Friday 3 August 2012

On Her Maj's Secret Service

Of all the lovely roles it has been my pleasure to have held in the past, it was the seven years I spent as Public Relations Officer at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard that were the highlight, simply because they were so full of their own memorable highlights and bragging rights.

So let's cut to the chase and go for one of the most high profile assignments which did not quite have the desired outcome because the fact of the matter is, you cannot stop a member of the Royal Family saying something controversial.

The occasion was the final reception on board HMY Britannia before her decommissioning and relocation to Leith in Scotland. The reception was being held for the Royal Naval Museum of which the Princess Royal was and still is its Patron, who was guest of honour for the evening.

Obviously, this created a huge frisson of excitement at the Historic Dockyard as there would be a VIP list of guests dining on board HMY with HRH and a cast of hundreds dining ashore in a boathouse before joining the dignitaries on board for drinkies.

I got drafted in as one of the host team because the then Royal correspondent of that reliable source of information, the Daily Mail, would be pitching up that night so I was tasked to shadow him to ensure he did not end up writing the wrong kind of story.

So when the evening arrived, it turned out he would not be coming along because of a dose of 'flu, which did mean I could relax a little bit - or so I thought because the then editor of the Portsmouth News was also among the guests.

We of the boathouse contingent boarded the Yacht, greeted by a rating with a tray of bubbly, which is always a good start. We could only occupy certain parts of the ship, one of the rooms being the library, so it was no surprise that the bookshelves seemed to be taken up by the collected works of Ian Fleming especially James Bond novels. I cannot recall if On Her Majesty's Secret Service was among them but for the purposes of the record, let us pretend it was.

It was a fascinating and occasionally funny evening, with one of the defining moments being provided by a colleague of mine from The 1805 Club. (More about that honourable organisation another time, but suffice to say, the date in the name is a bit of a giveaway).  Yours truly, the Club Chairman Peter Warwick and the colleague, whose blushes I shall spare by not naming him, found ourselves in the presence of Vice-Admiral Timothy Laurence - and we were having a friendly enough chat about nothing in particular.

But quite spontaneously and without any guile, aforementioned colleague suddenly asked him: "So what is your role in all this tonight" to which he retorted: "Actually, I am married to the Princess Royal." Suddenly, colleague seemed to descend downwards a few decks if not physically, then certainly judging by the expression on his face. Needless to say, none of us have since let him forget it, much to his acute embarrassment and amusement.

The Vice-Admiral proved to be full of stories especially when I pointed out I was working on the Hampshire Chronicle in Winchester around the time his romance with HRH had become public. One of our photographers actually took a pic of a national newspaper snapper with his camera lofted high on a pole on the offchance of catching the lovers in an amorous clinch in the boudoir of his Victorian terrace house. He did reveal however that he had to play a game of cat and mouse with the Press, relying on neighbours to provide escape routes through back gardens.

Anyway, enough of the Royal gossip, two other highlights of the evening happened on deck. The first was being treated to an extraordinary concert by the Royal Marines Band which was playing on the dockside on this particularly misty night.

Then when everyone started to disperse afterwards, three of us, myself, Peter Warwick, and the late, great and totally irreplaceable Dr Colin White, the Deputy Director/Director of the Royal Naval Museum, stood on deck, motionless, speechless, staring back at the misty Naval Base and totally "in the moment" for the best part of five minutes. That made us the last guests to leave Britannia before she went "private", a small claim to fame, but special for so many reasons.

Well, that was not the end of the story because the real story happened the day after. Splashed across the front page of the Portsmouth News was the headline "Princess wants to see Royal Yacht scuppered", shock horror probe. Yikes! So rather than exhort the virtues of the Museum and its various projects, our friendly local newspaper editor had eavesdropped on a conversation between HRH and one of the guests, who had obviously ventured the question, "Ma'am, what would you like to see happen to Britannia?"

I then had to hold my nerve and explain to my Museum colleagues that it was out of my remit to stop a member of the Royal family speaking their mind within earshot of a newspaper editor or suggest to him that he should not run the story. I would have got short shrift from him because it was probably one of the best "scoop" stories the Portsmouth News has ever ran.

Of course, in true Press fashion, the story went viral and yes, it made the front page of the Daily Mail so their Royal correspondent got his story without even having to be present at the occasion!

It was a truly magical evening on board Britannia, but if you do remember that particular newspaper story, it was all my fault!

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