THE phrase ‘soap opera’ is almost as old as Queen Elizabeth II.
It was coined in the 1930s, to describe serial radio dramas, many of which were sponsored in the U.S by soap manufacturers.
The phrase entered the mainstream in the latter part of the 20th century, when soap operas dominated TV in the era when we only had a handful of channels.
These days, they are as popular as ever, but with one big difference. They are no longer necessarily fictional.
Thanks largely to the internet, thousands of real-life soap operas play out all around us on a minute by minute basis — from the worlds of music to film, from fashion to, ugh, ‘social influencers’.
Once you appear on Love Island or date a Kardashian (neither a Dolan stronghold), you become a character in a rolling soap opera, your private life becomes public, your every utterance is parsed, your every move documented: You’re walking, talking click-bait.
The British Royal Family were the original real-life soap opera, and remain for many the biggest draw of all. And as the latest chapter in their enduring story plays out in public on Saturday, many of us will be looking on agog, like we used to do when Glenroe or EastEnders were in their prime.
Prince Philip’s funeral will be given the most solemn and sombre of British TV treatments, and every move the Royal Family make will be scrutinised across both mainstream and social media.
Is the Queen, a week short of her 95th birthday, bearing up well after losing her husband of 73 years? Which of her children are comforting her? Does her son Andrew look a bit shifty?
And most scrutinised of all will be the princely siblings, William and Harry... are they avoiding each other? Is there warmth between them, or frost?
Many of us will be glued to our TVs at 2.45pm, when we get our first glimpse of the royal cortege as its follows the coffin carrying the Duke of Edinburgh to St George’s Chapel in Windsor, just to see the body language of William and Harry.
They were once the closest of buddies, but any hope of a reconciliation between them since the dramatic Oprah Winfrey interview seems bleak, given the evidence of the past week.
There has apparently been an unseemly dispute behind the scenes over what they will wear — and they won’t even walk side by side in the procession on Saturday, both separated instead by their cousin. Are things that bad? What message does that send to the world about their relationship?
It’s apt, given that Harry’s actress wife Meghan made her name in a TV drama called Suits, that the tension between William and Harry in the lead up to the funeral surrounded male apparel.
It’s tradition for the royal men to wear military regalia to royal funerals, but since Harry has turned his back on royal life, and lost his military titles, that meant he would have to wear a plain old suit.
How that idea must have rankled: The thought of his brother and father, Charles, whom Harry has also fallen out with, parading in full military regalia, while he tagged along in a suit. Oh, the ignominy!
This left the poor old Queen in a bit of a dilemma, at a time when she was mourning the man who had been by her side for her whole adult life. She could have allowed Harry to don the military uniform too, an act that could have been seen as an attempt to reconcile the rogue Harry back into the Royal fold. An extension of the regal hand of friendship, a magnanimous gesture, in the finest traditions of soap operas, where many of the best scenes play out at occasions dripping with emotion, such as weddings, birthday parties, and funerals.
If the Queen did not do this, Harry would stand out like a sore thumb, in a common, if undoubtedly very pricey, suit, and no doubt barely able to hide that trademark scowl of his.
So, the Queen stepped in and defused the situation by insisting all the men wear suits. How Charles and William feel about that we can only guess...
Suffice to say that the episode does not bode well for a reunion of the warring brothers.
As for Harry, St George’s Chapel was where he wed the glamorous Meghan less than three years ago, in a glorious exhibition of multi-culturalism that included a storming fire-and-brimstone sermon that had certain royals clutching their pearls in surprise!
I wonder what Harry will be thinking on Saturday, as he gazes around the hallowed hall where his big day played out. Will he recall the huge crowds of well-wishers outside the church and watching at home that sunny day, none of whom displayed a scintilla of racism to him and his smiling bride? Will he have any regrets about the course his life has taken since? Will he glance at his father and brother and wonder about his future relationship with them?
What we can be sure of is that both princes will be thinking of their grandfather, Prince Philip, and remembering him in their very own distinct way.
One will be saluting the Prince of Duty, for whom devotion to royal life and the family was paramount, and will be resolutely determined to replicate that.
The other will be saluting the Prince of Informality, who spoke his mind, broke with tradition, and lived his own life, and will be determined to replicate that.
These contrasting views were summed up by separate tributes they released this week, William pointing to Philip’s life “defined by service”, and Harry unregally recalling his grandfather as a “legend of banter, cheeky, beer in hand”.
Both princes, in recalling very different facets of the same man, are choosing to remember him in their own way, and neglecting to see his other side. In doing so, they provide a clue that they are irrevocably drifting further apart.
The hoo-hah over what they will wear, and the fact they will stand apart on Saturday, hints at a continuing, perhaps terminal split.
And so the soap opera rolls on...