years of royal training, Prince Philip’s tutelage and his time at Gordonstoun to keep a straight face.

Without a twitch of a smile he carried on regardless with an earnest conversation about the aforementioned sheep prices, as if they were indeed the most important story of the day. It was a golden experience I never forgot.

Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards saved some young people from the scrap heap

Much credit must go to Prince Philip as creator of the royal walkabout. The royals are good at this type of thing – they can make you feel like you are the most important person in their world.

Over the past few days, countless recipients of Duke of Edinburgh’s Award certificates spoke of joy and fulfillment Prince Philip brought them. They remembered meeting him at their presentations as vividly as if it was yesterday.

The awards rescued some young people who might have ended up on the scrap heap after school; the die can be cast far too early. It’s a fate still lurking for kids with the so-called “wrong” background, attitude or learning ability.

Time to reshape the monarchy

The Queen’s extraordinary reign is almost over. Only people over 80 can actually remember living under any other monarch. Prince Charles and the Duke of Cambridge have a huge challenge in reshaping the monarchy for a new post-Elizabethan period.

The royal balcony is getting a little overcrowded these days (Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire)

Prince Philip’s visionary awards scheme stood the test of time and remains relevant. The monarchy itself will face the same challenge.

As if proof was needed of ambivalent attitudes, look at a recent poll. It showed support was still holding up generally.

But, when asked who would make the best head of state, Prince William topped the poll – with David Attenborough a close second.

The new top royals will have to ensure that ambivalence does not turn to apathy among younger generations. Streamlining, or downsizing minor royals on the payroll are obvious options.

The monarchy is not crumbling yet, but the famous Buckingham Palace balcony the royals crowd onto might be feeling the strain. Forty-two members of the royal family were reportedly stacked like sardines on the balcony at Trooping the Colour in 2019.

Perhaps they should get a builder to check if the balcony is suffering wear and tear under such fearsome weight.

I think that might have looked at home in Prince Philip’s repertoire of mischievous quips.

David Knight is the long-serving former deputy editor of the Press and Journal

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