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What complicates any attempt at pothole avoidance is that Britons have never been clear or consistent in their expectations of their royal family, and that confusion has deepened in recent decades. "Ninety days out of 100, the British attitude to the monarchy is like our attitude to the sky: we know it exists, and we don't really think about it that much," says Peter Morgan, the screenwriter whose 2006 movie The Queen provided a fictionalized explanation for its heroine's failure to lead the national mourning for her former daughter-in-law. When something comes along that makes Britons focus on the monarchy Diana's death, William's wedding "we can't make up our minds what we want of the royals," Morgan says. "Whether we want to pay them, whether they should pay for themselves. Whether we want to reform them, empower them, fade them out. We never resolve our conflicting attitudes or come to any conclusion, least of all the one that's staring us all in the face namely, that we're really quite happy with the way that it is."
Polls suggest Morgan is right. With Elizabeth at the helm, support for the monarchy has barely wavered from the 70% mark even during times of apparent difficulty. (Interestingly, private polling for Buckingham Palace found that the prospect of William and Kate's wedding did little to boost support either.) In the post-Diana years, the palace public relations machinery has become more sophisticated; the Queen and her family benefit from a battery of experts who understand that a loyal courtier doesn't offer flattery but cold truth. Their involvement doesn't prevent stumbles, as nearly every royal has found out. Good advice is useful but cannot substitute for good judgment.
The Queen's enduring popularity owes a great deal to her good judgment and instinctive reticence. She granted TV cameras behind-the-scenes access for a 1969 documentary, persuaded that she needed to be humanized in the eyes of her subjects. Viewers saw scenes from Windsor family life: the Duke of Edinburgh grilling sausages, the Queen sympathizing with Richard Nixon. ("World problems are so complex, aren't they now?") But although the documentary broke ratings records, the monarch regretted her participation, and the film was withdrawn from circulation.
Hindsight suggests her natural inclinations are sound. It is not remoteness but familiarity or more accurately the confessional culture that Diana embraced and her former husband submitted to when giving interviews about his private life that more reliably breeds contempt for public figures. And it's especially dangerous for the constitutional monarchy, which, unlike common or garden celebrity, depends on the idea that not all people are born equal. If the royals are no different from the masses, why bend the knee? "In the early 1970s the Vatican thought it would be a good idea for the Catholic Church to become more accessible, for the Mass to be in English, to connect, but people don't want that at all," says Morgan. "They want mystery and power and unknowability. In the end, the Windsors' tragedy is they are more like us than we want them to be." His words echo an observation about royalty by the 19th century essayist Walter Bagehot: "Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic."
When billions of people have lined the streets or switched on TVs or computers to watch you plight your troth, any attempt to keep out the daylight may seem hopelessly optimistic. William grew up in full view, a reluctant reality-TV star. His wife, a comparative newcomer to public life, has drawn plaudits for her composure under the fire of flashbulbs. Yet there are examples aplenty of beauties who have managed the transition from unknown to icon. The real challenge for Kate is without precedent: to strengthen, not dilute, the Windsor brand by metamorphosing from commoner to royal. Her success will depend in part on whether Britons are prepared to accept that such a transformation is possible. And the extent to which they do will in turn give Kate and the rest of us fresh insight into how a once hidebound nation is adapting to an age of ceaseless revolutions.
Step into the strange, analog world of the Windsors as she has and you might be forgiven for imagining these revolutions are media constructs. There's little sign of modernity in the cluttered corridors, ticking clocks and transistor radios of Buckingham Palace or the smaller complex of Clarence House and St. James's Palace that, in a domestic arrangement that would stretch credulity in a TV sitcom, is the London home of Charles, Camilla, Harry and, for now, the newlyweds.