Carry on the Windsors

Malcolm Clark sees no gay mafia at the Palace, only courtiers behaving with the typical arrogance of

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Until recently, most of us assumed that the royal household resembled the one in the old black-and- white movie Kind Hearts and Coronets. Stiff, unintentionally funny and given to bouts of Ruritanian pomposity. That was before the Paul Burrell affair. Now it's clear the atmosphere is closer to that of a Carry On film. More Kenneth Williams than Alec Guinness. "Ooooh valet, I think I may have crumpled my boxers . . . "

Promiscuous parties. Bed-hopping servants. The tabloids are full of gay goings-on. So much so that the suggestion has been made that at St James's Palace, in particular, preferment depends on preference. That a gay mafia is at work.

It is easy to dismiss all this as jumped-up homophobia. After all, we've been here before. Gay mafias have been a staple of conspiracy theories ever since the Templar Knights were accused of wearing over-elaborate codpieces. When the super-agent Mike Ovitz's film career collapsed a couple of years ago, he claimed he had been destroyed by a Hollywood gay mafia. The male model Norman Scott, whom Jeremy Thorpe was accused of trying to kill in the 1970s, claimed there was a secret gay network in parliament.

When it comes to the royals, though, the rumours are closer to the mark. For gays have been at the heart of the royal household for years. The tone was set decades ago by the Queen Mother, that great aficionado of . . . erm . . . Noel Coward. She surrounded herself with gay men, including an inner circle of aristocratic gay friends such as the late Bobby "Bubbles" Corbett. They were men who could be relied upon to be witty, right-wing - and capable of holding their drink. Qualities she expected from her staff as well. Billy Tallon ("Backstairs Billy") served her faithfully for over 50 years. She could hardly fail to know he was gay - his partner Reg Wilcox was her page. When it was suggested, after a gay orgy on the Britannia hit the headlines, that gay men should be rooted out of court, she is reported to have said: "Then we shall all have to learn self-service."

This over-representation of gay men is easily explained. Gay men have fewer distractions. In the absence of family, they can devote themselves to their regal employers. Then there's the perennial attraction, on the part of a certain kind of right-wing gay man, to dressing up and flummery. Throw in a shared love of Shirley Bassey and you can see how the royals and some gays get on so well. Camp humour is all about bad taste, and our royals are, if nothing else, paragons of bad taste.

Now the Queen Mum has gone, gay HQ appears to be St James's. Here, gays really do seem to be thick on the ground. Top of the tree is Mark Bolland, the openly gay press adviser to Prince Charles who managed narrowly to avoid tabloid immolation last year. He resigned after his relationship with the head of the Press Complaints Commission was questioned as inappropriate, but was then promptly taken on again as a freelance. Under him, so to speak, are a host of other gay characters who are indispensable to Prince Charles.

All this might not matter much if a dark side to the story had not now emerged: chiefly, that one of the Prince of Wales's trusted servants committed a brutal male rape. He has subsequently denied it, but the evidence certainly suggests that it wasn't investigated properly at the time. And as each new revelation emerges, a picture builds up of a royal household in which some gay men expect to be immune from the processes of the law, their crimes covered up, their victims silenced, or paid off.

Unfortunately for the gay community, it just so happened that the rape story surfaced in a week when other gay stories were crowding for attention. The official opposition nearly split over gay adoption, the European Court ruled that gay partners could inherit tenancies, and government managers began preparing for yet another debate on Section 28. That's not a bad legislative tally for any minority, especially one that makes up something between 1 and 2 per cent of the population.

You wouldn't have to be the world's worst homophobe to wonder whether gays were having their fairy cake and eating it: complaining on the one hand that they were hard done by, but more than happy to wield undue influence when given half a chance. And as if to confirm such an ignoble suspicion, along comes Michael Barrymore with a walk-on part in the royal affair: a man who has single-handedly helped to plant the idea that a rich gay man can get away with murder - metaphorically speaking, of course.

So does all this mean Britain is in the grip of a gay mafia? Hardly. For one thing, the right-wing gays at court wouldn't be seen dead in the company of the Tatchellites. They loathe them and most things associated with the modern world.

And outside the dusty Norma Desmond mansion inhabited by the royals, there is scant evidence of a real gay influence in Britain. No openly gay CEO or chairman of an FTSE 100 company. No gay person in charge of a national newspaper or a major broadcasting company. No gay chief constable or head of an intelligence agency. When gays got a real shot at power, in the cabinet, they blew it. The high tide of influence ended when Peter Mandelson couldn't remember what he'd said to whom and when about the Hindujas.

As for the scandal at St James's, even that isn't gay. It's royal. All the gay hangers-on are doing is what they were taught to do by their royal masters.

It was from the royals they learnt that social "inferiors" would not dare to answer back; and absorbed the conviction that they were above the law. There is a mafia at work at the Palace. But it's the Queen's, not the queens'.

This article appears in the 18 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, NS Interview - Jack Straw