Gyles Brandreth’s biography is an anecdote-filled final portrait of the ever-practical duke
* The duke is often described as a much misunderstood man, and now that he can’t be reached, there is a curiosity to understand the person he was
* The book is immensely entertaining — because the duke was exactly that. And rude. “Yes, I’m rude,” he is known to have said. “But it’s fun”
* Prince Philip was actually twice as royal as the Queen
Had he lived just a few days longer, Prince Philip would have hit a century on June 10. But like so much else in his life, the Duke of Edinburgh wanted to just ‘get on with it’. “I’m quite ready to die,” the duke told his friend and author-broadcaster Gyles Brandreth: “It’s what happens, sooner or later,” he said in his down-to-earth fashion. “I don’t want to hang on until I’m a hundred… I’m already falling to pieces as it is. Bits keep dropping off. I have absolutely no desire to cling on to life unnecessarily. Ghastly prospect.”
Prince Philip’s attitude towards death was entirely practical, much like his approach to life. He passed away on April 9, narrowly missing his hundredth. As it often happens, the world’s attention pivots towards someone who has just passed away much more than when he was alive. The duke is often described as a much misunderstood man, and now that he can’t be reached, there is a curiosity to understand the person he was. Brandreth, who knew the duke for over 40 years, offers the curious reader a close glimpse of this interesting royal, someone who was so much more than the gaffes he became known for, specially outside of Britain. Philip, the Final Portrait isn’t the typical linear biography; it starts where it likes, goes where it wants and ends when his life ended. It’s a biography, of course, but one that is made up of hundreds of anecdotes and weaves a wholesome picture. For a British history enthusiast, the book is a treat because the reminiscences pull in so many others, including of course, the Queen. In fact, it’s an enhanced version of the author’s previous book Philip & Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage.Philip: The Final Portrait / Gyles Brandreth / Hodder and Stoughton / Non-fiction /₹ 999
Philip, the Final Portrait is immensely entertaining — because the duke was exactly that. And rude. “Yes, I’m rude,” he is known to have said. “But it’s fun”. Many refer to the duke as the funniest of all royals, and it certainly comes through in the fountain of stories about him in this book. In a way, the book does seem interestingly endless, the sense of progression in a long story is missing here, but you can open any page and get a chuckle out of what you read. It is intriguing to know that the duke has actually read through the manuscript more than once. So these are effectively pre-approved stories, the reader doesn’t know anything the duke didn’t want known, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating.
Brandreth recounts that Prince Philip thought of himself as British or Danish, with elements of German and Russian. He never thought of himself as Greek, even though he was born in Greece, on a kitchen table, no less. There isn’t much about his subsequent escape from Greece in an orange crate on board a British ship as the book concentrates more on the duke’s adult life. But there are references to what is well known to have been a very difficult childhood and teenage years as Philip’s parents separated and his mother was drawn into religion and what some believe is mental illness. These events have been well-outlined by the Netflix original, The Crown, whose viewers will perhaps be even more fascinated by the stories in the book and the closer look it affords into the relationship of the consort to Britain’s longest reigning monarch. Many of the major events of the duke’s life, and consequently that of the royal family, have been covered, but anecdotally rather than descriptively. It also takes up some of the duke’s more difficult relationships, such as with his son Charles, with former daughter-in-law Sarah Ferguson, and it even touches cursorily on the somewhat scandalous Thursday Club.
Without giving away any of the witty stories that make this book a good long read, it’s safe to say Prince Philip was a most unusual person with an extremely strong sense of duty. But he also had a way of seeing the funny side of things and of keeping himself busier than anyone else that made playing second fiddle to his royal wife much easier. Incidentally, as the author points out, Prince Philip was actually twice as royal as the Queen. Both were the great-grand-children of Queen Victoria, but additionally, Philip was related to European royalty whereas Queen Elizabeth’s mother was a ‘commoner’.
Philip, the Final Portrait shows the duke as an intelligent and persuasive leader, with a keen eye for detail (and for flannel and flimflam), who was at his best when given a problem to solve, a difficult meeting to chair, or an internal row to resolve. He liked to be given something specific to do. As Brandreth says, “He welcomed detail. I accompanied him to the opening of a youth centre on Merseyside. His debriefing note to me was devoted to how best to relocate the lavatories and showers so as to maximise the space available for the sports facilities. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I am practical. I like to help make things work.’ He wanted to make a difference where others, often, only make a noise. He wasn’t one for honeyed words and empty gestures. He did not give his wife bunches of flowers or cards inscribed with sentimental messages: he gave her pieces of jewellery he had designed and made himself.”