Features

The secret brilliance of Prince Philip’s ‘gaffes’

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

I’ve just been on the receiving end of a Prince Philip gaffe, of sorts, and I loved it. It was at a lunch last week at the Cavalry and Guards Club for the Gallipoli Association — the charity that commemorates victims and veterans of that tragic, doomed campaign.

For 40 years, the Duke of Edinburgh has been the association’s patron. And so, in Gallipoli’s centenary year, he came to the association’s lunch. Before lunch, he roamed at will around the cavernous drawing room, chatting to association members.

As he approached me, he held his drink in his right hand, meaning I couldn’t shake it, and launched straight into conversation. It meant I had little opportunity to bow and call him ‘Your Royal Highness’ — as I would have done in an instant. I got the distinct impression he didn’t want much bowing and scraping.

‘Who roped you into this?’ the prince said. It was the first intimation of his supposedly brusque manner. In fact, it was conspiratorial, teasing and jokey. He knew I hadn’t been roped into lunch; I knew he knew. That faint blast of humour made it much easier to explain how I had in fact roped myself into the Gallipoli Association.

I told him how my great-grandfather, Thomas Longford, had been killed at Gallipoli on 21 August 1915. His last words to his second-in-command, crouching down to avoid the hail of shells overhead, were, ‘Please don’t duck, Fred. It won’t help you and it’s no good for the men’s morale.’

Moments later, marching at the head of his Yeomanry Brigade troops, with a map in one hand and his walking stick in the other, Longford was cut down by heavy rifle fire. ‘Fred’ — Fred Cripps, brother of Sir Stafford, the future chancellor — lived on for 60 years.

I fear I’ve told the story many times before. And I went on to tell Prince Philip how I’d also told the story to Prince Harry in April — when we were both at Gallipoli for the centenary commemorations of the allied landings.

I had asked Prince Harry, ‘What’s the protocol on ducking these days in the army?’


‘You’re allowed to duck,’ he had replied, smiling. ‘But there’s a strict protocol against running away.’

Still not tiring of my theme, I asked Prince Philip if he was allowed to duck in the navy during the war.

‘What a silly thing to do!’ he said. ‘Not much point in ducking on a ship.’

And with that, he was off, in search of Gallipoli Association members with less idiotic questions to ask.

Afterwards, I could easily have presented the whole thing as a classic Prince Philip gaffe: the aggressive prince ticking off the descendant of a first world war soldier. But he was right — it was a silly question. And his answer wasn’t just honest; it was very funny. I cracked up; he kept a straight face. But he certainly meant to get a laugh. Prince Philip is the Paul Merton of the royal family — the straight man with the funny lines.

I suddenly realised what all those supposed Prince Philip gaffes over the years were. Gaffe is the wrong word. They are in fact jokes — jokes that follow almost precisely the same formula: a mixture of conspiratorial banter, mock teasing and stage rudeness. They are that much funnier because of who he is — a 94-year-old Greek prince, war hero and husband of the most famous woman in the world. You’re prepared for seriousness and diplomatic discretion from that sort of man; when you get the reverse, it’s that much funnier.

When he was asked in 1967 whether he’d like to visit the Soviet Union, he said, ‘I would like to go to Russia very much, although the bastards murdered half my family.’ That’s funny because the first half of the sentence is in opposition to the second. It’s also funny because you don’t expect uncomfortable truths from the great and the good.

Except with Prince Philip. As well as playing against type, he is also playing along with type. He knows his reputation and he knows his one-liners are likely to be reported by scoundrels like me. And yet he goes on delivering the material, knowing the punters lap it up.

Prince Philip shares with Boris Johnson what my friend Stephen Robinson, former comment editor of the Telegraph, identified as ‘a presumption of hilarity’. As Prince Philip approached me, I longed for him to be outspoken and funny. What a delight when the expectation was satisfied.

It’s striking that most people on the receiving end of a Prince Philip gaffe also find it funny. This July, he visited Chadwell Heath Community Centre in Romford, and asked a charity trustee, ‘Who do you sponge off?’ The trustee fell about laughing and later said Prince Philip had just been teasing her.

There’s a world of difference between affectionate teasing and malicious teasing. Having seen the Prince Philip act in the flesh, I can see it’s always affectionate teasing — even if it looks more direct, or even rude, on the page. Like most gags, his are better if you are there at the time.

I wasn’t in Cardiff in 1999, when he told children from the British Deaf Association, standing next to a Caribbean steel band, ‘If you’re near that music, it’s no wonder you’re deaf.’ But I bet it was aimed at making them laugh, not at humiliating them.

The same goes for the most celebrated gaffe of all — his comment in 1986 to British students in Xian, China: ‘If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.’ OK — that sort of language is no longer acceptable. But the point wasn’t that he was trying to offend the British students; he was trying to make them laugh.

On 20 November, Prince Philip will have been married to the Queen for 68 years. That’s 68 years of dealing with thousands — no, millions — of nervy, sycophantic strangers like me. Gaffes are a brilliant way to make those meetings easier for both sides. They aren’t just funny; they don’t just put people at their ease. They also magically choke off the soul-destroying small talk that must be the bane of every royal’s life. The Prince Philip gaffe is the quickfire shortcut to a proper conversation — to talking on the same level. It is the ultimate royal icebreaker.

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Show comments
  • freddiethegreat

    Prince P. is one of my heroes, simply because of his great one-liners and lack of PC. What’s wrong with ‘slitty eyed’? Especially when the Chinese refer to Westerners as “Round eye devils”. Long may he gaffe!

    • jeremy Morfey

      Actually what might have been considered a racist insult by the British is thought a great compliment by the Chinese. They are very proud of their “almond eyes”, but find British noses hilarious and maybe even sexy.

      I once wore a waistcoat covered with brightly coloured smiling frogs while touring Normandy with my choir. “You can’t possibly wear that in France, you’ll insult them”. Actually the French loved it. If I ever tour Germany, I want to get a piggy waistcoat. Germany is one of the few places where pigs are considered bringers of good fortune.

      • starfish

        Yes

        I remember a German acquaintance once proudly telling me that Germans love pigs – in fact so much they eat all of them, even the hooves!

        • jeremy Morfey

          The only part of a pig that is left uneaten is the squeal.

        • Alexsandr

          quite a few Germans wont eat pigs. the ones who turn east to pray.

      • MC73

        Yup, the Chinese never expressed the slightest perturbation about that ‘gaffe’. But then they aren’t plagued by loathing of their self, their race and their culture like so many white Brits.

    • sally190

      We used to use that slitty-eyed joke, sixty years ago, along with another unprintable one about a chinese lady sliding down the bannisters.

      Prince P deserve , yet another medal, for having to keep wearing all those different uniforms for official occasions.

    • rtj1211

      I referred to Rupert Murdoch’s Sun Newspaper when his wife was Wendy Deng as ‘slitty-eyed titty land’…….they still seem to sell 1m+ newspapers a day……

      • Mary Ann

        Doesn’t say much for the people of this country.

    • Ringstone

      More likely to be “gweilo” – ghost [pejorative] man

    • Lord Eden

      Poor choice of Hero!

  • Cutress

    Prince Philip is NOT Greek.

    • plainsdrifter

      Would you like to enlarge on that?

      • Ernest Falquero

        Prince Philip holds dual British and Greek nationality. Read for yourself here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Philip,_Duke_of_Edinburgh#Early_life

        • Gregory Mason

          >A piece of paper cannot change your blood.

          He’s ethnically a Greek. End of.

          • Ernest Falquero

            Actually, if it’s blood we’re talking about: “Philip is the oldest living great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria, as well as her oldest living descendant following the death of Count Carl Johan Bernadotte of Wisborg on 5 May 2012. Through his descent from the British royal family, he is in the line of succession to the thrones of the 16 Commonwealth realms.

            In July 1993, through mitochondrial DNA
            analysis of a sample of Prince Philip’s blood, British scientists were
            able to confirm the identity of the remains of several members of Empress Alexandra of Russia’s
            family, several decades after their 1918 massacre by the Bolsheviks.
            Prince Philip was then one of two living great-grandchildren in the
            female line of Alexandra’s mother Princess Alice of the Unite
            d Kingdom, the other being his sister Sophie, who died in 2001.” But to ignorance there’s definitely no “end of”!

          • Louise Johnson

            I think it might be a good idea to explain why the Royal Family and especially Prince Philip are often “accused” of being German. If we’re talking about blood, Prince Philip is almost entirely of German blood. That’s not to say that all his ancestors were of German nationality, but they were nearly all were of German blood. This is true of nearly every European royal of Philip’s generation and before. This is because for hundreds of years it was only acceptable for royals to marry other royals. Whereas most European countries only had a single royal family with maybe a dozen or so members, in Germany there were over 27 different royal families. So during this period, if you were to pool every eligible royal of marriageable age into a “European Royal Marriage Market”, over 50% of the princes and princesses would be from Germany. And if we’re just talking about protestant royalty alone, you’re looking at nearly 80%. So after this situation existing for hundreds of years, naturally, all European royals would be mostly German in ancestry because most of their royal fore-bearers had married German princesses simply because there were so many of them! And even if they married, for example, a Swedish or Greek royal, they would be almost completely German for the same reason! In Britain, the Royal Family couldn’t even legally marry members of the British aristocracy until 1918. The first marriage affected by this was the Queen’s parents.

          • Louise Johnson

            Furthermore (sorry to bore you all, but some may be interested!) if we’re talking about nationality and national identity then Philip’s is very, very complicated. He was born in Greece in 1921 as a member of the Greek royal family and his birth name was “HRH Prince Philippos of Greece and Denmark”. Philip’s father is Prince Andreas of Greece and Denmark and his mother is Princess Alice of Battenberg. Prince Andreas’ father was the King of Greece, and Andreas was born and raised in Greece and was a Greek army officer. Andreas’ father King George I of Greece was born a Danish prince, but was shipped off to Greece at the age of 17 to be their King and was quite successful. Andreas’ mother was a Grand Duchess. His family got kicked out of Greece when he was a baby and he has never lived there, nor can he speak Greek fluently. As a boy his parents separated and his mother was put in a mental asylum and his father abandoned him. His four elder sister were much older than him and all of them married German princes when he was a boy. Philip was then shuttled around different relatives and boarding schools. His mother’s family lived in England, where they had become the Mountbattens and served in the Royal Navy.

          • Lord Eden

            Well the last sentence explains in a nut shell your diatribe nicely!

          • Ernest Falquero

            LOL Your comment is a great example of how ignorance (“no end of”) will even deny the facts!

          • Airey Belvoir

            Look at photos of a young Prince Philip. You’re looking at a blond Dane.

          • Lord Eden

            There are quite a few Blond Greeks1

          • sally190

            So you are an expert on his DNA ?

          • Lord Eden

            Is any body?

          • sally190

            What does that mean ?

          • Ringstone

            “End of” doesn’t make it right.
            He is without doubt a Greek by nationality, but not a drop of Greek blood.
            Danish, German and Russian yes, Greek no.
            Google is your friend.

          • Lord Eden

            What crap you try to come up with he is Greek and knowing what an utter nut case his mother was there is more than a possibility he has more Greek blood than you could wish for!

          • sally190

            What difference does it make, where he was born ?

            Are you a closet racist ?

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            “What difference does it make, where he was born ?”
            That’s what Adolf Hitler used to say.
            Austria, birthplace of Adolf Hitler. I don’t know why they don’t put that on their tourist promotion literature.

          • EUSSR 4 All!

            Not so. There is hardly any Greek blood in them. The reigning branches of the last Greek Royal Family married foreign princesses.

        • EUSSR 4 All!

          Not since the age of 1 year if not even younger. Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark (as he was then) effectively, if not actually lost his Greek citizenship along with his mother (Princess Alice of Battenberg, Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark) and his father when his father, who was Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, was exiled and banished from Greece in lieu of execution after his defeat in the Greco-Turkish War 1919-1922. Wikipedia (at least when read incorrectly anyway) is a Godsend for idiots!

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Andrew_of_Greece_and_Denmark
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Turkish_War_(1919%E2%80%931922)
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Sakarya
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Calypso_(D61)

    • He was born in Greece. Corfu to be precise. His father, Prince Andrew, was born in Athens and was an officer in the Greek army.

      • Cutress

        My cousin’s were born of Service people in West Germany, but they’re not German. Philip’s Danish family were drafted in as a ‘supply’ Royal Family by the Greeks.

        • Lord Eden

          Unless they are born In the British Embassy then they will be of duel Nationality.
          Pounce Philip was Born in Greece therefore the old twerp is GREEK!

    • siphil

      Yes he is.

    • shadsfan

      He’s always been known as ‘Phil the Greek’.

    • Lord Eden

      Then explain how a person if the old bug~ger can be called a person be born in Greece and not be Greek?
      Of course the old sponger is a GREEK!

  • Ned Costello

    Unfortunately Prince’s Phillips wit is an easy source of good “outrage” copy for dim-witted or cynical tabloid reporters and the po-faced, permanently outraged, anti-monarchy brigade. They leap with glee on his every utterance however banal or obviously in jest, with expressions on their stupid faces like characters in a HE Bateman cartoon, people to whom his every comment or observation is a “gaffe”, however obviously mischievous or humorous it may be. I doubt if the Prince, sharp-as-a-tack as he is, has ever made a genuine gaffe in his life.

    • Lord Eden

      Rubbish he hasn’t two wits to rub together.

      • Ned Costello

        Have you met and spoken to him?

  • Pete

    I thought they were all Nazi’s, or inbreds, or both, or worse….pedophiles?

    • Hamburger

      Who?

    • Daniel, Oxford

      Who? The members of the Gallipoli Association? Doesn’t seem very likely does it?

    • Mary Ann

      You devalue all those who fought for their country.

    • Ned Costello

      Then you are a moron, and a spectacularly ignorant one at that. And you can’t spell either.

  • Hamburger

    He is remembered fondly here for greeting Herr Kohl as Herr Reichskanzler. That sentence sounds as if he is dead. It is not meant to.

  • shadsfan

    Why in hell’s name would you even contemplate bowing to this boorish, over privileged oaf? You are a sycophant indeed!

    • Daniel, Oxford

      It’s called respect – simples!

      • shadsfan

        One first has to know a person before you can give the type of respect where you bow to them. You cannot truly have, or give, respect based on information fed to us by the media about a person whom we’ll never really get to know. I respect what he’s done for many organisations, especially the D of E’s award scheme but, with the possible exception of Japanese culture, bowing in western culture is an anachronism. Philip, for example, would probably not bow to someone with eminently more qualifications than he will ever have and may not even know, or care to do so.

        • Monima O’Connor

          Shadsfan, not so. I respect lots of people for what they do in public and for the country and am never likely to meet them. Respectful, good manners is quintessentially British.

      • sally190

        What would the lefties know about respect – or in fact, duty ?

        • Mary Ann

          How impolite.

          • sally190

            But, unfortunately, so true from derogatory comments made about our Royal Family , here, and in the Guardian cif columns.

          • Mary Ann

            You shouldn’t make sweeping generalisations I’m a leftie and I think the Queen is doing an excellent job

          • Alexsandr

            Brian May?

          • Lord Eden

            But the old fart Ponce Philip Won’t

          • Alexsandr

            that old fart fought for your freedoms in WW2. You should show some respect for that, even if you dont for his marriage.

          • Lord Eden

            Leftie my foot your a closet Right Winger.

          • sally190

            You are quite right. Sweeping generalizations are the devices of rabble rousers.

            I apologize , to you.

          • sally190

            But, unfortunately, so true from derogatory comments made about our Royal Family , here, and in the Guardian cif columns.

        • Lord Eden

          A damn Sight more than you Toady!

      • rtj1211

        Respect for what? Being a philandering, two-timing sponger off the taxpayer??

        All he did to earn that ‘respect’ was to be born to a particular man and woman.

        What’s to respect about that?? We’ve all either been pushed down a birth canal or been cut out to save us from such a terrible fate…….

        • Ned Costello

          Prince Phillip is not a two -timer or a philanderer, neither does he sponge off the taxpayer or anyone else.
          To be honest, I think you came down a different canal entirely.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            “Prince Phillip is not a two -timer or a philanderer…”
            You may want to revise that opinion.

      • Lord Eden

        Respect has to be earned.
        In his case he has not done a days work for that.

        • Alexsandr

          so the arctic convoys were not work then?

    • Ade

      Tradition. It’s not the man you’re bowing to, it’s the position…

      • shadsfan

        Royal tradition has sold much of the world a bill of goods. It is an interesting but worthless currency. I think even the younger royals have come to that conclusion altho’ to be fair, they use it for good, especially Harry.

      • Lord Eden

        Bending over waiting to be Shafted…..

    • rtj1211

      Secretly he’s dying to give him a BJ. It’ll be the reward at his coming out party…….

      • Lord Eden

        Trying to carry on an old Gordenstoun tradition no doubt.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      *ell! you got away with *ell.

      OK, as you were.

  • quotes

    “I suddenly realised what all those supposed Prince Philip gaffes over the years were. Gaffe is the wrong word. They are in fact jokes”

    I thought this was common knowledge

  • Ade

    At a carriage-driving event, the barmaid offered “Your usual, Sir?” to the Prince. “No thanks, I’ll have a pint of bitter…”

    • Lord Eden

      And that is supposed to be a JOKE?

      • sally190

        You obviously didn’t see the barmaid.

        Are you a man ?

  • Gilbert White

    Must be a disappointment to him have sired a wet squib?

    • post_x_it

      Indeed, one of them is possibly his.

  • Fabulous. Having read this, I love you both. :^0

  • davidshort10

    Seven minutes of my life I won’t get back.

    • Sue Smith

      Tell me about the others you WILL get back.

  • Frank Mugford

    PS:- and I’m a Leftie but also quite like the Queen; the rest of her tribe ain’t up to much. Maybe put William in her place but let the rest go.

    • Alexsandr

      you dont get monarchy do you?

      • paulthorgan

        He succeeds in demonstrating that.

      • Lord Eden

        Oh We’ve got the Monarchy all right .
        It’s just the fact we don’t want the parasitic family at all that matters!

        • sally190

          Are you a parasitic family ?

        • Ned Costello

          There is no “parasitic” family, and please stop presuming you speak for anyone but yourself.

        • OscarJones

          but they bring in a 1000s times more in tourism pounds than their cost. Think of them as well paid performers who add some colour and glamour to this gloomy isle.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Not much choice for you, Britisher pals.

    • telemachus

      I also love the Queen and Duke
      On the one occasion I met the Duke at the Palace he disarmed us both by asking a question
      When one answered yes, he said splendid
      When the other answered no, he said well you are useless and wandered on

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        “I carve the little holes in toothbrushes.”
        Winning hearts and minds.

    • Ned Costello

      Or very often, “Any innocuous remark made by Prince Phillip to a member of the public within the hearing of a tabloid reporter”.

    • Sue Smith

      They speak well of you, though.

  • CortexUK the quitter

    Gaffe
    /gaf/
    noun

    A joke of which a leftist, liberal, or social justice warrior (cf) does not approve.

  • This is the most obsequious article that I’ve ever read. I rarely have the necessity to use that word, but unfortunately it’s all too appropriate for this piece..

    • Carman

      c r a p !

      • Eloquently stated, Carman. Are you author’s Mum, or did you not read the article?

  • Brett

    Whats the point of this article?

    • Carman

      Does it have to have a point? Some might be interested, others not. But it is a neat piece of journalism whether you like it or not. Maybe you could give us your impression of the last time you met a prince, a princess – or even, perhaps, a queen?

  • smoke me a kipper

    Brilliant? Not really just unfunny one liners

  • Denis Franks

    The man is a bufoon that would get a smack in the mouth in any pub with his stupid remarks.

    • OscarJones

      I bet he would have some one good liners for pub drinkers and would be bought a drink by all and sundry. Never underestimate the ability of a royal to win over the masses. But the chances of him ever drinking in a pub is unlikely these days although my aunt who ran one in Sydney during WW2 said he visited her pub a few times with mates and was a rowdy bugger.

      • E.I.Cronin

        Which one may I ask Oscar?

    • Sue Smith

      I think he’s funny and so do others I know!!

    • post_x_it

      True. He only gets these commissions because his dad is a famous writer.

    • Carman

      Buffoon has two f’s Ffranks. And, pray, what have you done with your life to judge the man?

      • Denis Franks

        Well I did avoid talking to twats like you Carplan.

  • OscarJones

    I would think over the years his advisers have told him to keep up that banter. It’s amusing and riles the reptiles in the media but I suspect the majority of the public see it for what it is, classic nutty British humour (from a Greek). Nice tip though that drink in the right hand.

    • Tom Schnadelbach

      Actually he’s an ethnic kraut, which makes the humour more surprising.

      • Sanctimony

        I believe he was born on a snooker table in Corfu… and possibly conceived there also when his sire was contemplating a choice between the pink or the brown…

  • Nymeria Meliae

    more royalist drivel… Wonder what your opinion is of having Churchill on a five pound note when he was responsible for Gallipoli

    • Carman

      Yu don’t have to like the Royals, Nymeria. I doubt it worries them very much.

  • john

    Arise Sir Harry Mount – for services to royal posterior bussing.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    The father, grandfather and father-in-law from *ell.
    Apparently the word *ell is on the Mod verboten list.

    • Dogsnob

      Bloomin eck, you’re right, I’ve just been bounced. Weird how so much effin and jeffin gets through whilst Hades is a bad word.

      • Maureen Fisher

        Also on the verboten list is the Nazional Socialist Partei.

        • Dogsnob

          They do sound rather a rum bunch after all!

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        What you need to realise Britisher pals, is that the Royals are most decidedly “hands off” when it comes to any negative comment by the MSM.
        To get up to speed, view “Illegal Killing” on YouTube, before it’s removed.
        Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

        • Dogsnob

          Nope, just some old clips about ivory hunting etc. What have we missed?

          • EUSSR 4 All!

            The British expat idiot in Japan Andrew M from Billingham near Stockton who literally spent all day reading the Gospel of David Icke even before he emigrated in about the year 2004 (and then started blagging all about his life ever since!)

          • Dogsnob

            Can’t blame him from getting away from Billingham I suppose!

          • EUSSR 4 All!

            I actually live in ‘Ull, but still … “Change at Darlington for Middlesbrough, Whitby, Stockton-on-Tees and Hartlepool”, summat like that … don’t know why he keeps banging on about Rochdale … a blackhead (Yorkshire, Lancashire Proper) versus a full-blown pus-filled infected acne (Merseyside, North Teesside, The North West). A ginger Scot (but born in England) and all … I actually saw his pictures on t’Net a few times!

        • EUSSR 4 All!

          No, it is called libel. What kind of a crap comprehensive secondary school in Teesside did you go to before you got yourself permanently excluded?!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Unlawful Killing (2011), Documentary
    A documentary about the allegedly conspiratorial killing of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed.

    You might find clips on YouTube, but next time you’re beyond the control of HMG D-Notices …

  • Dogsnob

    “Gaffes? These are not gaffes! HRH is hurling them into the media-sphere gleefully to rid himself of unlicensed propriety ” (apologies to Bruce Robinson)

  • Maureen Fisher

    Who do you sponge orf, Phil?

  • Struthers Gunn

    The Prince would fire another ‘gaffe’ at you if he bothered to read your sycophancy. Would you ‘duck’? Would it be ‘good form’ if you did? My, how they have us by the balls, eh: ‘All The Best People’?

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