February 3, 2023

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Harry and Meghan: Does Netflix’s documentary live up to the hype?

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Heavily trailed, hugely anticipated – but did ‘Harry and Meghan’ make good TV?

Plot spoiler alert.

If you watched the trailers and thought Harry & Meghan, Netflix’s heavily promoted new series, was going to be explosive, prepare to be disappointed.

Unless you are an individual member of the Royal Family, in which case, you might be opening the champagne – a drink, we learnt from this new show, that Harry doesn’t usually enjoy.

To put it kindly, this is slow-burn television.

Volume One, as it was rather grandiosely titled, came out in three episodes on Thursday.

Perhaps Volume Two, for which we must wait another week, will get to the details so tantalisingly alluded to in those trailers: who leaked and planted stories about the couple? Who was fighting a “war against Meghan to suit other people’s agendas”? Who was playing a “dirty game”?

What we got – over almost three hours – were new, private details of their “great love story”, as Harry put it. Think soft focus lenses, Nina Simone playing in the background, lots of private photographs, videos and even, apparently, a call between Meghan and a friend as she was getting engaged (“OMG it’s happening” she says).

Also discussed at length through the first volume is harassment by the media. Harry calls it his duty to “uncover this exploitation and bribery”.

More damagingly, the programmes build up a sense that Britain has an endemic problem with structural racism, particularly in relation to the Royal Family and the media.

Historian and TV presenter David Olusoga describes the optimism many Britons of colour (and others) felt about Meghan’s arrival into the heart of the Royal Family. “There was a hope maybe of having difficult conversations that have been pushed away so many times”. Subtext, addressed later – it wasn’t to be.

But these three episodes were broadbrush, rather than aimed at specific individuals.

Netflix has billed Harry & Meghan as an “unprecedented and in-depth documentary series”.

But the programme, unsurprisingly, was heavily one-sided and selective.

At one point, Meghan describes the media interview and photocall the couple gave when they got engaged as an “orchestrated reality show”.

Is that what Netflix’s Harry & Meghan, produced in association with the couple’s company, is?

Interestingly, they began recording video diaries in March 2020, as they stepped away from royal duties. That was many months before their Netflix deal was announced.

This is their truth in the hands of the Netflix professionals, a slickly produced narrative about a couple who fell in love and had to sacrifice everything as they butted up against systems, protocols and racism.

The Royal Family – we are told at the start – didn’t choose to make any comment for the programme makers. Both Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace confirmed they received an email purporting to be from a production company from an unknown organisation’s address and attempted to verify its authenticity with Archewell Productions and Netflix, but did not receive a response, PA reported.

A source told PA the substance of the email did not address the entire series.

So what we have is carefully curated to back up the couple.

Netflix is adept at the modern language of television which steers us through the story. The couple met on social media – perhaps the first royals to do so and certainly a great advert for Instagram. Their early messages are shared with us, popping up on screen in a device so often used by TV in our tech age.

The interviews with Harry set up his wife as the true heir to his mother, Princess Diana. He says Meghan has the “same empathy, the same warmth”. The show regularly cuts to archive footage of Diana, as Harry discusses his fears that history could repeat itself.

There are also narrative cliffhangers to keep us watching.

Harry describes trying to deal with the loss of his mother “without much support or help or guidance”, and describes his “second family” in Africa, a group of friends “that literally brought me up”.

Where was his father? We can’t help asking.

Will we find out more?

He talks about how male royals tend to marry women “who fit in the mould” instead of for love. Is he inferring that’s what his brother did? Does Volume Two answer that question?

Meghan mentions her first meeting with Kate and William, when as “a hugger” she was informal and tactile. She says that is “jarring for some Brits”. Are we supposed to read more into that, after all the stories about the breakdown of relations between the couples?

These teasers frankly help along a narrative that gets a little repetitive at times.

The programme seems made primarily for an American audience. And Harry has embraced the language of the US West Coast. He talks about how, just before news of their relationship broke, they went out for one last secret night and managed to “pull the pin on the fun brigade”.

We hear about “lived experience” and “cause-driven work”.

But if you were tuning in for jaw-dropping revelations, Prince Charles on Dimbleby, Prince Andrew on Newsnight, Princess Diana on Panorama this was not.

This new Netflix show wasn’t even Meghan and Harry on Oprah.

That was the last time the couple endeavoured to tell their truth.

In that bombshell interview, they told Oprah about overt racism by a member of the Royal Family about what colour their future son’s skin might be. We don’t hear anything about that over the three episodes. Who said it still remains a mystery.

But Harry does talk about his own journey to understand “unconscious bias”. He also addresses some of the racism of which he has been accused in the past, describing how “ashamed” he felt after he wore a Nazi uniform costume to a party in 2005.

The programme shows him on a journey of constant discovery and self analysis about racism.

It’s left to other contributors to raise Britain’s history around the slave trade, as well as the “skeletons in the closet” in the Royal Family.

But in the end, will this programme persuade anyone to change their opinions?

After the show and then Harry’s book, Spare, is published in January, the couple’s “truth” will be fully out there. Will that be enough for them?

Their currency might begin to wane as they struggle with the law of diminishing returns. They may still want to battle royal institutions and the media, but it may turn out that their real battle will be with ongoing relevancy.

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