Tuesday 1 April 2008

Have we found the next Queen of Hearts?

I have just dragged myself to my desk after a weekend in my sickbed, where my semi-comatose rest was disturbed only by faint consciousness of a distant thumping.

At first I thought it was caused by the International Olympic Committee banging their heads against the nearest brick wall as they contemplated the Terminal 5 fiasco, following hard on the heels of the Wembley Stadium saga, and wondered what on earth had possessed them to award the 2012 Games to London; particularly after they had made such a brilliantly trouble-free selection for 2008.

Then I realised that the disturbing noise was, in fact, caused by the British media scraping along the rock bottom of our debased public taste. How on earth have we become so shallow?

The morning after President Sarkozy’s state visit last week, I picked up the papers hoping to read some thoughtful analysis of how this faintly comical midget had managed to convert a notable election triumph into massive unpopularity within ten months. I would also like to have learned more about the apparent openness of French society, which allowed them to elect the son of a Hungarian immigrant as their head of state, and to accept a swiftly acquired Italian ex-model as their first lady.

Instead, British press comment may be summarised as “Carla: phwoar! I would. Wouldn’t you?”

And that was in what we used to call the broadsheets. I did not even bother looking at the red-top tabloids.

How did we become so obsessed with good looks? The most popular public figure of my lifetime, Diana Princess of Wales, owed everything to her appearance rather than her intellect or nature. Wholly disproportionate attention was focused earlier this year on the promotion to attend cabinet of the one female member of Gordon Brown’s top team who does not have a face like a welder’s bench.

While after 40 years of women’s liberation in the impeccably right-on world of broadcasting, they are still firing female journalists because they are knocking on a bit, and paying £1 million a year to a bimbo who can perform the minor miracle of reading an autocue.

It would be wrong to pretend that this is entirely new. Watching that dignified octogenarian couple greeting the Sarkozys for the state banquet at Windsor, it is easy to forget that the Queen and Prince Philip owed much of their popularity in the 1950s to their film star looks. Four centuries before that, the first Queen Elizabeth betrayed a lifelong obsession with her appearance.

Still, things have clearly reached a point where, if we needed to find another national saviour in a hurry, we would be vanishingly unlikely to choose a fat, bald, chain-smoking drunk with a lisp. Indeed, if the glamour-obsessed criteria of 2008 had applied in 1940, we would presumably have ended up with a government headed by Lady Diana Cooper or Oswald Mosley.

Fascinating new opportunities for those with the right looks may well be created by the Government’s recent mutterings about abolishing the Act of Settlement of 1701, which debars Roman Catholics from the British throne. The Queen holds her office by virtue of her descent from the Elector of Hanover who became King George I in 1714. He had a perfectly legitimate claim to the crown, but unfortunately there were more than 50 people with a better one, who were excluded by virtue of their Catholicism. Repeal the act and their descendants will be perfectly entitled to come forward with their claims. After all this time, creative genealogists should be able to prove the eligibility of thousands.

What’s the answer? I would naturally suggest a popular referendum to resolve the issue, but Gordon has set his face firmly against those. So I suppose it will come down to those wretched focus groups as usual. My money is on Queen Carla I. You read it here first. Happy April Fool’s Day.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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