Life inside the palace

Dickie Arbiter and Diana in June 1990
Dickie Arbiter and Diana in June 1990
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Dickie Arbiter spent 12 years as a Buckingham Palace press secretary. His new memoir provides an open and affectionate portrait of the Royal Family. He talked to Chris Bond.

THERE must be few people in this world who can claim to have done the washing up with the Queen, but Dickie Arbiter is one of them.

It happened shortly after he had taken up his role as a Buckingham Palace press secretary in the summer of 1988. He had been invited up to Balmoral so that the Queen, his new “boss”, could get to know him. They had a picnic in which she served lunch out of tupperware. “There was the Queen, Prince Philip, the Queen’s lady-in-waiting and me,” he says.

Rather than being stilted, he says the conversation flowed and afterwards he was standing at the sink getting ready to wash the dishes. He sensed someone standing behind and said “I’ll wash you dry.” That someone was the Queen who replied, “No, I’ll wash, you dry.”

It’s just one of many anecdotes to be found in Arbiter’s new book, On Duty With The Queen, which looks back at the 12 years he spent in the Royal Household. Arbiter, a former news reporter and royal correspondent, worked not only alongside the Queen, but also the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and Diana, Princess of Wales.

It’s been reported that some members of the Royal family are upset at Arbiter for having written the book. But he approached Buckingham Palace before publication and says the Palace had seen the manuscript.

He might be the classic poacher turned gamekeeper but he hasn’t tried to bite the hand that used to feed him. Instead, through his first-hand experiences and personal relationships with many of the royals, he offers a rare glimpse into life behind the scenes of a family that continues to enthral people not only here, but around the world.

The result is an affectionate portrait. “There’s nothing salacious, it’s not a kiss and tell. It’s simply my personal perspective.” Arbiter worked at Buckingham Palace and Clarence House during one of the most turbulent periods in the recent history of the British monarchy, including the breakdown of Prince Charles’s marriage and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Arbiter recounts the moment he was asked by Buckingham Palace if he was interested in coming to work for them. “If you were approached to join the Palace press office to look after the Prince and Princess of Wales, would you be interested?” he writes, at the start of his book. “It was Friday 15th April 1988 – the eve of my departure for Australia, where I would be covering the Queen’s bicentennial tour for IRN (Independent Radio News) that I received the phone call from Philip Mackie, one of the Queen’s press secretaries, which would radically change my life.

“Perhaps it was his distinctive Scottish brogue, difficult to decipher at the best of times. Or maybe what I’d heard him say couldn’t be what he’d actually said. I asked him to repeat the question, and much to my astonishment I had heard him correctly.”

If the job offer came out of the blue it wasn’t a complete surprise either. “I was working as a royal correspondent so I knew most of the members of the Royal Family and they knew me,” he tells The Yorkshire Post. “I knew what was required, I wasn’t going into the job completely blind.”

He was working at the Palace in 1992, which the Queen labelled an “annus horribilis” for the Royal Family. This was the year that saw the Prince of Wales separate from Diana, as well as her sensational portrayal in Andrew Morton’s biography and the infamous toe-sucking incident involving the Duke of York’s newly estranged wife, Sarah. It was capped by the fire at Windsor Castle. “It did at least finish on a high note when the Princess Royal remarried,” says Arbiter.

The popularity of the Royal Family, perhaps not surprisingly, ebbed during this period, although the former press secretary feels some of the criticism was unjust. “The fire at Windsor Castle was an accident but it raised the question who would pay for it to be repaired? A politician stood up the next day and said the government would pay. But nobody had decided who would pay for it. So the Queen got it in the neck for something she had nothing to do with.”

He was working for the Palace when Diana, Princes of Wales died in 1997 in what was one of the biggest stories of the decade. It fell to him to coordinate the media coverage for her funeral. In his book he writes a moving account of the week leading up to her funeral which reflects the loss many people felt at the time. He also offers an insight into how the royal family dealt with their own grief. “Her death was extremely difficult. She was in the glare of the international press, she only had to cough and it would make the headlines. But the media were so shocked by what happened they were prepared to do anything, until the lead up to the funeral.”

But as the nation’s grief turned to frustration the Royal Family came in for criticism over their handling of the situation with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh remaining at Balmoral, rather than returning immediately to Buckingham Palace, which had become a focal point for the countless floral tributes.

However, Arbiter defends their decision to remain in Scotland. “The Queen was absolutely right, 101 per cent. The two princes had lost their mother in very public and tragic circumstances and the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had to prepare them for the funeral at the end of the week.

“For these two boys to stand behind a gun carriage in the full glare of the world was a demanding experience. But they did it, and they did it because they had been counselled by their grandparents. That is why the Queen remained in Balmoral, there was nothing she could have done in London.”

For all the trials and tribulations he has fond memories of his time working for the Royal Family, although he’s keen to dispel a few myths, which brings him back to the Queen. He says that bowing and curtsying to her isn’t necessary, unless a person chooses to. He also says there’s no rule saying you shouldn’t address the Queen until she speaks to you.

“The Queen gets criticised sometimes for saying to people ‘and what do you do?’ But it’s just a way of breaking the ice because people do get tongue-tied when they meet her. I’ve seen captains of industry so bewildered to meet her they have even curtseyed,” he says.

It’s clear from speaking to him just how much admiration and affection he has for the Queen. “She does things by instinct, she doesn’t have an agenda. She is a country woman at heart. Yes, she is the head of state but she is also a normal human being, a bit like granny next door.”

* On Duty With The Queen - My Time as a Buckingham Palace Press Secretary, published by Blink Publishing, is out now priced £18.99.