‘Someone told me Fergie watched The Windsors and I felt really guilty’: Ellie White on playing Princess Beatrice
What does Princess Beatrice actually sound like? While talking to comedian Ellie White, who plays the doe-eyed royal in Channel 4’s The Windsors, I realise that I’ve never really heard Beatrice – or her sister Eugenie – speak. I ask my friends and colleagues: they don’t know either. “There’s a lot of footage of Harry and William and Charles and Camilla, but less of them,” says White, perched on a stool in the middle of a Soho bar. “I think they keep themselves quite private.” She pauses. “People liked their fascinators at the royal wedding, but that was about it.”
If anything, the voice most associated with Beatrice now is the one concocted by White, a “Made in Chelsea stupid drawl” thickly laden with vocal fry. On The Windsors, which has been skewering the firm since 2016, you’ll find comedy legend Harry Enfield doing a pretty spot-on take on King Charles, but the mystery surrounding Beatrice has provided White with creative freedom since she first joined the party. Sitting across from me in a pink fluffy jumper and black quilted jacket adorned with flower appliqués – something you might imagine Beatrice herself would wear when she’s off-duty – the 34-year-old is keen to stress that this is a show where there’s no such thing as too absurd. “I’ll often do a take and then the director will be like, ‘Can you make your voice 15 out of 10 in its ridiculousness?’” White says. “It’s sort of limitless.”
White was “very, very new” to the industry when she first auditioned for the role in 2015, and remembers assuming the script was a joke (“I was like, ‘This can’t be a TV show, it’s so stupid’”). But The Windsors became a hit, with White and fellow comic Celeste Dring cementing the air-headed sisters Beatrice and Eugenie as fan-favourite characters. Now, seven years since it first aired, it’s back for a special to mark the coronation, and White sits among some of the most exciting emerging UK comedy stars. She’s a close collaborator of the Demetriou siblings, having met Jamie at university. She frequently stole scenes as the sardonic Katya in his show Stath Lets Flats, while Jamie’s sister Natasia has been White’s comedy partner on stage and screen for years, with the pair releasing their BBC Three sketch show Ellie & Natasia in 2022 to critical acclaim.
Born in Oxford, the daughter of former Independent journalist Jim White, the actor was raised on Chris Morris comedies such as Brass Eye and The Day Today – shows where “there’s a damning message here, really underneath” the comedy. You can see why she’s drawn to The Windsors, a show that mocks the royal family while acknowledging their precarious, often contradictory position in modern society. The coronation special opens with Prince William (Hugh Skinner) telling the Queen Consort (Haydn Gwynne): “You absolutely cannot wear the Kohinoor diamond. It’s an offensive reminder of privilege and empire.” “Isn’t that the point of the whole coronation?” comes Camilla’s dumbfounded reply.
For Beatrice and Eugenie, The Windsors special sees the pair struggling with their reduced roles in the monarchy and failing to make the coronation invite list. Has playing Beatrice for all these years made White empathise with her more? “God, that’s actually quite a tricky one,” she says, “because now if I say no, I look like a complete sociopath. Yes?” She shakes her head, mocking her answer. “Someone told me once that Fergie watched it and I felt really guilty because I was like, ‘Oh God, I don’t want her to be upset by it.’ But I think [the show] is quite fond… They probably know they’re gonna get thrown on to the bus at some stage.”
In terms of her own feelings on the royal family, White insists she’s “not necessarily totally anti-royalist”, but mostly sees their antics as “good gossip”. Harry and Meghan’s departure from the monarchy has been “fascinating”, she says, largely because it feels like the couple are “writing their own Windsors storyline”. In fact, White points out, the “prophetic” writers on the show included an arc “about Harry and Megan leaving the royal family to go live in America before it had even happened”.
The coronation special was filmed just a month ago, with the cost-of-living crisis underscoring the episode. The uncomfortable contrast of staging a coronation (estimated to cost between £50m and £100m) at a time when people cannot afford to feed their children is made clear, but through stealth stupidity. When Rishi Sunak (Crashing’s Amit Shah) tells Charles he should replace one of his staff members (an old man sleeping in a corner) based on merit, Charles seethes, “How dare you talk about meritocracy on the eve of my coronation, when I’m to be anointed King purely because my mother was Queen, her father was King, so on and so forth back to Willy the Conq!” This is something White enjoys doing with her own comedy, too. “I definitely err towards always trying to make silly stuff that has an undercurrent of ‘OK, there’s something weird going on here,’” she says. “It’s the best way of shedding light on things.”
White gets a lot of inspiration for her own sketch characters from mind-numbing reality TV (her current favourite is The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, “which is also quite dark, to be honest”). “If I watch a brilliant comedy, I usually get quite jealous instead of inspired, because I’m like, ‘Wish I’d written that,’” she says. “Whereas if I’m watching reality TV or documentaries, or real-life stuff, I’m jotting [things] down… I mean, it is brain rot, but it’s brilliant.”
Like many sketch comics before her, White, who started out in comedy in 2012, has always enjoyed workshopping characters on stage. But despite spending more than a decade in the industry, she rarely performs now due to being genuinely “terrified” of being on stage. I initially assume she’s joking, but the stress in her eyes assures me she isn’t. “It still really scares me,” she says, recalling being cast in a comedy play when she was 15 and how she spent the four hours preceding every performance lying face down on her kitchen floor. “I’ve always wanted to be a comedy actor – always – but I felt very unconfident expressing that,” she says. “It’s a weird balance, when your brain is like, ‘Don’t go on stage,’ and then the other half is like, ‘But you want this. You want this.’”
The thing White misses most about performing live, when she hasn’t done it for a while, is getting to mess around with Natasia. “It’s amazing to be able to work with someone that you share a sense of humour with, who’s also your friend who you get on with very well.” She becomes suddenly aware of her own sincerity. “Imagine if I started crying?” Still, she admits Natasia might not be the best when it comes to calming her stage fright. “[Before shows], we would sit and just be like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’ even if there were like five people in the audience. We were just frenzied. I would do like a million burps. It was awful.”
The Edinburgh Fringe has been an integral part of White’s comedy career, with White always “really aware” of the “insane” costs associated with performing at the major Fringe venues. As a result, she always did her shows at the Free Fringe instead and never lost money. In 2023, the Fringe is at breaking point, with costs rising and ticket sales drastically down. “It’s happening everywhere,” White points out. “Prices are going up and it will just destroy culture… It’s pretty unaffordable. That’s just how stuff remains cut off to certain people and it’s s***. It’s really s***.” Does she think the Fringe can survive? “I don’t know… It should survive, it’s such a great place but I just don’t know… Comedy, music and theatre, it’s being sacrificed, left, right and centre.”
While the Demetrious have gone on to success across the pond, White has always pictured herself in the UK, “only because I love British comedy and I always have”. “I want to try and create stuff and have a bit of momentum,” she says. “But obviously if someone asked me to be in something I’d be like, ‘Get me on a plane!’”
I wonder about the appeal of The Windsors to a US audience, given the curiosity they have about the royals. “I think they’d probably lap it up, although they might not get it… They might be pissed off by it,” White says. She’s not met any British royalists who hate the show. “I mean, it’s great that we can put something on that completely destroys the British monarchy, and then it gets so supported,” says White. “People are waving their flag for it, but also kind of still like the monarchy. I’d really like to meet someone who hates it because they’re really royalist.” She cracks up at the idea. “That would really make me laugh.”
‘The Windsors Coronation Special’ airs Sunday 30 April at 9pm on Channel 4