I firmly believe that comedy can be applied to any subject – but of course, the more difficult, sensitive and triggering, the more skilful the writing needs to be. That’s why Channel 4’s Prince Andrew: The Musical rang such gigantic alarm bells when it was announced. Not because it involves the Royal Family, who are fair game and whose pomposity and self-importance often needs to be pricked – doing so is practically a national pastime.
But because, among the jokes about sweating and pizzas and Fergie and bungs and toe sucking, we shouldn’t forget that Prince Andrew is associated with a scandal that involves coerced sex with trafficked minors. That his story overlaps with that of Jeffrey Epstein, who abused underage girls for decades, and Ghislaine Maxwell, who groomed them for him. One of those victims alleges that she was coerced into sex with Andrew himself, although Andrew has always strenuously denied wrongdoing; they settled a US civil case out of court for an undisclosed sum, reported to be as much as £12m. This is a sinister story. It’s horrible.
Prince Andrew: The Musical does its best to skirt around the grimmest aspects of the scandal. Epstein and Maxwell are mentioned and appear in photographs, but are thankfully never characterised, and – praise be – unlike Emily Maitlis, Fergie and Prince Charles, don’t get a song. It’s a sensible choice that pays off, and ultimately the show is very funny; gloriously stupid and willfully odd in the best way.
Written by Kieran Hodgson, who has made a career out of conjuring smart twists on scandals and political farces (Lance Armstrong, Brexit) and his spot-on parodies (as seen in his excellent Bad TV Impressions videos), it’s a goofy, light-touch hour of knowingly cheap-looking dance set pieces, surprisingly hummable show tunes and excellent couplets (“I can’t believe I said that, the thing about the sweat/Though you’d rather have a prince who’s dry than one who’s soaking wet”). Hodges is genuinely great as the title character, and if anything his Andrew is fractionally more likeable than the real one. There’s a handful of subtle gags that really work, the best of them being the use of the Pizza Express logo in the show’s title cards. It’s shiny, schlocky, silly fun.
That is, until you slam into a mental wall of sexual abuse and human trafficking and the giggles are knocked straight out of you, as happens when “pizza Fiorentina” is rhymed with “soliciting a minor”. It’s a good couplet, but it makes us feel uncomfortable without earning the right to do so – the show deliberately avoids exploring the issues it raises with any depth, because its style is too daft to accommodate a serious conversation. By skimming the surface it trivialises a subject that needs incredible skill and nuance to handle comedically and leaves it on the table. It’s always there, a dose of cold reality among stylised silliness.
I’m glad Prince Andrew: The Musical exists. It’s something only Channel 4 would dare to try and flawed as the show is, we should be happy to still have a broadcaster willing to take a big swing, even if ultimately it didn’t quite connect. Comedy is an art form that can handle any issue, in theory. Some subjects, though, require a more delicate touch than this brightly coloured, post-Christmas knees-up could manage.