London — The younger members of the British royal family have suddenly found themselves under fire for crass public behavior and for exposing the monarchy to ridicule. As a result, Queen Elizabeth II is being put under pressure by the fact that her family lives in the spotlight of media attention and a popular appetite for scandal, whether real or imagined.
The Princess of Wales, wife of Charles, the heir to the throne, and the Duchess of York, wife of Prince Andrew, are the main focus of attention. But Andrew himself, his younger brother Prince Edward, and Princess Anne, the Queen's daughter, have also been targets of criticism in the press for allegedly unacceptable conduct.
The problem was brought into focus by two apparently innocent examples of royal high spirits. The Princess and the Duchess (Diana and Sarah, or ``Fergie,'' to the men of Fleet Street) attended the Royal Ascot race meeting, normally a venue for women to show off their splendid clothes to an appreciative public. During the week's events, their hats and frocks won widespread admiration.
But toward the end of Ascot, both young ladies were photographed chasing fellow race-goers and jabbing them with umbrellas. At another moment, Diana climbed onto the bonnet of Prince Charles's Aston Martin. The Prince ticked his wife off in public. All this was faithfully recorded by the popular press and much of it by television.
But this was mild conduct in comparison with the young royals' participation in a popular TV program called ``It's a Knockout.'' The program consists of competitions between teams. It's a highly developed version of egg-and-spoon racing.
To help with charitable causes, Prince Edward was asked to organize a special ``It's a Royal Knockout.'' He, Andrew, Anne, and Sarah all took part by leading teams that had to jump in and out of tubs of cold water and consent to be sandbagged with feather pillows.
Afterwards, speaking to the press, Edward asked if the reporters had enjoyed the spectacle of princes and princesses cavorting in strange costumes. When the journalists shuffled their feet and remained silent, Edward exploded, read the journalists a lesson in good manners, and stomped off in fury.
The TV show earned 1 million for charity, but Edward's behavior earned him rebukes in many newspapers. The press reported that the BBC, which screened the Knockout contest, had received a ``mixed'' reaction from viewers. BBC officials later said that there had been a lot of letters from viewers who thought the TV show had cheapened the monarchy. Buckingham Palace spokesmen are always tight-lipped on such matters, but the impression left was that the Queen's advisers had decided that the TV show had been a public relations disaster.
Britain's popular press is always on the lookout for sensations, and in normal times nobody takes much notice of its frivolous treatment of the ``royals.'' But Anthony Holden, a biographer of the royal family, said that the atmosphere surrounding the royal antics this time has a different flavor.
He pointed out that the Queen herself has set impeccable standards of public conduct and has done a great deal to cement the monarchy in the affections of the British people. But unbuttoned public behavior by the royal youngsters could harm the image Elizabeth had created.
The controversy has heightened a dilemma that faces the Queen and her advisers, a dilemma they may feel obliged to seriously consider in the coming months. Without the British popular press and exposure on TV, members of the royal family would not be the superstars they have become. In general this is seen by the Queen's advisers as a good thing. But the royals live on a public relations knife edge.
Sources close to Buckingham Palace suggest that the Queen has taken both Diana and Sarah aside and gently warned them that innocent behavior reported in the popular press can be greatly distorted and harm them and the royal family in general. Whatever she may or may not have said, it seems certain that there will never be another ``Royal Knockout.''