Last year Netflix refusedto add a disclaimer to the beginning of every episode of The Crown, warning viewers that it is part fiction. HBO Max’s new cartoon The Prince, however, had no choice: the series has been sitting on the shelf so long that it was out of date before it was even broadcast, so every episode bears a warning that ‘this isn’t really the royal family. It’s like, a parody, or whatever. And certain recent events will not be reflected in this programme.’
The streaming service’s new cartoon comedy (if one can call it that) is based around an imagined child’s-eye-view of life in the palace. The protagonist is eight-year-old Prince George. He is depicted as a camp, vain, bitchy, social-media obsessed American adult who has somehow been transplanted into the body of a child-prince. It isn’t clear why. He is mean to his staff and to the other children in his school, and aspires to star in an American reality TV show. This unlikeable character does not seem to be based on the real third in line to the British throne, but probably on the show’s creator who also provides his voice, Gary Janetti.
The main problem with The Prince is that it isn’t very funny. Of course, that’s a matter of taste, but there’s no shortage of tedious celebrity cat-fighting on television these days – it’s not clear why channelling it through the mouth of an eight-year-old child should make it any funnier.
The running joke about Prince Philip is that he’s very old and close to death; he’s variously shown as dribbling, mumbling and eating liquidised food. Joking about someone who is so old they’re nearly dead isn’t particularly sophisticated to start with, but becomes even more tasteless and unamusing less than four months after their actual death. Prince Louis (currently three years old) is shown as a cockney, weight lifting thug (hilarious!). Camilla is mute and Prince Charles a pathetic man-child.
The British royal family is an easy target for satire. When done well, satire can rip down the mighty and undercut the untouchable. Ridicule can be a powerful tool for challenging power and impunity. In its heyday, Spitting Image frequently lampooned the royals, often in a grotesque manner, but nearly always drew on well-observed realities which made them fair game. Those who were the butt of the series’ jokes often confessed to actually slightly enjoying the ridicule, because though the comedy was acerbic and waspish it was also rooted in reality.
The very idea that a modern, democratic Britain chooses its head of state according to accident of birth is an idea that many consider worthy of mockery. Some of the individualsin the family also live lives which invite criticism, scorn and even FBI investigators. Decent royal satire would lay into all of this and reveal its absurdity. Sadly The Prince makes no such attempt, preferring to mock the already dead for their advanced age and young children for… I’m not actually sure what.
The real Prince George is a child, who should be protected from this kind of merciless mockery. Growing up in the public glare, his life will already be difficult. To create an irreverent comedy programme where the words of a snide and bitter adult are literally put in his mouth seems unnecessarily cruel and insensitive. If some people today feel sympathy for Prince Harry’s somewhat tiresome confessions of mental illness caused by the psychological damage done to him during his childhood, they should think carefully about this programme and how it could do the same or worse to Princes George and Louis, and Princess Charlotte.
Comedians should be free to make jokes about whatever they choose, but audiences enjoy freedoms too, including the freedom to judge them for doing so. Sometimes the unseemliness of an irreverent or naughty joke is the source of its wit. Many a tasteless joke relies on the audience being shocked or unsettled to make an interesting point. And it can also be fun to laugh at something we shouldn’t. But while genuinely funny comedy can get away with tastelessness and causing offence, unamusing nonsense like The Prince struggles to justify its nastiness.
The royal family is not untouchable, but its younger members should be left alone. Anyway, they eventually tend to do a good enough job of making a mockery of themselves.
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