With all the furore in the media around the anniversary of Princess Diana’s tragic end, I’ve been reminded of two occasions when I dipped my toes into that strange world of monarchical merchandising – both with disastrous consequences.
Settling Down by James Whitaker, then the royal correspondent of the Sun, was a glossy, heavily illustrated in colour, account of Prince Charles’s amorous exploits before his eventual marriage to Lady Diana Spencer. It was, as you might expect from its provenance, a ‘warts and all’ account. Everyone at Quartet anticipated amazing sales and we printed many thousands of copies.
The mystery of its demise, reported Tatler, had caused its publisher ‘to work overtime on his worry beads’. It was true enough. To have the title fail so dramatically after Quartet’s publicity machine had been relentless in its promotion was for me a serious blow. While some royal observers considered it the best book of its kind that year, the public at large turned its back on it for no apparent reason. It simply would not move out of the warehouse. We kept asking ourselves what went wrong, but were unable to find a satisfactory answer. Whitaker himself blamed Quartet for the failure, but without producing any evidence to support his contention.
The impression he made on me was that he considered himself God’s gift to the royal family – an attitude that did not endear him to the public, to whom it came across as pure arrogance. Matters were not helped either when he appeared on Nationwide (the prequel to The One Show) dressed in his wildfowling kit, complete with night-view binoculars. It must have been one of the most unappealing television moments ever. At least Whitaker had the grace to concede that his style was maybe a bit racy for the shires.
One of the things I love about publishing is its unpredictability. You can seldom gauge the mood of the nation when it comes to books. Either you are too late with a trend, or you are ahead of your time; or you happen to choose a subject that turns out to appeal to very few people, of whom you may be one. This very aspect of publishing brings with it exhilarating rewards, so in the end who cares? Long hours of stress may be banished by a single stroke of good fortune, and we all live in anticipation of that happening to us now and then.
My second attempt at royal exploitation was early in 1987, when I was involved in a theatrical venture that turned sour. The Old Man of Lochnagar, Prince Charles’s much praised children’s yarn, was transformed into an expensive flop when adapted for the stage. It was based on the Goon-like humour that the prince is known to favour and told the story of a Highland character with a lavatory contraption that played ‘Scotland the Brave’. As one of the show’s main backers I sustained a sizeable loss. Its three-week run in the West End at the Albery Theatre left a deficit of forty thousand pounds with not a single house achieving a sell-out. All in all, the exercise was a big disappointment. Prince Charles had been expected to turn up to see the show with Princes William and Harry but he never came. It deserved a better fate at the box office than the one it received. Prince Charles’s staying away did nothing to help the situation. When the deflated cast members questioned his absence, after they had done so much to capture the spirit of his book, they were told bluntly by a palace aide, ‘He chose not to go.’ Had he been too busy, they wondered. The response was a crisply repeated: ‘He just chose not to go.’
In retrospect, and in fairness to the Prince who, during the years since, I have had the privilege of meeting on a few occasions, he must have been ill-advised by his staff not to attend, given the commercial failure of the venture.