They’re more royal than the royals. Detached they might be, but even in exile they are fulfilling their duties to the letter. For all their insistence that they had to break away from the system of monarchy, Harry and Meghan remain two of its most devoted servants. Because, for all the red-top fury aimed their way, they are doing the job from which they claimed to have “stepped back” exactly as it has been prescribed for generations. Indeed, they continue to provide the service Britons have been demanding from the Windsors for a century or more.
And what is that service? At its simplest, it is entertainment – or, perhaps more accurately, diversion. At a time when the news is full of bleak tidings – nurses paid so poorly they are compelled to strike, migrants and refugees risking death to cross an icy Channel, Russian missiles raining down on Ukraine – H&M, as the couple call each other, have served up a welcome excuse to look the other way.
Even those splashing the Duke and Duchess’s woes across the front pages, and those reading them, know this story is not as important as some (or any) of the other things going on in the world. It’s not despite that fact, but because of it, that people are snuggling under the duvet for a couple (or six) hours of Sussex-watching on Netflix. That’s how escapism works.
Naturally, some have taken to the phone-in shows to complain about the volume of media attention lavished on this trivia, decrying such warped priorities when food banks are joined by warm banks, bedding banks and nappy banks, and when homeless people shiver on the streets. But I rather liked James O’Brien’s response to an LBC caller who chided him for covering the Netflix show instead of graver matters. “But you didn’t call me about those things, did you? You called me about this.”
Admittedly, the platform is a departure from royal tradition. Harry’s parents conducted their war against each other via interviews on ITV and the BBC; now the outlet is a global streaming service. Which means “the institution”, as the Sussexes refer to it, has to worry about reputational damage not only in its home market, where it can usually shape the media narrative, but internationally, where it can’t.
The location is new, too: Windsor giving way to Montecito, ribbon-cutting at municipal leisure centres in England replaced by guided meditation sessions in the California hills. But that’s no big deal for successful entertainment franchises: The White Lotus relocated from Hawaii to Italy for its second season. Perhaps the best way to think of the Sussexes is as a spinoff from the main show. Production has been outsourced and privatised, but it remains very much the same brand.
For what is the story that Harry and Meghan are telling? It is of a royal clan riven into factions, a tale so old Shakespeare was speaking of “the bond crack’d twixt son and father” nearly half a millennium ago. But at its centre is a young royal who believes himself misunderstood and mistreated, even cast out, by a cold, heartless institution.
That story, too – turning on romance, either thwarted or doomed – is wholly in keeping with Windsor tradition. I can remember my parents recalling their sympathy for Princess Margaret, denied her love of Group Captain Peter Townsend – he was always given his full rank, even around our kitchen table – while my grandmother would chip in with memories of the fateful romance of Edward and Mrs Simpson. For my generation, it was Princess Diana who ran into the chilly strictures of the Firm. For my sons, it will be the fable of Harry and Meghan. People take sides, the young usually rooting for the ones who dare defy convention (though, in the decades that followed, there were few eager to confess they’d cheered for the Hitler-curious Edward and Wallis). Round and round it goes, generating monarchy’s most valuable quality: continuity. Off the Firm’s books they may be, but Harry and Meghan are still in the royal business.
Indeed, they are doing the deeper part of the job too: holding up a mirror – albeit a wonky one – to the nation royalty serves. The Netflix series’ strongest and saddest theme is that when a historically closed, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant institution such as the British monarchy had a chance to open up by including a Black woman, thereby winning new admirers across the globe, it blew it – chiefly by surrendering to the racist double standard applied by a corner of the press (and presumably its readers) that could not look at Meghan without reaching for the lexicon of “gangsters”, “Straight Outta Compton” and all the dispiriting rest.
In the process, and over six glossy if long hours, H&M remind us of the price we exact from the Windsor family, and those who join it, as that single dynasty provides us with this odd service: part-soap, part-reflecting surface, part-diplomatic corps. “We pay, they pose”, runs the unwritten contract between public and royals, according to a Times headline that briefly appears in the latest batch of programmes.
The consequences of that bargain – struck ever since we stopped the royals from ruling us but kept them in place anyway – are laid bare in this series, just as they were in the show from which Harry & Meghan blurrily picks up and which it echoes, namely The Crown. Put simply, this is an arrangement that requires one family to live dysfunctionally, for ever watched. The dystopian movie classic The Truman Show – imagining a child who, from birth, is permanently on camera for the amusement of a global TV audience – appals us, and yet that is not so far from how we demand the Windsors live.
You don’t have to like Harry and Meghan, or enjoy six hours of one-sided, uninterrupted PR-cum-hagiography, or even be able to stomach the California vocabulary of “triggering”, “spaces” and feeling “seen”, to concede that the whole set-up does very strange, often poisonous, things to those fated to live within it. Harry may be far too sensitive to – and consume too much of – the media, but that’s easy for me to say: he believes it was obsessive press interest in his mother that drove her to her death, and he has good grounds to believe that.
Which is why I’ve long considered myself a pro-Windsor republican. There are sound, democratic reasons for a grownup country to choose its own head of state, but a further, compelling argument for abolition of the monarchy is the damage it does to the family saddled with the inherited burden of performing it. The process is cruelly warping, the proof documented generation after generation. I think we should do things differently for our sake. But if that’s not persuasive, take one look at the state of the Windsors – and do it for them.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist