Three months ago, when the closure began, it was difficult to understand how, in isolation, the Royal Family could unite the nation as it had done before in times of crisis.
The Prince of Wales, heir to the throne, tested Covid-19 positively. He and the Duchess of Cornwall are self-isolated in Scotland. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, both in their 90s, retreated behind the walls of Windsor Castle.
The institution has already been largely destroyed by the departures of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the Duchy of York. But with each passing day, the number of deaths grew and the nation needed reassurance.
Within a week, Prince Charles, who had suffered only mild symptoms of the virus, managed to post a video describing his “strange, frustrating and often disturbing experience”. The video was shot at his home on the Balmoral estate.
Maybe it was a setting – cramped bookshelves, a family photo, a teddy bear on a cloak – or a cordial, personal delivery – but it was intimate and set the tone for the Royal Family to continue to communicate with the state during the closure.
Without reporters, without camera crews and without questionnaires, royal video calls and movies felt different. Closing the system was supposed to be a challenge to the family mantra “we need to see who we believe in”. But it could have had the opposite effect.
The Duchess of Cambridge seems to have particularly enjoyed the informality of the video call – and she was more engaged and confident than I generally saw her in front of the camera at “real” engagements.
Would Prince Charles have talked so openly about separating and concluding that he really wanted to “hug people” had he been face to face with the interviewer, instead of doing it remotely via laptop? Maybe. Maybe not.
It may come as no surprise that the younger royal kings – especially William and Catherine – were very active on social media during the closing. What they have also done, perhaps more than might have been expected given their determination to protect the privacy of their children, involves them in their efforts to unite the nation.
Everything but the most stubborn hearts will melt a little when they see Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis clapping for the caregivers in front of their front door. As with many families, royal kingdoms were widespread in Britain. Still, the lock provided an opportunity for several unprecedented gatherings.
Take May 12 – International Nurses Day. In any other year, this may mark a family member who has visited the hospital to shake hands with selected staff members. But this year, less than eight members have joined forces to pay tribute to health workers in eight separate countries. Such collaboration should always have brought headlines. The addition of the monarch’s first ever-published phone call only added to the appeal.
In a similar vein, the Queen participated in her first broadcast video call in early June. Together with Princess Royal, she spoke to a group of caregivers who told her that she was impressed with what they had done and that she was glad to be able to join them.
The perceived success of these collective engagements means that they are likely to be more frequent events after closure.
Has this new, more informal approach resonated? I was told that engagement on Clarence House’s digital platforms had increased tenfold. A photo released to celebrate Prince William’s birthday, with his father’s head resting on his shoulder – again more personal and intimate than we’re used to – “broke the royal internet,” according to a clearly altered Palace insider.
But before we get carried away with the new technologies – in terms of the unifying message, it was a television show delivered by the Queen, in the traditional way, that really marked that frame.
It is estimated that 24 million people thanked the NHS and key workers who were at home and those who stayed at home to protect loved ones. It lasted just over four minutes and ended with an optimistic and evocative note: “See you again.” So, near the height of the pandemic, those were the words many people needed to hear.
Three months of video calls, messages and internet “stories” kept the royal papers in public and allowed them to turn off the lights where needed. But I am convinced that they are determined to return to the “3D… royal family from real life”.
In the future, part of their role will be to convince the nervous public that it’s okay to start dating again. And that means returning to public engagements with the 94-year-old queen a notable exception. He will continue, as he has so far in the blockade, to hold government affairs through red boxes and phone calls with the prime minister.
But her age and vulnerability to Covid-19 make a return to public life unlikely soon.
In her absence, Prince Charles welcomed French President Emmanuel Macron on his recent visit. Prince William and Catherine did it face to face – keeping a close eye on social distance and using sanitation facilities.
This is how the usual service continues – in accordance with government guidelines.
And as the royal kingdoms – along with the rest of the country – facilitate closure, they can be so convinced of the knowledge that a bit of internet informality, with spoken speeches, waves and visits, makes a powerful combination.