Britons were shocked at today's announcement from 10 Downing Street that their Royal Family is in fact just the cast of a long-running television reality show entitled "The House of Windsor".
"Well, I don't know if 'reality show' is quite the term." said the show's director Tony Blair, who also played a bit part as the Prime Minister. "Maybe it's what the Americans would call a 'soap opera".
"It's actually more akin to 'The Osbournes', in that the characters are basically playing themselves." differed head writer John Cleese. "But by whatever name, 'The House of Windsor' has had the longest run in TV history."
"And we're all proud to be part of it." added Dame Helen Mirren, who has played HM the Queen in the show ever since the widely-unreported death of the REAL Queen in August 2002. "I wish 'THOW' could go on forever, but as we say in show business, 'always leave them wanting more!"
"Windsor" was first conceived by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to revive a dying monarchy by popularizing it through new technology. "What was the very first thing ever televised?" asked producer Sir Richard Branson. "It was the coronation of King George VI in 1936. So then they just kept the cameras rolling, is all."
Few recall today that "Windsor" was originally never intended to be taken seriously. Indeed, its early plots were deliberately so implausible that any same person would have to know it was all bollocks. This was evident even in the pilot episode, where George VI becomes King after his brother Edward VIII abdicates.
"Now who'd believe this? Here's Edward, he's got a job which pays him about 27.5 gazillion pounds per year for doing essentially nothing - and he quits it just to marry some arse-faced American bitch who he's already shagging left and right anyway?" said Cleese. "But that's the point. The original writers thought the audience would know it was all fake and enjoy it anyhow, kind of like professional wrestling.
"But then somehow the show took on a life all its own. Soon everyone was thinking these characters on the telly were real! So the producers aired constant disclaimers, like 'None of what you are seeing ever actually happened', but to no avail. It was believed anyway. They knew then they'd created a monster."
Early on, THOW was a fairly typical late-1940s situation comedy. The basic premise was George's being a stutterer who never wanted to be King. Constantly trying to abdicate, he could only say "I ab ab ab ab ab..." but by the time he finally forces the word out, World War II is over and the empire has collapsed. Another running theme is George's being henpecked. At least once per episode he'd fantasize that he's his Tudor ancestor Henry VIII so he can have his nagging Queen beheaded in the Tower of London for not bearing him a male heir - until she screams 'GEORGE!!!' and snaps him back to reality.
"Everyone loved old George VI, and he was perfect in the part." recalls Cleese. "It was a sad day when he died off-camera and they had to write his death into the script."
It took another two decades for THOW to really hit its comedic stride, with its wacky dysfunctional family bumbling their way through their ill-suited role as Heads of State. Its cast is remembered as the funniest comedy ensemble ever. Besides HM the Queen, there was: the delightfully boorish husband Phillip, who raised the unwitting insult to an art form. The shrewish daughter Anne, whose trademark rant to her domineering mother, 'Well, who died and made YOU Queen?!?' became a national catch-phrase. And Edward, the son so forgettable that the family was constantly losing him on their outings, leaving him to make his own way back to the palace whilst the Queen wondered aloud, "Did we forget something?"
But few would today dispute who was the real star of the show: HRH Prince Charles, also known as "the Prince of Wails" for his making the audience wail with laughter.
Cleese explains: "Charles was the perfect blend of cluelessness and befuddlement. In a way he presaged Homer Simpson as the character so utterly daft, he makes everyone watching him feel superior."
Sir Richard agrees: "Everyone has his own favorite 'Charles Moment'. Mine was that 1995 episode where he contemplates the real paternity of 'his' son 'Prince' Harry. Now, realize: Harry was conceived whilst Charles and Diana were separated, Harry and Charles don't look anything alike, Harry in fact looks just like Major James Hewitt - and Charles STILL doesn't get it? Even when everyone is urging him to get Harry DNA tested, Charles is like, 'Duh? What for?' I found myself screaming at the TV screen, "You bloody wanking idiot! Even YOU can't be this daft!' - and then I'm convulsed with laughter. Charles and his 'dumb act' had me taken in again! Truly he's a comic genius."
But by the late 90s, THOW had lost its golden touch. Critics said the show had become a third-rate soap opera, offering little besides the done-to-death Charles/Diana/Camilla love triangle. And even loyal fans were enraged by the writers' controversial August 1997 decision to kill off the Diana character. Cleese recalls, "It was nothing personal, you understand. The actress playing Diana asked for a raise, and it wasn't in the budget, is all. But we badly underestimated the size of her fan base".
Ratings slumped. By 2001 THOW was so near death that a script was written for a final episode, in which the Queen abdicates. Even the introduction of the handsome and charming "Prince William" character, hugely popular with the key 18 to 35 year old female demographic, could only delay the inevitable. And this week the axe finally fell.
"Still, 71 years is a run to be proud of" muses Sir Richard. "And we're already working on the sequel, in which William is King. Look for that in a few seasons. No worries - you've not seen the last of The House of Windsor!"