The Royal Family, it seems, are all budding radio producers.
It's become a family hobby: Prince Harry guest edited the Today programme on Radio 4 in late 2017; Prince Charles has done Private Passions on Radio 3 and two further programmes on Classic FM last month; and, in May, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge took over multiple radio networks to broadcast a message from their mental health charity, Heads Together. And now the Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall has followed suit, guest editing Emma Barnett’s morning news and current affairs programme on BBC Radio 5 Live.
Or perhaps we should say BBC Wireless 5 Live, because the Duchess insisted on referring to it as the wireless, not the radio, when she discussed the matter with Barnett. “I couldn’t have done without the wireless. It’s been my friend throughout lockdown,” she said, pronouncing “wireless” to rhyme with “parlous”. She didn't specify whether she has a wireless preset tuned to 5 Live itself, or indeed 5 Live Sports Extra, but she did send a lemon and elderflower sponge cake in to Test Match Special last summer, so perhaps she does.
Barnett, for her part, sounded thrilled to be working with the Duchess. Deference must be an unfamiliar mood for Barnett, a bold and canny news broadcaster who has that rare knack of always seeming on the same level as her listeners and being reassuringly sceptical of anything too flash, but here even she was audibly impressed by the grand setting of her temporary studio in the library at Clarence House, describing with relish the ornate furniture, imposing artwork, and bookcases adorned with gold statuettes. There was the occasional sound of a horse and guard clip-clopping past the window.
Barnett began with a half-hour interview with the Duchess, setting out the agenda for the programme and outlining some of the ways the Royal Family has coped with lockdown (including exercise, reading, and family games of Trivial Pursuit conducted over video chat - in which the Duchess was the champion). There weren’t any hard-hitting revelations here about any recent royal issues in the headlines. The focus here was entirely on the Duchess’s voice and her passions.
The most serious of these became the programme's anchoring feature: domestic violence and its horrifying increase during the coronavirus lockdown. The Duchess spoke movingly about her meeting, some years ago, a woman whose daughter had been murdered by an ex-partner. It had shocked the Duchess, and last month she became the patron of SafeLives, a charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse. Barnett interviewed at length another brave and dignified woman, using the pseudonym Tanya, who had managed to escape from her violent husband during lockdown and was speaking from a women’s refuge.
The Duchess’s entire project here felt grave and sincere. She seemed educated about the topic and committed to working to make lives better. But there were lighter moments on the programme, too, with discussions of the benefits of volunteering, the joys of theatre, and how people have found solace in lockdown through their pets (the Duchess is a committed dog person; Barnett sheepishly confessed that she herself is not).
Sprinkles of stardust came via appearances from the Booker Prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo discussing the importance of literature, and Dame Judi Dench, who compared notes with the Duchess on how they’d newly embraced internet technology (“I’d never been on the internet ever until lockdown,” said Dame Judi. “Join the club,” the Duchess responded). Finally we heard from the Duchess’s son, the food critic Tom Parker Bowles, who did his best to be polite about his mother’s cooking.
And that was that. Barnett remarked that though we’re used to seeing the Duchess’s face at public events, up until now there have actually been relatively few opportunities to hear her voice. “Because it’s so low, I think people get rather a shock,” said the Duchess. Her voice on the radio did indeed sound deep, and carefully considered. She came across as friendly, a little nervous, but enjoying the experience and quick to join in with jokes that Barnett made about the unusual broadcasting surroundings and the calibre of the biscuits on offer.
And, in the closing moments, as the Duchess and Barnett looked forward to enjoying a celebratory chocolate hobnob together after going off air, the Duchess forgot her commitment to calling it the wireless, and casually referred to the programme as radio for the first time. “You’ve converted me," she conceded with a laugh; another new recruit to the family pastime.