It’s an embarrassment of riches for royal fans and critics this weekend, when Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan sit down with Oprah Winfrey for their first American TV interview, and Queen Elizabeth II and a clutch of other royals take to the airwaves in Britain for their first TV-only Commonwealth Day service on the BBC.
Both broadcasts are taking place Sunday. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex will chat with Oprah for two hours on “Oprah With Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special” airing at 8 EST/PST in America.
The Commonwealth Day broadcast will air on BBC in the afternoon in the U.K., and then on YouTube, where Americans can watch it.
The Sussex interview was a surprise when CBS announced it last week. In two promos that aired Sunday, Meghan doesn’t speak, but Winfrey appears to quote her, calling the couple’s frustrations “almost unsurvivable.” She asks: “Were you silent or were you silenced?”
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In contrast, the Commonwealth program has been in the works for weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, which ruled out the usual in-person service to protect the 94-year-old queen and everybody else from COVID-19.
So why are both events happening now?
This TV blitz comes at a moment of uncertainty about 99-year-old Prince Philip’s health. The queen’s husband has been in London hospitals since Feb. 16 battling an infection and a pre-existing heart condition. On Monday, he was transferred to a specialized cardiac hospital for testing and observation and was expected to stay there until the end of the week.
The Oprah interview has been described by their critics as another skirmish in the conflict between the royal family and the Sussexes. Sally Bedell Smith, the acclaimed American author of multiple royal biographies, doesn’t believe the scheduling is a coincidence.
“There’s no logical reason to do these on the same night,” Bedell Smith says. “CBS could juggle its schedule. Why the urgency, why not wait a week? That would be the sensible, thoughtful and considerate thing for Harry and Meghan to have done, once they realized this would coincide with the Commonwealth ceremony.”
What can Americans expect to see in the Oprah Winfrey interview?
Harry and Meghan will talk to Winfrey in more detail about why they gave up their working royal roles and left for California, where they now reside, and about what they plan to do with their new independence and resources derived from Netflix and Spotify deals.
Winfrey promises in the promos that “there is no subject that’s off-limits,” and some revelations are “shocking.”
Harry gave a preview of his thinking during a taped appearance last Friday on his pal James Corden’s “The Late Late Show” on CBS: Harry said he and Meghan stepped back from royal life because “toxic” British media coverage was damaging his mental health. He said they intend to continue their “public service” in the U.S.
“Frivolous, self-absorbed and demeaning, and with a laugh track,” Bedell Smith said of Harry’s “Late Late Show” appearance. “What was the point? What was he there to promote?”
Winfrey’s interview will first focus on Meghan, with topics ranging from “stepping into life as a royal, marriage, motherhood (and) philanthropic work, to how she is handling life under intense public pressure,” CBS said in a statement about the special. Harry will join them later to talk about their move to the U.S. and their hopes and dreams for their family.
The subject of their American-born second baby, expected later this year, will come up, as will Harry’s relationship with his relatives, especially brother Prince William. They’re also likely to talk about their ongoing effort to push back against media coverage they consider invasive and abusive.
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What are British media outlets saying about the interview?
The London tabloids that regularly berate Harry and Meghan predict the interview will be explosive, incendiary, and a slap at the queen and the royal family. The tabloidsreport their palace sourcessay the Sussexes did not tell the queen about it ahead of time, even though they were under no obligation to do so given their changed status.
“Historically, long-form interviews with royals haven’t always gone well or achieved the desired results,” says Victoria Arbiter, CNN’s royal correspondent and the daughter of a former press secretary to the queen.
Thus, some tabloids have compared this interview to the surprise interview Princess Diana did with the BBC in 1995, which had the effect of blowing up what little remained of the romantic fantasy of the “fairy-tale” marriage of Diana and Prince Charles, by then a nightmare of infidelity, embarrassing media leaks and mental health stress.
But the situation is different for the interview with Winfrey, who’s become a friend and champion of Harry and Meghan. Almost three years on, the couple’s marriage remains strong.
“They’re not going to throw the royal family under a bus,” Arbiter says. “To what end? It would not serve them well. … I don’t think this is going to be the catastrophic royal-bashing, mud-slinging interview some have suggested.”
Will Harry and Meghan embarrass the queen?
The Guardian, which is generally skeptical of the monarchy, and the Evening Standard, generally less critical of the Sussexes, report their sources say Harry and Meghan are determined to say nothing that will upset the queen, for whom they have “the greatest respect and love.”
To achieve their new lives, Harry and Meghan gave up, at the queen’s insistence, their royal appointments, patronages and honors. The couple remain committed to public service. “We can all live a life of service. Service is universal,” their statement concluded.
Their critics argued this was a disrespectful parting shot at the queen, according to The Times in London. Their supporters told The Daily Mail it was taken out of context.
Why does Commonwealth Day matter?
Every year, the royal clan gathers on the second Monday in March at Westminster Abbey for a service to mark Commonwealth Day, a national ritual that allows the British taxpayers to see members of the royal “firm” paying tribute to countries around the world that still have a link to Britain.
An organization of more than 50 mostly former British Empire colonies, the Commonwealth is important to the queen because it was started by her father, George VI, and because she has championed it from the time of her accession in 1952, says Robert Hardman, a British journalist and author of “Queen of the World,” about the queen’s relationship with the Commonwealth.
Last year’s Commonwealth Day service was the last public engagement for Harry and Meghan with the family before the couple departed the U.K. Having just negotiated their exit with his disappointed relatives and angry senior courtiers, the abbey service was an awkward affair, heavy with unspoken tension between Harry and his brother.
What can Brits expect from the BBC program?
The queen; Harry’s father, Prince Charles, and his wife, Duchess Camilla of Cornwall; Prince William and Duchess Kate of Cambridge; and other senior royals will carry out traditional royal duties.
Led by the queen, for example, the family has in recent days focused on encouraging Brits to get vaccinated, as the queen and Prince Philip were.
The queen, who rarely spoke on TV prior to the pandemic, is expected to deliver a message. Prince Charles, Camilla, Prince William and Kate “will share why our Commonwealth links are so important,” according to the BBC. Other senior royals will talk with young people from some of the Commonwealth nations.
Hardman argues that Brits will see a dutiful royal family in contrast to the freedom-seeking Harry and Meghan.
They will see “a steadfast, record-breaking monarch quietly honoring one of her greatest achievements – the ‘family of nations’ she built and nurtured from the remnants of empire,” Hardman wrote recently in the Daily Mail.
“They will see a family wedded not to ‘systemic change’ but to those traditional, unglamorous, plodding but vital royal virtues of continuity and stability. Unlike service, those are not universal.”