Writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth reflects on the public response to the Duke of Edinburgh’s death.
Writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth reflects on the public reaction to the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, and how next weekend’s low-key funeral will be a poignant moment in the life of the Royal Family and the nation.
I think the Duke of Edinburgh would have been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to his death.
He was very much somebody who didn’t really think about himself very much. In fact, he made it a policy not to talk about himself, and he was quite dismissive of how he was seen, and I don’t think he gave it much thought. I think he couldn’t have failed to be touched by it, particularly by the extraordinary international response.
It’s been striking that leaders from across the world have responded in the way they have. In a sense it’s a reward for the fact that he travelled to more countries than any other member of the Royal Family ever. Although he didn’t take compliments well and he was always wanting no fuss, saying let’s keep this low key, I think he would have been gratified.
I think the public reaction to the Duke’s death reflects a couple of things. One is the people’s affection for the Queen. In a sense what has struck people is the sudden realisation that the Queen is alone. She met Prince Philip in the 1930s, they fell in love in the 1940s, and were married in 1947, which is longer than most people have been alive, and now she is alone. So it’s partly a sense of affection for the Queen and her loss.
But this is also someone who has lived 100 years – he has been there all our lives, so people can pause and reflect on a whole century that has gone by. This is the phenomenon of someone who has always been there, and people have stopped to think that he always did what he was asked to do. He was asked to support the Queen and he did, and he turned up in the right uniform on the right day at the right time without fail, for more than 70 years.
It reflects the success of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards Scheme too. My grandson, when he heard the news yesterday, happened to be working for a charity in order to get his Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold award. So the Duke of Edinburgh meant something to him, even though he’s only 16. And the award scheme means that children and young people understand what he was about even though they could only see him as a very old man.
I think it’s surprised people seeing all the tributes, because he’s been retired for three years. But people have also seen the news footage, and discovered a) how dynamic he was b) how good-looking and c) how active he was in so many areas over so many years, and that will have surprised many younger people.
Another trait that has come to light is his wicked sense of humour. Some of his jokes would probably now seem politically incorrect, but of course it was the humour of somebody of his generation. My favourite joke of his – and I heard him say this – was: Whenever you see a man opening a car door for his wife, it’s either a new car or a new wife.
He could also be quite disconcerting to be with. I remember being at the last fundraising event I did with him at Buckingham Palace nearly 10 years ago when he was already in his 90s. I was speaking and he kept interrupting me, saying this is boring, heard that story before.
But he did like to make people laugh and he succeeded on the whole. He knew he ran risks, that if he told too many jokes, once in a while one was bound to go wrong. But he was himself, and he’d say – there’s not a lot I can do about it.
As regards the funeral, in normal times we would have expected something a lot more elaborate. But he was really not looking forward to the fuss there would have been on his 100th birthday. So the pandemic has in a way come to his rescue, and it will be a much quieter, small-scale affair.
It’s still going to be televised, there will be the moment’s silence before it begins. It’ll be more poignant, though, because it will remind us that although he was a public man it won’t be a public occasion.
There would have been 800 people there, representing many of the charities with which he was involved. But that won’t happen now – there will be 30 people, principally members of his family.
He said to me more than once: “We are a family.” That’s what it is, it’s just a group of people when all’s said and done, so I think it will very poignant, of course, to see the Queen alone and to see her children and grandchildren mourning the loss of a father and grandfather. In a way it makes it more powerful, as something people can relate to because it’s a family gathering just like any other.
There’s a realisation that if we regard the Queen’s reign as a success, and most people do, he is the joint author of it. People were interested in what Barack Obama was saying about the value of the monarchy – in a world where presidents and prime ministers come and go, to have had this couple there for all our lives is a phenomenon, and it’s unsettling when it changes.