Whatever else may be said about the royal family -- and a great deal tends to be -- it is not dull. Rarely a day goes by without some titillating tidbit for newspaper vendors. And although court reporting has always been a staple of the British press, the recent lode has been regarded by connoisseurs as especially rich.
Prince Charles and Diana, princess of Wales, had their first public spat. Prince Philip raised eyebrows when he berated the people of the Solomon Islands for having too many babies. Princess Anne and husband Mark Phillips canceled plans to visit Africa together and flew off in separate directions and, of course, Prince Andrew's Caribbean tryst with soft-porn actress Kathleen (Koo) Stark turned out to be embarrassingly visible.
But one royal -- as always -- remained above reproach. "Isn't it quite fantastic!" exulted John Junor, editor of the Sunday Express, "that in the middle of all the turmoil, there is one member of the royal family who never puts a foot wrong, never makes a false step, never displays boredom in public and never utters a stupid, unthinking phrase?"
"Isn't our queen absolutely wonderful?"
Lest there be the remotest doubt about Queen Elizabeth's standing with her subjects worldwide, the London Times reported the following item Monday under the headline "Magician Stops Rain for Queen" by Grania Forbes, court correspondent of Britain's press association, datelined Tarawa, Kiribati, in the South Pacific.
"A magician's spell and the gift of a coconut leaf corset complete with mini grass skirt, made the queen's visit to Kiribati a memorable one. . .
"But when it came to the weather there was no faith in modern ways. Fearing that bad weather would continue, the magician Iosiabata was sent for to stop the rain. In great secrecy, the wizard said his spells and then, as custom dictates, disappeared to make them work. His powers proved effective because 10 minutes before the queen stepped ashore, the rainstorm disappeared too."
On the one hand, the British do treat their royals, appropriately, like kings and queens, paying them huge amounts of money to live in high style and perform regal functions. On the other hand, as the latest round of stories demonstrates, every peccadillo is reported, every tiff magnified by tabloids into front-page revelations. Pundits have been moved to pass judgment. "On the Palace and Dallas," The Guardian called a thoughtful editorial the other day. It compared public fascination with the fictional Ewings of the television show and the surpassing interest in "the everyday story of Buckingham Palace."
In a high-stakes battle for circulation, teams of reporters compete for royal scoops. Royals sell newspapers the way that soap operas sell soap.
"Thus in grim, recession-ridden Britain," The Guardian observed, "where the life vicarious is so often more rewarding than the life of reality, the hounding of the royal family and its deferential adulation are inseparable parts of the same process."
A few years ago, it was Princess Margaret, the queen's younger sister, who scored highest on the scandal ratings. While still married to Lord Snowdon, she slipped off to the same island, Mustique, to which Prince Andrew took Koo Stark.
The royal offspring get most of the gossipy attention these days (with the spectacular exception of last summer's intruder into the queen's bedroom or Prince Philip's occasionally controversial remark).
Writing in the Daily Mail last week, columnist Lynda Lee Potter commented, "I'm entranced to see that the close-knit loving royals have the same tricky problems nearly every family in the land has to cope with over a recalcitrant son, a truculent daughter, a mulish son-in-law. I remain convinced that news of their generation's problems endears them to us even more than ever.
"It is immensely reassuring to know that the queen is in the same family boat as the rest of us, with her advice frequently unheeded, her wishes disobeyed and her ears not totally unaccustomed to that crushing phrase, 'Oh Mother you don't understand.' "
As it happens, most of the latest spate of revelations merely confirms the previous reputations of the various royals. Prince Andrew is widely known as "Randy Andy" in tribute to his interest in the opposite sex. . (Just yesterday, the Daily Mirror reported that "The Adolescents," an X-rated movie containing explicit sex scenes and featuring Stark, Andrew's most recent companion, was scheduled for general release in Britain next month.) Rumors of tension in Princess Anne's marriage to Mark Phillips have been circulating for several years.
One new item for readers to fret over was the reported squabble between Charles and Diana over the family vacation at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. After almost two months at the castle, including the rainiest October in memory, Diana insisted on going back to London and taking her infant son, Prince William, with her. Charles reportedly resisted before giving in.
The Sun, one of the most aggressive tabloids, quoted "a member of the royal household" as saying, "who can blame Diana? It's been terrible weather and she's been left to mope around." Prince Charles, meanwhile, spent nearly every day hunting deer.
Back in London, Diana was photographed on shopping sprees in her favorite department stores, Harrods and Harvey Nichols, and Charles flew back to Scotland to get in the last few days of the deer season.
Predictably, the affair was occasion for analytical articles on how well Diana is coping "with the inevitable loneliness, the burdens and restrictions her marriage to the heir to the throne would impose." Ann Morrow, author of a forthcoming biography of the queen, noted that the storybook romance of the royal couple has run smack into modern emotional realities.
Some palace advisers, Morrow wrote in the Daily Mail, are saying that Diana was too young to take on the awesome responsibilities of being Charles' wife: "What they should be doing is telling Prince Charles that in today's world, wives are simply not left to their own devices, that her desires are quite as important as his.
"It is not enough to love his bride -- as so clearly he does. It is also necessary to sustain her."
If this was radio, there would have to be organ music.
Meantime, while waiting for the next installment, readers can enjoy excerpts from a new book (duly serialized in several papers) called "The Book of Royal Lists." In it are such morsels as the fact that when traveling, the queen always takes her feather pillow, her hot-water bottle, her favorite China tea, her monogrammed electric kettle, her toilet soap and a special white-kid lavatory seat.
According to the book, the queen likes jigsaw puzzles, long-stemmed deep-pink carnations, and quiet evenings at home watching television with her supper on a tray. The queen does not like snails, tennis, cigar smoke and talk of Edward VIII -- her late uncle who gave up the throne for "the woman he loved," a royal scandal far bigger than anything that's happened in this generation.