Three months ago, when lockdown began, it was hard to see how, in isolation, the Royal Family could unite the nation as it had previously done in times of crisis.
The Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne, had tested positive for Covid-19. He and the Duchess of Cornwall self-isolated in Scotland. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, both in their 90s, retreated behind Windsor Castle’s walls.
The institution had already been rocked by the departure of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the Duke of York “stepping back”. Yet with each day, the death toll rose and a nation needed reassurance.
Within a week Prince Charles, who suffered only mild symptoms of the virus, was able to release a video describing his “strange, frustrating and often distressing experience”. The video was recorded at his home on the Balmoral estate.
Perhaps it was the setting – the crammed bookshelves, the family photo, the teddy bear on the mantlepiece – or the heartfelt, personal delivery – but it felt intimate and set the tone for how the Royal Family went on to communicate with the nation during lockdown.
With no reporters, no camera crews and no questioners, the royal video calls and films have felt different. Lockdown should have been a challenge to the family mantra “we have to be seen to be believed”. But it may have had the opposite effect.
The Duchess of Cambridge in particular has appeared to relish the informality of the video call – and has been more engaging and confident than I have generally seen her in front of the cameras at “real-life” engagements.
Would Prince Charles have talked so candidly about lockdown separation and really wanting “to give people a hug” if he was face-to-face with an interviewer rather than doing it remotely via a laptop? Maybe. Maybe not.
It is perhaps not surprising that the younger royals – particularly William and Catherine – have been very active on social media throughout lockdown. What they have also done, perhaps more than might have been expected bearing in mind their determination to protect their children’s privacy, is include them in their efforts to rally the nation.
All but the hardest of hearts will have melted a little at the sight of Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis clapping for carers outside their front door. As with many families, the royals have been spread far and wide across the UK. However, lockdown has offered the opportunity for some unprecedented get-togethers.
Take the 12 May – International Nurses Day. In any other year, this may have been marked by a member of the family visiting a hospital to shake hands with selected members of staff. But this year, no fewer than eight members joined forces to pay tribute to healthcare workers in eight separate countries. Such a collaboration was always going to make headlines. The addition of the first ever broadcast phone call of the monarch only added to the appeal.
In a similar vein, the Queen participated in her first broadcast video call in early June. Along with the Princess Royal, she chatted with a group of carers saying she was very impressed with what they had done and was glad she had been able to join them.
The perceived success of these collective engagements mean they are likely to be more common post-lockdown.
‘Broke the internet’
So has this new, more informal approach, resonated? Engagement on Clarence House’s digital platforms has, I’m told, increased ten-fold. The photograph released to celebrate Prince William’s birthday, with his father’s head resting on his shoulder – again, more personal and intimate than we are used to – “broke the royal internet”, according to a clearly chuffed Palace insider.
But before we get carried away with new technologies – in terms of a unifying message, it was a television broadcast delivered by the Queen, in the traditional way, which truly ticked that box.
An estimated 24 million people watched her thank NHS and frontline key workers and those who were staying at home to protect loved ones. It lasted just over four minutes and ended on an optimistic and evocative note: “We will meet again.” So near the peak of the pandemic, those were words many people needed to hear.
Three months of video calls, messages and online “stories” have kept the royals in the public eye and allowed them to shine a light where necessary. But I’m assured they are determined to get back to being a “3D… real-life Royal Family”.
In future, part of their role will be to provide reassurance to a nervous public that it is okay to start going back out again. And that means a return to public engagements with the 94-year-old Queen a notable exception. She will continue, as she has done during lockdown, to keep across government business via the red boxes and phone calls with the prime minister.
But her age and vulnerability to Covid-19 makes a return to public life unlikely anytime soon.
In her absence, it was Prince Charles who welcomed France’s President Emmanuel Macron on his recent visit. Prince William and Catherine have both carried out face-to-face engagements – being careful to social distance and use hand sanitiser.
So normal service is resuming – in line with government guidelines.
And as the royals – together with the rest of the country – ease themselves out of lockdown, they can do so confident in the knowledge that a little bit of online informality, alongside the set-piece speeches, the waves and the visits, make for a powerful combination.