WHAT do showman P.T Barnum, ex-UK Prime Minster Gordon Brown, actress Maureen O’Hara, Margaret Thatcher, the Queen of England, and — most notably of all — Mark Twain have in common?
The answer is that they are among an array of famous people who have mistakenly been pronounced dead by the media when they were in fact very much alive.
In most cases, the excruciating error is cleared up quickly: In Twain’s case, he famously stated that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated.
Barnum, ever the showman, asked that his obituary be published as he lay dying, so he could get the chance to read it! In Gordon Brown’s case, a Sky News presenter got his name mixed up with that of Gordon Banks on the death of the footballer. Oops.
Hilariously, the Canadian Prime Minister’s advisors prepared a statement of sympathy when they heard of ‘Thatcher’s death in 2009, only to learn this ‘Thatcher’ who had shuffled off their mortal coil was in fact their Transport Minister’s pussy cat! Doh!
Queen Elizabeth II has been at the centre of several premature obituaries, usually when the media press the wrong button on a pre-prepared report on her demise.
For the UK authorities, her death will be a major operation, and those in power have to be ready to swiftly implement a precise plan. The Government regularly conducts an exercise known as Operation London Bridge to help prepare her funeral, and other Commonwealth realms have similar protocols.
The Queen is referred to as ‘Mrs Robinson’ in these practice runs specifically to prevent premature obituaries from seeping out, in a social media world where a lie can spread around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.
As Elizabeth II approaches her 95th birthday next month, and prepares for the 100th birthday of her husband Prince Philip in June — will she send him a telegram, I wonder? — the day when Britain has to learn to cope without perhaps the most popular monarch in its history draws ever closer.
It must be a day that many royalists in Britain are dreading, and not just because they will lose the single biggest reason for the country to retain its monarchy.
There will be dread, too, in many quarters, at the prospect of her being replaced by the man who would be king. For King Charles III — if that is the name he chooses — with all his flaws may well be the last monarch of England.
Viva la republic?
These thoughts crossed my mind this week, as the fall-out from the interview by Prince Harry and his wife Meghan with Oprah Winfrey in the U.S sent shockwaves around the world.
The couple’s comments, particularly Meghan revealing she felt suicidal because of life in ‘The Firm’ and her claim that a racist remark was made by a royal about her unborn son, were obviously incredibly damaging to the monarchy.
Being English-born, I found the interview riveting, but wondered at the time how much interest Irish people had in this very public spat.
Then I remembered when the Queen visited Cork a decade ago in May, and the amazing welcome she received — not least from a certain fishmonger! Her heirs, son Charles and grandson William, also enjoyed positive receptions when they visited Ireland in recent years.
And then I saw the staggering viewing figures for the Oprah interview on RTÉ on Monday — 725,000: more than watched last year’s All-Ireland hurling final between Limerick and Waterford.
The royals are box office, even in countries like this, which find the idea of a monarchy by birthright either archaic and daft, or deeply offensive to one’s liberal credentials.
Many of that latter breed clogged up my social media feed for the week, crowing about how this devastating interview must surely mark the beginning of the end of the Royal Family.
But they miss one crucial point.
The British public are no more likely to ditch their monarchy while the Queen is its figurehead, than the Irish are to evict Michael D Higgins from the Áras and leave him and his cute dogs begging for coins from passers-by in the Phoenix Park.
Do you see how universally adored our President is, after a decade in the role?
Now imagine he had been doing the job since 1952; not only that but, in one of the most high-profile roles on the world stage, failed to put a single foot wrong and been a shining beacon of dutiful decency.
There, in a nutshell, is the reason the Brits adore their Queen.
In a world that has changed utterly since Elizabeth II was crowned, she has been a constant, a Mrs Dependable, a stoic and staid symbol of nationhood.
I had to laugh when the Harry and Meghan interview was labelled the biggest crisis for the royals since the abdication of the Queens uncle 85 years ago. She has dealt with much worse than this in her reign, and survived it all.
As damaging as some of Meghan’s allegations were, the fall-out of her children’s foibles and infidelities, the tragic death of Diana, and even the shocking allegations swirling around her son Andrew, were far worse — and none came within an ass’s roar of destabilising her position.
When Irish people weigh up the British monarchy from afar, they often make a crucial mistake and attribute its survival entirely to the economic tourism benefits the Royal Family bring.
But the large majority of Brits want to retain the monarchy simply because they adore the Queen and can’t imagine life without her steady hand on the tiller.
One of these days, her obituary will appear and it will not be premature. Charles will take over with none of his mother’s gravitas, status and hard-won popularity. Already in his seventies, and forever tainted by his first wife’s death and his now public fall-out with Harry, he may find it hard to get the public onside — especially a younger generation from a kaleidescope of cultures.
At the same time, many hitherto silent British republicans, who would not dare dream of attacking the Queen, would, overnight, find a fertile place for their calls for the monarchy to be abolished.
A crisis like the one Meghan and Harry precipitated this week could mark the death knell of a monarchy led by a weak and indecisive King Charles III who fails to muster the support of the majority of his subjects.
Cromwell lopped off the head of the first King of England called Charles, and the country thought monarchy was done. The second King Charles restored the monarchy to its ‘rightful’ place. Which of these would a third King Charles emulate?
Long to reign over us, goes the British National Anthem. After another week in which the Queen was shaken but not stirred, royalists in Britain will fervently hope that continues to be the case.