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8 May 2021 21:24
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  •   Home > News > International

    Prince Philip's gaffes leave a difficult legacy for the royal family to negotiate

    Whether he genuinely thought he was funny or simply lacked tact, the Duke of Edinburgh was well known for the sometimes offensive gaffes that now complicate his legacy as the royal family adapts in the 21st century.

    He was called rude, racist, sexist and plain insensitive.

    Prince Philip, who died on Friday aged 99, became well known for his long record of inappropriate or awkward gaffes.

    Whether he genuinely thought he was funny or simply lacked tact, the Duke of Edinburgh managed to cause offence, embarrassment or mirth at many public occasions — something of which he himself was aware.

    But in some cases, the prince's comments went further than mere gaffes. Most are deemed not acceptable today, and many were controversial enough to draw criticism at the time.

    It complicates the Prince's legacy — some found his approach out-of-touch, aloof and an embarrassment, while others found his "informality" refreshing.

    'Do you still throw spears at each other?'

    Perhaps Prince Philip's most inappropriate comments were made while visiting other countries, or meeting foreign dignitaries.

    Here he could slip into racist stereotypes or use crass insulting language, sometimes to the leaders of countries who were hosting him.

    On a 2003 visit to Nigeria, the royal couple met president Olusegun Obasanjo, who was wearing Nigeria's national dress — a flowing white boubou. "You look like you're ready for bed," Prince Philip said.

    In 1986, while visiting British students in China, he said to one student: "If you stay here much longer you'll all be slitty-eyed."

    To a British man who had trekked the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, he asked: "So you managed not to get eaten then?"

    On one occasion in Scotland, he asked a driving instructor: "How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?"

    In 1999, he asked black politician Lord Taylor of Warwick: "So, what exotic part of the world do you come from?"

    In 2009, in his first meeting with US president Barack Obama, who described his day meeting British politicians, Chinese leaders and the Russians, Prince Philip interjected: "Can you tell the difference between them?"

    Australians, too, were the butt of his jokes. In Cairns in 2002, he asked Indigenous businessman Ivan Brim: "Do you still throw spears at each other?"

    In 2021, his remarks hit a bad note

    Just weeks after Prince Harry and his wife the Duchess of Sussex spoke to Oprah Winfrey about their experience of racism in the royal family, memories of these incidents are splitting the discussion of Prince Philip's legacy.

    British monarchy expert Arianne Chernock from Boston University said managing his legacy would be a delicate challenge for the royal family as it dealt with the fallout from its treatment of Meghan.

    "He's known as being affable and very direct, and that could get him into trouble. The royal family is going to have to be careful, as people mine these comments he made over the years, to figure out how they want to deal with them in the wake of that [Winfrey] interview," she said.

    Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, went further, telling CNN: "He was a throwback to old-school racism. Painting him as a benign, cuddly uncle of the nation is simply untrue."

    "When he says things about Chinese people's eyes and chucking spears, it's very ugly and would not be tolerated anywhere else nor from anyone else."

    The jokes of a naval officer 'of a certain age'

    Others found his informality and use of humour disarming — attempts at making people feel more comfortable in a formal situation.

    Former prime minister John Howard, who met the prince several times in an official capacity during his leadership, praised his approach.

    "He had a great sense of humour," Howard said. "He gave short shrift to political correctness when he encountered it, and that endeared him to millions of people."

    Royal biographer AN Wilson believed Prince Philip was misunderstood, and was in fact very funny.

    "They are the kind of jokes a naval officer of a certain age might make. I think [they are] made rather wonderfully," he said.

    And, as Harry Mount of the Spectator magazine wrote: "There's a world of difference between affectionate teasing and malicious teasing".

    "Having seen 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," he wrote.

    "Like most gags, his are better if you are there at the time."

    'You're too fat to be an astronaut'

    But some of Prince Philip's most controversial and withering comments were made about ordinary people — especially women, children and the disabled — who he came across in the course of royal visits.

    To a female solicitor in 1987: "I thought it was against the law for a woman to solicit."

    And to the Scottish Women's Institute he once declared: "British women can't cook."

    Of a 90-year-old wheelchair-bound woman, wrapped in a foil blanket against the cold: "Are they going to put you in the oven next?"

    He told a group of deaf children listening to a steel drum band: "Deaf? If you're near there no wonder you're deaf."

    In 2009, the Queen and Prince Philip met a 15-year-old army cadet who was nearly blinded in an IRA bombing. After the Queen asked him how much he could see, Prince Philip interjected with: "Not a lot, judging by that tie," and pointed to the teenager's chest.

    After meeting a 13-year-old aspiring astronaut who expressed a wish to fly a NOVA rocket: "Well, you'll never fly in it, you're too fat to be an astronaut."

    'Are we going to wear earplugs?'

    At other times, his sharp wit hit celebrity targets, who could probably take the heat.

    In 2001, he asked Elton John about his gold Aston Martin: "Oh, it's you that owns that ghastly car, is it?"

    Of singer Tom Jones he once said: "It's very difficult at all to see how it is possible to become immensely valuable by singing what I think are the most hideous songs."

    And on hearing that Madonna was to sing the Die Another Day theme, he asked: "Are we going to need earplugs?"

    And then there were the times he snapped at people working at royal events, with the prince not being one to suffer fools lightly.

    In 2015, to a photographer hovering near his table: "Just take the f***ing photo."

    In 1991, to a car park attendant who didn't recognise him, he said: "You bloody silly fool."

    He once cut off BBC journalist Caroline Wyatt after she had asked whether the Queen was enjoying a stay in Paris, with the words "damn fool question".

    At a royal reception at Windsor Castle he asked Simon Kelner, the republican editor of the Independent newspaper: "What are you doing here?"

    "I was invited, sir," he said.

    "Well, you didn't have to come," Prince Philip replied.

    'A late-Victorian who happened to live in the 21st century'

    For many public figures, even those who had been on the world stage for half as long, the question of legacy isn't straightforward.

    How history will judge Prince Philip is open to debate.

    Kathryn Lamontagne from Boston University believed the deep respect many feel for him sits side by side with the controversies.

    "Prince Philip was a late-Victorian who happened to live in the 20th and 21st centuries," she said.

    "His legacy will not be straightforward for many, but what is clear is that he was a stalwart for his wife and the monarchy itself — tradition, resilience, duty."

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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