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'Theirs was a marriage that should have lasted'

Former royal press secretary Dickie Arbiter recalls life with Charles and Di - and the Queen helping out with the washing-up

    Dickie Arbiter (centre) with Princess Di
    Dickie Arbiter (centre) with Princess Di

    Dickie Arbiter was press secretary to the Royal Family through difficult times. The 1990s were one of the most tumultuous periods for the royals since the abdication crisis in the 1930s, and Arbiter's memoirs, On Duty With The Queen, contain much about royal break-ups and other difficult situations, to the reported displeasure of his former employers. However, anyone reading the book will not so much be taken with the revelations - Charles and Diana leaked far more damaging material themselves - as by the absolute respect, even love, that Arbiter developed for the family.

    Now 74 and resplendent in one of his famously flamboyant ties, Arbiter tells a story which is perhaps more revealing than any of the material about divorces, fires and car crashes included in the book.

    It was the summer of 1988. He had recently been appointed press secretary and had been invited to Balmoral to meet The Queen and Prince Philip in what he imagined would be a formal encounter. It could not have been more different. The Queen told him to jump into her Land Rover, which she drove to a hunting lodge where Arbiter and the royal party enjoyed a picnic served out of Tupperware boxes. Afterwards, Arbiter offered to do the washing up. "I started running water and squirting Fairy Liquid. There was someone behind me who I assumed was a lady in waiting. I said, 'I'll wash you dry'. But then I heard the Queen's voice saying, 'No, I'll wash and you dry'."

    Born to German refugee parents, Arbiter was brought up in West Hampstead. As a child, he endured a particularly painful period at boarding school during a freezing winter. He was mocked for his slight German accent and conditions were awful. This, he maintains, is the only time he has been unhappy.

    As a Jew, he felt no sense of being an outsider in the royal household. "I have always felt comfortable in my own skin. If you start feeling like an outsider you might as well give up. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time and I had a good broadcasting career, which gave me a bit of chutzpah anyway."

    Dickie Arbiter (right) on duty with Prince Charles
    Dickie Arbiter (right) on duty with Prince Charles

    He was certainly welcomed into "the firm", as insiders call the Royal Family. He had become well known to them while court correspondent for Independent Radio News and naturally got to know them better once moving "from poacher to gamekeeper". The Queen addressed him as "Dickie" and he developed a close working relationship with both Charles and Diana. The latter's many acts of kindness would be interspersed with sulky silences if Arbiter told the princess something which displeased her.

    Much as he liked them, he could only look on helplessly as their marriage disintegrated before his eyes. "It was really tragic actually because theirs was a marriage that should have lasted and could have lasted," he reflects. "It was unfortunate that they couldn't sneeze in public without attracting headlines, or cough without someone saying they had bronchitis."

    He nails what he views as the myth that it had been a marriage of convenience for Charles. "They were certainly in love with each other at the beginning. It was terrific. He couldn't keep his hands off her in public. He'd pinch her bottom."

    But he feels that having children placed a strain on them, as did the constant media attention. "When babies come along, the father is invariably jealous because all the attention is on them and not him. That might have been a factor. Intellectually, they were different and the constant scrutiny could not have helped."

    Arbiter attributes equal blame for the break-up. And he was sometimes left in despair as carefully arranged trips dissolved amid press speculation about their situation - rumours Charles and Diana did nothing to discourage. "There were times you could have driven a coach and horses though the two of them, such was the hostility," he recalls. "The body language left much to be desired. He would look one way and she would look the other. It was all there for the press to see, so you can't argue with them for running a story."

    He is also critical of both for going public. Diana told him initially that she had not collaborated with Andrew Morton over his explosive biography and he was forced to state this to the press despite his very strong suspicions that she was not telling the truth. And he says Diana herself realised it was wrong to do her infamous interview with Martin Bashir. "That was an absolute mistake, as was the assertion that the royals all ganged up on her. That is absolute rubbish. They didn't gang up on her. Both the Queen and Prince Philip were very fond of her.

    "Prince Charles should not have given the interview that he did in '94 either. Neither of them should have washed their dirty linen in public."

    He was shaken to the core when learning of Diana's death in the car crash in Paris that September Sunday morning in 1997. Not that he had time to grieve. "It was my responsibility to put together the media plan for the funeral. There was so much to do I didn't have time for my private thoughts until the Wednesday of that week when I found some time to visit her in the Chapel Royal. When I got there, I was angry that she hadn't worn a seat belt. I vented my anger quite ferociously, but when I went back the next day the anger had gone.

    "I reminisced about all the things we had done, the special 50th birthday party she had put on for me, the times we had laughed together. After 40 minutes, I touched the coffin, bowed to her and said goodbye. Then I rolled up my sleeves and went back to work."

    The Queen was criticised in the press for remaining in Balmoral during that week, but Arbiter defends her. "The media were screaming, 'Why isn't the Queen in London, where are you Ma'am'? Not for one moment did they consider that she was with her two grandsons who had lost their mother in the most tragic of circumstances - and they needed their grandparents and their dad. The Queen doesn't do things on demand, she does them by gut feeling and she felt she should come back to London on the Friday and speak to the nation then. And she was absolutely right to do so."

    When he left Buckingham Palace after 12 years in the job, he felt the institution was as solid as it had ever been. "The royals have been around for 1,000 years. No single event changes them, they evolve with the times and The Queen adapts to meet the needs of the day. They will be here long after we have gone."

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