The US is a natural home for the soap opera lives of Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle

The US is a natural home for the soap opera lives of Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle
Oprah Winfrey interviews Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. (Photo: Harpo Productions /J oe Pugliese via Getty Images)

The amazing ‘Meghan and Harry Show’, emceed by Oprah Winfrey, has captured the attention of millions at a time when the troubles of the planet weigh heavily upon us. Is there a larger meaning for it? Or is it just an interesting variation on that John Goodman feature film, ‘King Ralph’?

Amid all the horrific ills and challenges of today’s world that are occupying our respective consciousnesses, we have also been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the extraordinary world of Meghan and Harry, erstwhile Duchess and Duke of Sussex. 

Their protean struggles have quickly become a massive television hit, because it is a television series with that really big, opening episode and lots of juicy bite-sized segments that are now coming along quite regularly. 

Along the way, the saga has provoked debates among and between royalists, the woke and anybody who likes a good distraction from more real concerns among those in Britain, as well as former colonies such as the US and South Africa.

Unless the reader has been lost in the Gobi Desert for the past two weeks sans the internet, a shortwave radio or an Inmarsat phone, you have undoubtedly caught sight of this story. 

Some are arguing the real tale is about the insidious influence of racism and prejudice on a young couple in a racially mixed marriage as they have been forced to flee the British Isles for a kinder, gentler exile (while still in the lap of luxury). Well, there may well be that element present, but that may not be the whole story. (Just for something of a reality check, an Economist poll showed black Britons felt less racial harassment than in most other European nations, with only Malta having less such behaviour.) 

Yes, their tale is also about the deeply hidebound nature of the British royal family firm and their love/hate embrace of the tabloid press as part of the way they keep their subjects fixated on all those royal comings and goings, encouraging the sale of all those tea towels and tickets to visit the Crown Jewels. (Tabloids with a royal as the cover story sell better than almost anything else. And historically, in both Britain and the US, publishers know issues with a cover story and picture about the late Princess Diana remain a guaranteed sellout at the checkout till where many of those glossy magazines and tabloids are sold.) 

But, even more than these aspects, this current saga is also about the contemporary nature of celebrity — and why we love to gawk at it, to gossip about it, to embrace its very being or scoff at it. After all, and let’s be really honest about it, these two thirty-somethings — Meghan and Harry — are not yet known for their major accomplishments in life, so far, at least.

In fact, the attraction of their kind of celebrity actually has something in common with the gristly way many people will slow down to gaze at a car accident. A fatal crash is a very guilty, even embarrassing, spectacle for the onlooker: We are afraid to look at it, but, simultaneously, we cannot look away.

To abbreviate the royals’ story drastically for those who were on that caravan deep in the Gobi, Prince Harry, second son of Charles, the Prince of Wales, went well beyond the usual run of royal candidates for a princely marriage partner, ultimately marrying American television actress, Meghan Markle. 

Vivacious and now twice-married, outspoken and having made a television career in a rough and tumble business, she was also, just by the way, a woman with a biracial genetic heritage, with a black mother and a white father. 

The key elements of this story were immediately seized upon by Britain’s tabloid press with an almost obsessive, merciless delight, although the royal couple seemed to have taken the slights in their stride — at least publicly, at first. However, we have now learnt, much of that struck painfully into the couple.

Taken together, looking backwards from the present, it now seems almost inevitable there would be a difficult, stormy time ahead for this marriage, despite the initial lack of public ripples. That seemed generally true until Prince Harry (with his spouse, obviously) elected to surrender all those royal public duties of opening flower shows and new bridges and reluctantly foregoing the not insubstantial resources of the royal accounts. After some increasingly public agonising, they moved abroad, first to Canada’s British Columbia, and then on to southern California. 

In their new circumstances as royals outside the embrace of “The Firm” (will there eventually be comparisons to the history of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and their exile to France and Bermuda once he had abdicated the throne “to marry the woman I love”?), the couple and their son, Archie, with a daughter on the way, are now borrowing a lavish home from entertainment mogul Tyler Perry, and they have eased into the California life, along with setting up a shelter for rescue chickens (really). 

Given the need to identify some real sources of revenue, they signed onto what are believed to be rather lucrative production deals with Netflix and Spotify. Beyond the prince’s inheritance and any cash his wife had previously socked away, a new revenue stream was clearly needed for their charmed life in true Lalaland-style exile. 

Things for the Sussexes (at least until their second child is born) might well have stayed fairly subdued, until, in the fullness of time and tide, there came The Interview. Hosted by Oprah, still the queen of talk television, the empress of public bathos, and the supreme global purveyor of the revelatory reveal from the rich and famous, the couple’s extensive interview was broadcast on America’s CBS network and then offered for rebroadcast internationally through Winfrey’s Harpo Productions company. Among many rebroadcasts around the globe, it was shown in South Africa on the M-Net channel. 

While the couple and Oprah stated on air that there was no fee paid to them for their original appearance, nor were the questions vetted in advance, it is possible there may have been a bit less clarity about whether any payments came their way from those lucrative rebroadcast rights. Fiddly details like that may not matter so much when there are many mouths to feed and chickens to rescue. (About those chickens, see below.) 

In the aftermath of the broadcast, there has been a rising global debate about the contents of the interview, including such things as Markle’s confession that she felt deeply mortified when questioned by an unnamed someone in the royal kraal about the likely hue of her firstborn son’s skin — a perfectly reasonable, justified reaction on her part. 

Then there was the apparent failure of the royal household to assist in getting her the psychological counselling she believed she needed to address near-suicidal feelings as she bent under the insults, slights and worse from the sleazy British tabloid press and on many streams in social media. 

Then there was the moment she and Kate Middleton, her sister-in-law and the prince’s older brother’s wife, locked horns over who made whom cry regarding the couture for some in her bridal party. 

Moreover, Meghan voiced hurt over her perceptions of deep slights because of the lack of an automatic royal title for son Archie and the lack of any willingness for royal-funded security personnel for him on the day Prince Charles ascends to the throne. 

Even now, the lost “Camelot” of the Kennedy presidency of the early 1960s remains a touchstone for the merging of memory, longing and a wistful near-dreamlike feeling among many that a political dynasty like that family might not have been a bad thing for the country, given who came along instead. 

There was much more, including a disconcerting pre-taped insert about Harry and Meghan raising rescue chickens. Really — what is a rescue chicken? 

But the real firestorm may have been less about the specifics of her charges (and some now rather oh-so-carefully couched rebuttals from the royal household), and much more about how all this is playing out, as onlookers everywhere ponder the tangled nature of celebrity, British royal family traditional mores and casual racism (don’t forget Prince Harry’s Nazi party costume when he was younger), and the continuing importance of race in contemporary British (and American) society.

So let us tug at this knot a bit. And we shall see what is the meaning of celebrity in today’s world, where the Meghan and Harry Show fits with these ideas about celebrity, and what larger lessons this may say about our contemporary world.

The prologue for this drama played out in Britain, of course, and there are still side plots there. One of these was the apparently forced resignation of broadcaster Piers Morgan from the Good Morning Britain television show after he poured acid-tipped invective all over the couple and then promptly stomped off the set when challenged by a co-host. 

Another was the rather stilted apologetic non-apology from the royals about the way Meghan had been treated, how she felt about it, and their promise to have themselves a serious internal dialogue about race and their feelings about racism, going forward.

But the real action is in America. And for Americans. That’s where the really big money is, and where the mechanisms for global media predominance are based. As a result, Harry and Meghan are in the running to become what Americans, deep down, deep inside themselves, always seem to want, despite all those (small “r” and small “d”) democratic and republican traditions and public utterances. 

They want a bit of their own royalty. 

Right after the Revolutionary War and before the Constitution had been adopted, a significant body of citizens of the new nation had urged George Washington to accept the kingship of their new nation, although he wisely chose — like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome — to return to his farm, at least until he was called back into service as president. And he could have been president permanently had he wanted it.

In more recent times, as the country’s cinema industry exploded in the early 20th century, Americans looked to movie stars as a new kind of populist royalty. Their doings were followed by millions through the media, almost from the very beginning of Hollywood film-making, as stars like Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Mary Pickford became national icons. 

While the country was rarely willing to accept political dynasties — with a few regional exceptions such as the Tafts of Ohio — the rise of John F Kennedy, the young, charismatic war hero turned senator then president, changed that feeling. He headed a large family whose politics, entertaining and obvious joie de vivre, a little bit of adventurous seasoning from the reported liquor smuggling during prohibition by Joe Kennedy Sr and his romancing movie stars, and then, later, a continuing run of violent tragedies, all came together to give rise to a unique dynastic presence for American life and history. 

Even now, the lost “Camelot” of the Kennedy presidency of the early 1960s remains a touchstone for the merging of memory, longing and a wistful near-dreamlike feeling among many that a political dynasty like that family might not have been a bad thing for the country, given who came along instead. 

Or, as the final reprise of the vastly popular Lerner and Loewe musical, “Camelot”, had put it so poignantly — in a Broadway run that essentially coincided with Kennedy’s presidency — as sung by King Arthur at the finale when he must steel himself to wage war against his best knight, Sir Lancelot:

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.

The national grief when the actual president was actually shot on 22 November 1963 gave yet further impetus to the idea of a benign, democratic kingship. Family members of the most recent president in the US are apparently testing the waters as a dynasty as well, even if there is little taste for such a gamble among most voters, so far, at least.

And so, it is not very hard to imagine, what with all that Hollywood and show business lore in her veins, that Meghan Markle understands this American love of celebrity. 

Thus in some ineffable — maybe even unconscious — way, maybe she is attempting to position herself, and her less-aware-of-the-texture-of-American-popular-culture husband, as a kind of alternate royal household now in gracious exile, driven from the castle by the brutality of the British press and the unfeeling racism of his family, in order to seek out a different, altogether sunnier place to begin their new life. 

Inevitably, then, they have unpacked in the much friendlier turf (and much better weather) of southern California, and then called upon Oprah to help sell their seductive message. 

That part of the planet, southern California, is, after all, a place where she already understands the game. It is where, as a couple, they can spread their wings in a racially more accommodating and more varied landscape, do some good works, find a splendid pied-à-terre to call their own, gambol with their children and the rescued poultry and canine pets, and, along the way, grab hold of some of the output from the ever-spinning money printing machine that is the new media. 

America is, after all, as we know from 200-plus years of literature and folklore, the land of the eternal second chance and new beginnings, just as Huckleberry Finn had said at the end of his story, as recounted by his creator, Mark Twain, “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Marianne Nicol says:

    At the time of the The Interview, they have bought their own house and not renting from Tyler Perry anymore. Just some useless information 🤣

    • Andrew Blaine says:

      The interview confirms the fact that civilian America has no concept of the power of discipline.
      Instead, self indulgence and victimhood rule. Meghan is masterful in her “poor me” performance and drags poor Harry along. At least he understands discipline and duty!

  • Chris 123 says:

    As soon as the race card pulled this charade was a no brainer.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    This interview was a cynical attention seeking exercise with, certainly Harry, knowing full well that the Palace could not respond to the accusations. I used to have a high opinion of Harry.

  • Mark Schaufelbuehl says:

    Thanks Mr. Spector, for the amusing summary, dotted with your insight. It was worth coming out of the Gobi for this!!!

  • Chris Hill says:

    All marginally less interesting than the Kardashians!

    Nice article.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    A rescue chicken is one that avoided being served at a KFC! Since the American adopted royalty have chosen California as their choice of abode, wait until the white supremacist Republicans unleash their Trumpian vitriol on that democrat-infested space! Georgian-style voter suppression may work.

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