Last month ago a man came round to see me from Buckingham Palace. He wanted to know if I was discreet. Discreet? I am not half as discreet as he was. He was so discreet I couldn't make out what he was talking about. Finally, after nearly an hour, I tumbled. He was in charge of the Queen's Christmas Message. They felt it could be a bit more informal this year. They wanted it to be more light-hearted. Perhaps a joke or two? Could I help . . .?
I said I couldn't really see the Queen doing jokes. Was she up to it? I mean, I couldn't exactly imagine her saying, “There were these three wise men, see, and they went into a stable, and one of them said. . .”
‘And one of the three wise men said what?’ said the discreet Palace gent.
No, I said. I was only giving an example of a joke formula. I had no idea what the wise man said.
‘Oh,’ said the Palace gent, plainly disappointed. ‘I thought there was a Biblical joke coming.’
I don't think there are any Biblical jokes, I said. Except for the one about Esau.
Esau was a hairy man, I said. He was the hairiest thing in the Old Testament. Blimey, even the Red Sea had a parting!
The Palace gent didn't get it. I should have seen the signs then and baled out. But I didn't, and a week later I was round the Palace, in through the back door, into the Queen's presence.
‘I believe you have some suggestions for adding lightness to my Message’, she said.
(I couldn't help noticing that she didn't say "one's message". So it's not entirely true what they say.)
‘Left to me, your majesty’, I said, rather boldly, ‘I wouldn't change a thing’.
‘Why not?’, quoth she.
‘Because nobody listens anyway’, I said, ‘so it makes no difference.’
She looked at me, and just for a moment I thought she was going to say Off With His Head. But she didn't, and she smiled slightly, and said that viewing figures for the Christmas message were still very good, so I didn't know what I was talking about.
‘The very fact that you are conscious of the viewing figures,’ I said, ‘shows that you have the right idea! But now is the time, if any, to give it some added pizazz. Some viewer appeal. And as I see it, there are three different ways of achieving this.’
There was silence. I had them now. All the aides were craning forwards.
‘One is to start with a bang. To lean forward to the camera and say, “My people, I have something very important to tell you. I intend to abdicate from the throne of Great Britain”. You pause for a moment, then say, “No, just kidding. Sorry, Charles”. Then carry on as normal. People will be electrified.’
There was a silence.
‘Well, the second way is to keep the tone of the Christmas message as usual, but to feed in little jokes here and there. Refer to the servant problem and being forced to recruit people from the Daily Mirror. Or do some football jokes. It might be fun for you to refer to “such historic teams as Manchester United, Chelsea and My Park Rangers”.’
There was another silence.
‘Or perhaps “One's Park Rangers”? No? Right. Here's another idea for a joke. Before some routine thought or banal reflection, insert the words: “As Paul Burrell was saying to me only the other day . . .” ‘
There was more of the same silence.
‘And then, just to show, you're in touch, add, “Or maybe he said it to me a couple of years ago, and I just forgot about it. . . “ ‘
‘Well, here's my last idea. Do the normal speech as usual. But have next to you, sitting on the table beside you, a large Tupperware box. Which you occasionally pick up absent-mindedly and shake. Producing the sound of corn flakes. As if they were sponsoring the speech, or something. I guarantee it will go down a storm.’
It was indicated to me at this point that the audience was at an end, and I could leave. I have heard nothing since.
The Independent Tues Dec 16 2003