Dickie Arbiter, The Queen’s former press secretary has spent many years at the forefront of royal affairs. From the Windsor Castle fire, to Diana, Princess of Wales’s death in 1997, Dickie has seen it all. Now, he is releasing a new book which details his times in the Royal Household as well as personal anecdotes from his early childhood.
On Duty With The Queen is now available to buy, and it guarantees to be a good read. To mark the occasion of the book’s release, Dickie has kindly agreed to be interviewed by Royal Central in this insightful piece.
You said you worked in Buckingham Palace during ‘the most turbulent period in the history of the modern British monarchy’. Do you think that turbulence has died down today?
Oh yes, if you go back in the years it was Princess Margaret and her relationship with Peter Townsend that disappeared, then she married Anthony Armstrong Jones which eventually ended in divorce. It was the annus horribilis in 1992 where anything that could go wrong did go wrong in terms of The Queen’s family, not with The Queen herself more her family, but she did get the blame unfairly that did go wrong. There was a fire at Windsor Castle, there was the publication of the Andrew Morton book, and anything that could go wrong did go wrong. This was the year of The Queens 40th anniversary, but it was also the year of her annus horribilis; it really was a bad year.
Then a year after, with the marriage of Charles and Diana eventually going down the tube, both of them airing their views to the public with Diana cooperating with Andrew Morton on his book, and Charles’s going on television in a 90 minute documentary which most people only remember for his admission to adultery while still married to Diana.
Then a year later, Diana went on Panorama with the famous line “there were three of us in this marriage so it was a bit crowded”. So yes it was a very turbulent period, and I am sorry to say with the death of Princess Diana it was a very sad occasion, but things have settled down, we haven’t had that sort of turbulence since.
Was Diana difficult to work with?
No, she wasn’t difficult, come on anybody can be difficult, everybody has an on day and an off day. There were times as I mentioned in my book if Diana had an idea and it wasn’t a very good one or it wouldn’t work, I would say so and she wouldn’t talk to me for a couple of weeks. But we patched up and made up. However, she wasn’t difficult to work with.
I think when you are working in a high profile job like that, you are constantly under the microscope, but you probably are a little bit on edge when out in public and want things to go absolutely right; there was no room for anything to go wrong or even marginally wrong. But difficult to work with, no I wouldn’t say that!
In the book, you criticised the press for their actions and sensationalist headlines. Would you say to an extent the media are obsessed with the royals?
I think the media are obsessed, I mean you say the royal family, I think the media are celebrity obsessed. They will probably go out of their way to report on something sensational on the royal family, they will do it in sports, particularly football. It is celebrity culture which the royal family are unfortunately are thrown in. There is a certain obsession, but it depends on which newspapers. If you go with broadsheets no, but if you go with tabloids yes, it is what sells newspapers at the end of the day.
You mentioned that you present a daily synopsis to The Queen of what the day’s newspapers say, does she take a great interest in what the media say about her?
Well, The Queen reads and scans the newspapers even before she gets the synopsis. The synopsis really was just a written word just so she could glance if she needed to. It was tradition to send up, but by the time it got sent to her, she had already scanned the newspapers and knew exactly what was in.
Do you think Her Majesty made the right decision by staying at Balmoral when Diana tragically died?
Absolutely, absolutely! There is no question about that. I think the great British public will agree with that now. There was a witch-hunt frenzy by the media two days after Diana died with the headline story in the papers saying ‘Where is The Queen, why isn’t she in London’? You have to ask yourself, if she came down to London, what would she have done? The answer is probably nothing. She was absolutely right, for the first time in her reign she put her family before duty.
She had two grandsons, one aged 12, one aged 15, who needed a lot more support than the great British public. Their mother had been tragically killed in public circumstances and they needed to come to terms with it, because they knew at the end of the week they would have to face the world at the funeral. And so, The Queen and Prince Philip made sure they would be there for them. So yes, it was absolutely right they stayed in Balmoral for the sake of William and Harry and come down when she did. When she did come down, it was the day after William and Harry met their dad Prince Charles and had gone down to Kensington Palace in the afternoon where they looked at the floral tributes.
The Queen came down and went to St James’s Palace to sign the book of condolence, talked to people, went to Buckingham Palace to sign a book of condolence there, talk to well-wishers, and that evening she made a very heartfelt tribute to Diana which was broadcast live at six o’ clock. The funeral was the following day. So in answer to your question, yes it was absolutely right she stayed at Balmoral.
People who will read your book will wonder how on earth you carried on your job with such professionalism on the week Diana died?
Well you have to, I did make the point in the book of two instances when I was able to grieve on my own. In both of those instances I went into the Chapel Royal and sat quietly with the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales in front of me. If you have got a job to do, it is a job that has to be done and your professional mode takes over from any private grieving which was in much the same way The Queen stayed at Balmoral to be with William and Harry. Her strength, and Prince Philip’s strength was what was able to guide William and Harry to do what they did on September 6th; where they walked behind the gun carriage in full view of the world.
Will we ever see a funeral of that size and scale again?
Well we did in 2002 for The Queen Mother when she died. It is quite interesting because at the time after Diana’s funeral, all the broadcasters were saying we would never see one quite like it again. But we did see the same five years later when The Queen Mother died and we will see something even bigger when The Queen eventually departs from this world, but that’s not for a few years time, so relax it’s not going to happen.
What were your impressions when Camilla came to meet Charles at the hospital when he broke his arm in a polo match? Did you suspect there was something going on between them?
I think most people knew there was something going on between them but it just never reached the public, which was covert. But it was none of my business. My business was to get the message across to the media that The Prince of Wales had broken his arm in three places, that he would be able to play polo again and wouldn’t end up with a crooked arm.
In your book, you mentioned lots of memorable and enjoyable moments that occurred when you were working in the Royal Household. To name a few, your welcome picnic with The Queen and your 50th birthday party. What is the most memorable and special moment you have had whilst working for the royals?
I think the whole twelve years while I was there. It is very difficult to point out any one occasion. I suppose I have got to say for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, we were working flat out for six days to put something together from a blank piece of paper and get it right, that was a very memorable occasion. I think working alongside The Queen on engagements and also The Prince and Princess of Wales on tour. Each day was special working there. There was no one day that was the same, each day was special and each day was a privilege.
So now you have finished the book, what is next for you? Will there be a sequel?
Oh no, that’s it! I have told my story and it took me fourteen years to decide whether I was going to do that, it might take me another fourteen years to decide whether I am going to do anything else, I don’t know.
And finally, you have had lots of negative articles being published in the newspapers about revealing details of Charles and Diana’s marriage. Do you think it is fair on Charles that you published these intimate moments in his life?
Well, intimate is subjective. There has only been one newspaper that has come up and said that. That newspaper got it wrong anyway and it suggested that things were in the book that aren’t in the book. But quite frankly, what a newspaper writes is their business, but I don’t think the details are intimate.
With thanks to Dickie Arbiter and Blink Publishing