On paper, it was never going to work. Yesterday, Channel 4 aired Prince Andrew: The Musical, an original 50-minute musical based on the life of Queen Elizabeth’s third child. Prince Andrew tunefully reenacts the highlights of the royal’s Wikipedia page – his military service, his youth as a media darling, his marriage to and divorce from Sarah Ferguson, and his cushy diplomatic role under Blair’s government. It also touches on the later scandals surrounding his relationship with convicted paedophile and sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, and a civil lawsuit alleging that he sexually assaulted a woman, Virginia Giuffre, when she was 17 years old. (Andrew has denied the claims; earlier this year, a settlement was reached out of court in which the duke made a multi-million-pound payout without admitting any liability.)
Written by and starring Kieran Hodgson, the programme has predictably kicked up a stink among viewers. Naturally, many royalists have taken issue with the tongue-in-cheek lampooning of the disgraced duke of York. But even for those who detest Prince Andrew, there’s no getting around the fundamental tastelessness of its premise.
On the most superficial aesthetic level, Prince Andrew is perfectly fine. The songs are peppy and well-written enough (though, it should be said, not that funny). Hodgson, a comedian in his early thirties, looks nothing like Andrew, and most of the supporting cast are seemingly chosen to be as incongruous as possible – Munya Chawawa as Charles; drag star Baga Chipz as Thatcher; Harry Enfield as Blair. Bound by the legally established facts of the duke’s various scandals, Prince Andrew could scarcely be called a hit piece. As The Independent’s Isobel Lewis noted in her three-star review of the programme: “Allegations are largely tap-danced around, while the royal is painted as a general wrong ‘un.”
Her review also astutely likens Prince Andrew to an Edinburgh Fringe show – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Hodgson’s far superior Edinburgh shows, blending anecdote and impressions, were what established him on the comedy scene in the first place. Anyone who’s been to the Fringe will immediately recognise the genre that Prince Andrew falls into: the thick books of listings are filled with provocatively titled ripped-from-the-headlines musicals, desperate to snag your eye amid thousands of obnoxious alternatives.
Those with a keen memory for tat will probably remember Diana: The Musical, a filmed version of which dropped ignominiously on Netflix just over a year ago. Like Prince Andrew, Diana revelled in the whiff of poor taste, the late Princess Diana’s death still being a touchy subject for many in the country. But Prince Andrew is a whole other story. The allegations at the heart of his ruined reputation are terrible, and gravely serious. Sexual violence is something that most comedians wisely avoid joking about – for many audience members, it is a subject too traumatic to conceivably be funny.
It’s fair to assume that Prince Andrew: The Musical would not have been commissioned had he been found guilty in the sexual assault lawsuit that was eventually settled, or if his ties to Epstein had been revealed to run deeper than just an ill-advised friendship. This legal ambiguity – an inability to say he is or is not guilty – allows the programme to dance around with the horrible realities of what Andrew has been accused of. But this doesn’t make it OK. Channel 4 would never dream of making a light-hearted comic musical based around, say, the sexual abuse allegations levelled at Woody Allen. What makes Prince Andrew’s case so different? Perhaps it’s the rank absurdity to some of his excuses – the “Pizza Express” alibi; the supposed inability to produce sweat – or the ruthless mocking he has received on social media, where libel laws are less rigorously imposed. On Twitter, the court of public opinion may have sentenced him long ago to death by a thousand memes, but Channel 4 is bound to the legal truths of his case.
Even with this taken into account, however, there’s something unavoidably distasteful about the tone of Prince Andrew. The format of the breezy song-and-dance musical is fundamentally incompatible with a subject as dark as sexual assault. To satirise someone like Prince Andrew demands anger, not glibness. There are ways around it of course – but it takes guile, and a complete control of tone. Prince Andrew feels as if someone wanted to recreate The Producers and ended up making “Springtime for Hitler”.
Prince Andrew is a more than worthy target for criticism and satire. But you can’t help but balk at imagining how Virginia Giuffre – or any victim of sexual violence or human trafficking – would feel if they came across Prince Andrew: The Musical on TV. It’s a lot of collateral damage for a parody that barely scratches the surface of the public’s anger towards one of the country’s most powerful men. For all those outraged by the duke’s friendship with Epstein, Andrew’s behaviour doesn’t require a show-stopper; it requires fierce, direct scrutiny. When you’re holding a pitchfork, jazz hands aren’t exactly an option.