- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

If you write books about royalty, it is probably no disadvantage if you happen to possess an aristocratic title. Of all the authors and journalists who have been following the various acts of the pantomime that is the House of Windsor, few can match the list of blue-blood contacts amassed by Sarah Bradford, biographer of the queen and otherwise known as Viscountess Bangor.

Which explains why her latest book, a biography of Princess Diana — just published in the United Kingdom — has aroused so much attention. I haven’t read it yet, and given that the royal family’s dysfunctional behavior bores me senseless, it’s unlikely I shall hand over my 40 dollars for a copy.

Besides, there has been a steady flow of highlights courtesy of a tabloid newspaper serialization. This informed us, among other things, that Diana liked to call her father-in-law “Stavros” (presumably after a kebab-vendor who was one of the cult characters in a 1980s comedy sketch show) and that her final lover, the ill-starred Dodi Fayed, was the proud owner of nine houses, a Gulfstream jet and a cocaine habit.

Even writing that last sentence is a slightly disorienting experience. Nine years after her death in Paris, Diana seems to me more unreal than ever. Did this poor woman ever really exist outside of the imagination of fashion editors and high-class gossip columnists? I sometimes wonder. Definitely no royalist, I made a point of working on the day of her wedding to Prince Charles. That afternoon I felt I was the only person in London who was not either attending the ceremony or watching it on TV.

So, no, I didn’t join the throngs gathering to create that immense bouquet at Kensington Palace in the days after the princess’ death. I do not even recall watching more than a few minutes of her funeral service at Westminster Abbey.

But I do remember the bizarre atmosphere that prevailed in London, as the nation seemed to flirt with the idea of indulging in a collective nervous breakdown. The sickly-sweet smell of all those decaying flowers reflected the emotional state of the country. According to Sarah Bradford, the authorities were so nervous about the public response on the day of the funeral that riot squads were kept in readiness, out of view.

How odd to see that era re-created in Stephen Frears’ new film, “The Queen.” You may already have seen a good deal about this movie, especially Helen Mirren’s miraculous performance as the troubled, stiff-upper-lip monarch.

Normally I take all of this media hyperactivity with a large pinch of salt: It is a long time since I believed anything most of the film critics have to say. In this case, though, the hype-merchants are right. The movie is a thoroughly entertaining yet thoughtful critique of the way the royals live now, and of how so many of us like to live our lives vicariously through them.

Set in the hours and days immediately after that fatal crash near the Seine, the script allows us a peek behind the magic curtain, showing us how her majesty and her inner circle, cloistered in the rustic retreat at distant Balmoral, dealt with the turmoil unleashed by Diana’s sudden death.

It isn’t an especially flattering portrait. The queen seems a prisoner of protocol, resentful of Diana and unwilling to respond the public outpourings of grief. Prince Philip, stiff-necked and irascible, comes out of it even worse, while the portrait of the queen mother is far from the doting matriarch we saw on great occasions of state. As for Charles, well, no surprises there.

The great achievement of the film, though, is that it doesn’t settle for easy jibes at the expense of the privileged classes. Gradually, we come to see the events through the queen’s eyes. We begin to realize that, as a product of the generation of World War II, she is bemused by the modern-day notion of making a display of feeling other people’s pain.

And Mr. Frears deserves credit for not indulging in crude Blair-baiting. Yes, there is something particularly unctuous about the way the newly elected prime minister fastens onto the spinmeister’s phrase, “the people’s princess.” In the opening scenes, the personification of New Labor certainly does come across as a slick student politician, Bill Clinton without the charisma or the honed intellect.

Yet by the end of the movie, Mr. Blair has grown into more than a connoisseur of opinion polls. Alarmed at first that the Windsors are stirring up unwelcome headlines, he maneuvers Buckingham Palace into playing the public relations game. Yet by the end, almost to his surprise, he has come to admire the queen’s quiet stoicism.

He needs that quality himself now. There was a time when Mr. Blair seemed every bit as presidential as George W. Bush — more so, in fact, since a prime minister is much less hindered by constitutional niceties than any occupant of the White House. Suddenly all that power has fallen away.

Ever since he made the mistake of announcing that he would not seek another term in office, Mr. Blair’s authority has been undermined by his opponents inside his own party. In the last month, his stock has fallen disastrously. It is always possible he will mount a counter-coup, but as I write this he already seems to be yesterday’s man.

I hope he does make a comeback. But there is a dream-like aura to the mood at Westminster. Labor members elected Mr. Blair because they knew that the old policies of the left were discredited. He rewarded them with three election victories.

Yet, today, a large segment of the party gives the impression that it lives in hope of returning to the pre-Blair era. The fact that the prime minister’s likely successor, Gordon Brown, appears to be almost as pro-American as Mr. Blair has been, seems to count for nothing.

Labor supporters, you sense, are living in a Balmoral of the mind. The real word does not intrude on them. The one difference, I suppose, is that they would never dream of passing the time by going stag-hunting.

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London. His weblog is at www.clivedavis-online.com.

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