Sussex historian Christopher Lee on why Prince George may never be king
PUBLISHED: 11:22 31 March 2014 | UPDATED: 11:22 31 March 2014
Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036
Sussex-based writer, historian and broadcaster Christopher Lee changed our perception of British history. Now he says Prince George may never be king. He talks to Angela Wintle
Christopher Lee is certainly no stranger to controversy. The historian and former BBC royal correspondent, best known for This Sceptred Isle, an award-winning history of Britain for Radio 4, has stirred up no end of fuss in his new book, arguing that Prince George may never be king. But he insists he isn’t advocating the abolition of the monarchy.
“I was being a little more constructive than that, though change there will surely be,” he says. “It would take only a senior royal death to prompt discussion about the monarchy’s future.”
Although opinion polls suggest that the monarchy is riding high in popularity, he stresses polls often overlook the considerable difference between monarchy and the reigning monarch. While the Queen remains as popular as ever, largely, he believes, because we know next to nothing about her, her children and grandchildren – whom he describes as “gossip fodder” – are a different matter.
“Throughout her reign the Queen has kept her distance,” he says. “Few will remember more than two things she has said during six decades. When she arrived on the throne, hardly anyone knew much about her. She was just this fairytale princess. And since then we haven’t learned much more. But we all know about Charles – what you see is what you get. And the polling numbers tell us the public is clearly divided over him.”
Nevertheless, Lee believes Prince Charles will be a much better king than many anticipate. “I can see a case for the Queen, who is 88, doing the unthinkable in a couple of years and retiring. Then Charles is perfectly capable of being rather a good king. I think he will be extremely royal about things and will put a bit of the magic back. It’s laughable when people suggest we should jump a generation and get the Cambridges in.”
He does not share the nation’s infatuation with Prince William and his wife, and argues there is no evidence that they have reconnected the royals with the people. “Don’t get the impression they’re anything more than celebrities. I don’t think they rate with the Beckhams, but I put them in that slot. They don’t have gravitas.
“Since the Victorians, the royals have had a glamorous and imperial air. I don’t think that will exist when William gets to the throne, while Catherine will be not quite mumsy, but dull. I think the gloss is wearing off her now quite frankly. As they approach middle age, the public will get used to the notion of Euro royalty in the Danish, Dutch and Belgian mould – dull and inoffensive. And once William and Kate are boring, middle-aged ‘celebrities’, I’ll be far more interested in what Nigella is doing.”
But he believes it is changes within the other great institutions that will bring questions about the monarchy, rather than the monarch. “The Church of England will be disestablished within my lifetime, and without the Church as an instrument of the state, the sovereign – currently the Supreme Governor of the Church and Defender of the Faith – will lose a central commitment of the coronation oath.
“Before that, there will be another attempt to reform the House of Lords, but more radical than before, and government will not see a role for the sovereign to do the ‘My Government Will’ speech.
“I don’t believe that George, in such a radically changing UK, will be monarch. He may have some public role, but I don’t think it will be as traditional King of England. The role of the Royal Family is to produce an heir. They’ve done that. I don’t think they’ll have to produce another.”
Lee is speaking from the home he shares with his second wife, artist Fiona Graham-Mackay, near Rye. He moved to Sussex 40 years ago – drawn to the area through his great love of Battle. “I kept walking the battlefield and always thought the battle, and what led to it, had never been properly explained,” he says.
An experienced sailor, whose sloop, Mollymawk, is moored at Chichester Harbour, Lee has sailed most of the Sussex coastline and is a great champion of its piers – particularly Hastings – a legacy of the end-of-pier shows he saw as a child. “I like the distinctive sound that the sea makes in Sussex; on an ebb tide it drags across the pebbles.”
He has written more than 100 radio plays and series, but is best known for This Sceptred Isle, charting the history of Great Britain from 55BC until the dawn of the 20th century. A phenomenal success, it notched up more than £5m in audio sales alone, making it the most successful factual audio brand ever.
No one spotted the blockbuster lurking in his manuscript, but he believes its popularity stemmed from its truthfulness and accessibility. “There hadn’t been anything like it on Radio 4 and it was wonderfully read by Anna Massey, whose precise voice helped the listener follow the complicated narrative.”
More recently, he penned the critically acclaimed Radio 4 play Air-Force One, exploring the events immediately after President Kennedy’s assassination, which featured a stellar American cast directed by Martin Jarvis.
“The play opens with the Warren Commission which was formed to look into the events surrounding the assassination. Then we hear the voice of Jackie Kennedy, which sets out what it was like being driven through that heaving crowd in Dallas [after her husband had been shot].”
The play explored how Lyndon B Johnson was smuggled into the hospital mortuary and subsequently aboard Air-Force One, where he insisted on being ‘sworn-in’ before take-off, giving him the opportunity to have himself photographed next to Jackie Kennedy to emphasise the importance of continuity in government. “The main play takes place in a transition of power and absolute chaos,” says Lee. “We got Stacy Keach to play Johnson and the tension during the recording was amazing.”
Based on federal and academic research, recollections and exclusive access to Jackie Kennedy’s papers, the play suggested there was a conscious effort on the part of the security services to manipulate the evidence, especially over the question of how JFK’s corpse was to be transported to Washington DC. The play also alleges there was an attempt to ensure the autopsy came to a particular conclusion. Such strategies were designed to minimise the fall-out of the assassination – any talk of conspiracies would have led to uncomfortable questions about the security services and their inability to protect JFK.
“American Democrats were sniffing around the BBC during production and at one point they got the willies about the whole thing,” says Lee. “You should have seen the backroom stuff, informing me that I couldn’t say this or we needed something at the beginning stressing it was a work of fiction – all intended to distance us from the very real possibility that the events might have happened.”
Lee’s young life started a world away from the world of writing, academia and the BBC. He grew up on the Erith marshes in Kent, where he developed his fondness for boats. When he was expelled from school for attempting to burn down the school pavilion, his father lined up a place for him in the family machine-tool factory, but Lee had other ideas, boarding a tramp ship bound for Korea. He went around the world one-and-a-half times, until his adventures ended when his appendix burst while hitting a high note on trumpet in a Hong Kong jazz band. “Good job I was on dry land or it would have been the penknife on the chart-room table.”
On his return to Britain, he knuckled down at night school, read history at Goldsmiths and later took a job as a BBC defence correspondent, where he masterminded coverage of the Falklands War. But he happily quit when he was asked to become a Cambridge don.
Now he works as a freelance writer, with projects stretching into infinity. Not only is he writing a history of the Viceroy of India, but he’ll be working on a radio and stage play this year. “I’m also going to get back into writing fiction again,” he says. “Perhaps a detective trilogy set in Arundel.”
But it’s not all work and no play for this most indefatigable of men. When he longs to blow the cobwebs out of his hair, he sets sail in his sloop and tacks along the Sussex coastline, no doubt plotting his next great writing project as he guides the tiller.
Monarchy: Past, Present... and Future? by Christopher Lee is published by Bene Factum at £20
My Favourite Sussex
Restaurant: The Crown and Anchor at Dell Quay near Chichester Harbour. It’s the pub that greets us when we moor our boat after a day’s sailing and the food is always good.
Pub: The Norfolk Arms in Arundel High Street. It’s a charming Georgian coaching inn and the people who run it are lovely. They also do great cooked breakfasts and know that crispy bacon must not shatter when you put your fork in it.
Shop: Kim’s secondhand bookshop in Arundel. I love getting lost in there and always come out with an armful of books.
View: The spire of Chichester Cathedral from out to sea in Chichester Harbour. It’s pierced so you can see right through it.
Place to visit: Bignor Roman Villa because I love the mosaic tiles. The Romans were here for 500 years – the same time as the end of the War of the Roses to the present. Just imagine what happened in that time.