British royals have always loved a showgirl. From Charles II and Nell Gwyn to the Duke of Clarence and Mrs Jordan and Edward VII and Lillie Langtry, there is a long tradition of kings and princes finding their entertainment backstage.
But these theatrical diversions were strictly extracurricular: Nell Gwyn was Charles’s companion for 15 years, but she never had any chance of becoming queen; Mrs Jordan may have given the Duke of Clarence – the future William IV – ten children, but she never became his wife; Lillie Langtry could never be more than a maîtresse-en-titre.
Until the late 19th century, actresses may have been hard-working professional women, but they were not considered respectable enough to be royal brides. But in the 21st century, everything has changed – when a dashing young prince with a moderately chequered past needs a bride who can instantly step into the role of a modern princess, an actress, particularly one who has spent seven years starring in a primetime American drama, is the ideal choice.
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It’s not just that Meghan Markle is always camera-ready, although undoubtedly that helps. Unlike the young Diana Spencer, Markle doesn’t blush or flinch before the cameras of the world’s press – she already knows which is her best side and how to pose while at the same time looking completely unselfconscious. For Meghan, swapping her ripped jeans for tailored coats and pillbox hats isn’t a sacrifice, it’s the costume that her new role demands, and she knows exactly what her motivation is.
For most “civilians”, obsessive press interest in every aspect of their life, and the necessity of absolute discretion in public, would be intolerable – but Meghan, as one of the most popular characters in the hit TV show Suits, will know all about living under constant press scrutiny. She will have developed that celebrity sixth sense that can feel the presence of a paparazzo a hundred yards away. And, like any ambitious actor with a social media profile, she is well aware of the necessity of being completely vanilla online.
In fact, the transition between life on set and life at court for Meghan Markle might be surprisingly smooth. As I discovered when I made my first and only dramatic appearance in Victoria, the set of a TV show has rules and protocols every bit as rigid and arcane as those that prevail at Buckingham Palace.
An actor on set knows exactly what their place in the pecking order is by their number on the call sheet – the lead is number one, the second lead number two, and so forth. Getting the order of precedence right (should the Bafta-winning actor with a cameo get a higher number than the love interest who has recently graduated from a soap?) can produce the kind of debates that are usually the preserve of court life: should the younger son of a duke go in to dinner before a member of the Privy Council?
As the wife of a prince, who after the birth of the Duchess of Cambridge’s latest baby will be sixth in line to the throne, Meghan’s position on the royal call sheet is respectably high, although not as high as it would have been on Suits, where she would have been number three or four.
Equally familiar is the question of accommodation: stars get their own trailers, the next rung down gets half a trailer, and so forth. It’s the difference between having an apartment in Kensington Palace with two kitchens, like the Cambridges, and roughing it in Nottingham Cottage like Prince Harry, although neither compare to the ultimate winnebago, Buckingham Palace.
When I made my cameo on Victoria, I was assigned a four-way, which is not an exotic sexual encounter but the smallest possible dressing room; I may have been playing the Duchess of Inverness, but my on-screen rank was a great deal higher than my status on set.
The analogy between set life and court life goes even further: a queen has a retinue of bodyguards, dressers, ladies-in-waiting and private secretaries; a TV star has an entourage of wardrobe assistants and make-up people and publicists. I don’t suppose that Meghan Markle has, like her future father-in-law, employed someone to squeeze toothpaste for her, but I imagine that she has got used to a life surrounded by people whose job it is to make her look and feel good. She will also know already which of her friends and family can be trusted not to sell her story to the press, and which are not to be trusted.
As her recent appearances have shown, Meghan Markle is ace at royal engagements. She can smile, wave and pose for selfies without breaking a sweat, but then she has had years of practice. Getting up before dawn to spend the day saying the same things over and over again without ever letting the strain show and looking immaculate throughout is the job description of an actor on a TV show – so not so very different from a day of opening youth centres and walkabouts in the rain, where bringing the same energy and enthusiasm to every interaction with the public is as important as hitting your mark on take 57.
I can vouch for the mind-numbing tedium of a filming day – hour upon hour of hanging around interspersed with perhaps ten minutes of intense concentration – so I feel sure that Meghan will have the stamina to endure even the most gruelling royal events, such as the Highland Games, where even Prince Philip has been known to doze off, without losing her sparkle.
I’m quite sure that Prince Harry didn’t consider any of this when he proposed to Meghan – it is so clearly a love match – but given his mother’s tragic history and the massive pressure put upon new recruits to the Firm, it is fortunate that he has picked someone with exactly the right CV. Much has been written about how remarkable it is that the Windsors have embraced someone so different from the typical royal bride: American, divorced, mixed race, a feminist who has earned her own living.
But what’s really remarkable is how seamlessly Meghan has made the transition from the small screen to national treasure. The Duchess of Cambridge had nearly ten years to grow into her tiara – Meghan has been engaged for five months, and she has already mastered her role. In Queen Victoria’s time, a royal prince would consult the Almanach de Gotha, the stud book of European royalty, in order to find a qualified bride; today’s princes need look no further than the TV listings of this very organ if they want to find women who have the training to cope with the demands of being a 21st-century royal.