The TV Review column from the June 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
Prince Charles finds out that he has a grown-up mixed-race son from a forgotten fling pre-Diana. Newly-pregnant Camilla fears that this will disrupt her plans for the Parker-Bowles dynasty. So she buys her new step-son a motorbike with faulty brakes, and after he dies in an accident her unborn child is back closer to being the heir to the throne. This is just one of the daft plot threads crammed into The Windsors, Channel 4’s soapy sitcom featuring caricatures of the royal family, or nearly all of them.
Prince William is played with a permanently furrowed brow and steely determination to be a helicopter pilot. His father doesn’t approve, and thinks that William only needed to be in the RAF so he could wear the uniform at his wedding. Kate has a wide-eyed enthusiasm about finding her place in the monarchy, even if her ‘Gypsy heritage’ risks being an embarrassment. Pippa Middleton is portrayed as a sneering, devious gold-digger ‘with a fantastic arse’. Envious of Kate’s promotion to royalty, she tries to inveigle herself into the clan by seducing Harry. He’s depicted as being a bit thick, with the occasional hint that he’s not Prince Charles’ son. Harry Enfield plays Charles, the only actor doing anything close to an impersonation. He fills his time overseeing an organic biscuit company and writing to the government about green issues like woodlice habitats. Camilla is impatient to be Queen and worried that Wills and Kate’s popularity will mean the line of succession to the throne will skip a generation. She works to sabotage their reputation among ‘the Great British scum’ by engineering Kate insulting a group of amputees by dressing as a peg-leg pirate.
Washed-up Fergie gets disappointed when she isn’t recognised and annoyed about having her nickname usurped by Alex Ferguson and the singer in the Black Eyed Peas. Beatrice and Eugenie are faced with having to support themselves, so they set up businesses as ‘online make-up tip girl sensations’ and then a dating app for aristocrats. They fix-up a date between Fergie and a caddish Prince Andrew hoping ‘we can be a happy family again, just like we were in January and February 1994’. Prince Edward’s TV production company folded long ago, so he tries to scrape some money together by working as an incompetent removals service and babysitter for Wills and Kate.
So far, Prince Philip only features in the sweary, racist letters he sends to his grandsons, reminding them that he’s ordered MI6 to assassinate Fergie if she goes within five miles of Buckingham Palace. The Queen has been conspicuous by her absence in the show, and doesn’t even get mentioned. Depicting her has been a risk the programme-makers haven’t wanted to take, perhaps mindful of the controversy when Spitting Image introduced a puppet of the Queen Mother. In the mid-’80s, many thought that mocking ‘the nation’s favourite granny’ was a step too far, and the producers of The Windsors haven’t wanted to take the equivalent step today. Despite the irreverence, the show doesn’t really want to risk offence or encourage republican feeling. The royals’ naivety about the world everyone else lives in is shown in an endearing way. Those who’ve failed to stay in the inner circle (Edward, Fergie, Beatrice, Eugenie) are likeable hard-up has-beens. Apart from Kate, those not in the royal bloodline (Pippa and Camilla) are portrayed as conniving harridans. The world outside the Windsors’ window is largely populated by stereotypes; Northerners wear cloth caps, put ferrets down their trousers and eat chip butties, while Gypsies tarmac drives, grow lucky heather and collect scrap metal. The programme tries to get away with this by pitching all the performances as too knowingly over-the-top to take seriously. The plotlines are also too overblown for the show to have much satirical bite.
The Windsors is the latest in the line of succession of royal caricatures on the telly. Its closest descendent is The Royals (recently shown on E!), a largely poorly-received American melodrama about a made-up royal family’s shenanigans. Spitting Image (1984 – 1996) remains the benchmark, and spawned similar successors like 2DTV (2001 – 2004), Animated Headcases (2008) and Newzoids (2015). Whereas these shows turned the royals into cartoon characters, Doubletake, a 2003 BBC2 series took a different approach. This featured celebrity lookalikes in personal or embarrassing situations, as if captured on CCTV or shaky hidden cameras. Images like doppelgangers of the Queen sitting on the toilet and Camilla in her underwear were intended to demythologise celebs, not make them even larger than life. In contrast, The Windsors is overdone and doesn’t have anything original to say, a bit like its subject matter.