The first thing to say about the Harry & Meghan documentary is that the couple’s claims of oppression and victimhood from their California prison compound, a vast and tasteful empire of teak and orchids, are a bit hard to take. If you’re a British taxpayer whose pounds contributed to funding their sun-kissed misery, it must be difficult to muster a whole lot of sympathy for Meghan, the sorrowful Disney princess in yoga pants, consigned to a life of endless luxury.
Nonetheless, the level of outrage generated by the series – the first three parts of which launched on Netflix this week – goes beyond mere irritation at their perceived lack of self-awareness and entitlement.
For a production that is sugary enough to loosen the teeth in your gums, it is also surprisingly revealing – not so much for what it tells us about the couple themselves, but for what it shows about the culture war cleaving modern Britain in two.
As many reviews have pointed out, the production values are heavy on the high-fructose corn syrup. There are occasional revealing insights amid the declarations of their rare and special love: Kate is not a hugger, we learn. Harry was genuinely remorseful over that swastika incident. There are moments of genuine pathos too, such as when Harry talks about “the scars left open from my mum’s awesomeness”. The couple’s real secret weapon is Meghan’s mother Doria, who comes across as astonishingly sane and likable in a sea of questionable sincerity.
Still, her presence is not enough to disguise the seam of unreality running throughout this ill-fated enterprise. Turning the camera on themselves to record their thoughts, says Harry at one point, “seems like a really sensible idea”.
“Right now it might not make sense, but one day it will make sense,” Meghan adds, slightly less certainly.
Recording yourself during your painful moments is an odd reflex, but perhaps not if your whole life has been lived in front of a lens and you’ve signed a rumoured €95 million deal with Netflix. And yet, the detonation factor is notably absent. There’s little we didn’t already know. What it has done is open the couple up to more vitriol for little reward, other than the obvious monetary one.
To an outsider, the rage they evoke in sections of the British establishment is hard to fathom. Some of it, certainly, is old-fashioned racism, misogyny and snobbery. But it goes beyond mere dislike; some of the media seem to feel personally attacked by Meghan’s existence. You sense the couple’s real crime isn’t their lack of gratitude, it’s that they are showing the entire institution up for the giant wheeze it is.
Selected by destiny
Those who support the monarchy sign up to the belief that a random – flawed, sometimes despicable – group of individuals have been selected by destiny, blood or God as superior to all other mortals. They claim this system is constant, untouchable and immutable, but simultaneously so fragile it must be aggressively reinforced during every moment of the monarch’s life. A king literally cannot put his own toothpaste on a toothbrush in case the whole thing falls apart.
In exchange for the suspension of all their rational faculties and a chunk of their tax pounds, British citizens are promised the world’s longest-running, best-dressed, most expensive circus. It is an elaborate confidence trick.
Helping Harry to understand this may be Meghan’s greatest achievement. You can almost see the penny drop in episode two.
“How do you explain to people that you bow to your grandmother, and you will need to curtsy? Especially to an American. Like, that’s weird,” he says, though that’s far from the weirdest thing about his family. (Someone should introduce Haz to uncle Andrew.)
In a modern, democratic, highly educated, digital, cynical world, the notion of a monarchy ought to be unsustainable. And yet approval for the royals lingers around a healthy 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the British population. Meghan and Harry’s departure for the land of endless sunshine and lucrative Netflix documentaries threatens all of that. If the public accept the couple’s version of events, they must also confront very uncomfortable questions about the past and future of the monarchy – such as, what is the point of it all?
In this way, Meghan has come to represent the living embodiment of the culture wars corpsing Britain since Brexit. On one side is the majority voice of the establishment, who see her and Harry as entitled whingers and a threat to British identity. On the other is a younger, more liberal force, who like the multiculturalism, disdain for tradition and interest in social justice she represents. You can see why the New York Times decided “‘Megxit’ is the new Brexit in a Britain split by age and politics... the Harry-and-Meghan saga is playing out uncannily like the long-running debate over Brexit – only a whole lot juicier.”
It is more than slightly ironic that the person who became a proxy for progress in this manufactured culture war is a celebrity princess and a titled duchess, whose wealth, influence and lifestyle are built on the royal family’s ill-gotten gains of empire and colonialism. For all their insight into the wrongs committed against them, the couple don’t seem to spend any time dwelling on this awkward reality. But their much-vaunted independence is an illusion.
All this series really proves is that the codependent menage-a-trois between the Sussexes, the royal family and the media is very much intact.
Harry was born into a non-consensual relationship with the media – a child in “a bubble within a bubble”, forced to grin his way through photoshoots. Here he is, almost four decades on: free on paper, yet still somehow imprisoned in his palace of beige and sunshine, simultaneously resenting the cameras and performing for them.