Somewhere in the archives of the BBC there is a classic sitcom called “Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em.”
Back in the ’70s it was “must-see” TV featuring a hapless, accident-prone man called Frank Spencer (played by Michael Crawford, who later won a Tony for his role in “The Phantom of the Opera”). Everything he touched fell apart. Everybody he met ended up on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The country watched between its fingers, disbelieving that anyone could manage to place himself at the center of so much trouble. And, man, how we laughed.
The show was so popular the title became part of everyday speech, uttered in exasperation whenever someone did something dumb.
Today, two of Britain’s most famous mothers will likely be muttering that same phrase — and wondering, if not worrying, about their own families.
Step forward no lesser matrons than former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — and Her Majesty the Queen.
Nobody is laughing
In the latter case it’s her wayward grandson Prince Harry who’s hit the headlines again — pictured at a fancy dress party in a World War Two German uniform complete with Nazi swastika. This as Europe prepares to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the notorious Auschwitz death camp, where more than a million Jews were murdered. The queen will play a leading part in the memorials.
It’s not that it’s unusual for people to dress in bad taste at fancy dress parties, indeed (for those who enjoy them) that’s apparently part of the “fun.” Nor is it a rare occurrence to see a photo of a 20-year-old English man, with more money than sense, having too much of a good time, with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
But Harry is beginning to make Frank Spencer look dull by comparison. He’s attracting headlines for all the wrong reasons — and no one here is laughing.
Today words like “shameful,” “ill-judged” and “outrageous” are just some of the adjectives used to describe the prince’s behavior.
A leading member of the British Jewish community, Lord Greville Janner, spoke for many when he said, “For a member of the royal family to wear a Nazi uniform could not be more offensive.”
As third in line to the British throne, Harry is no ordinary young man. He enjoys all the privileges of his birth — and the growing view here is that it’s now time he accepted the responsibilities too.
When his mother, Princess Diana, died more than seven years ago, the public sympathy for Harry and older brother William was tangible. Few of the millions who watched Diana’s funeral will ever forget the sight of those two vulnerable young boys walking like lost souls behind her casket.
William still enjoys the support of his future “subjects.” He seems to understand his responsibilities and to demonstrate the qualities of a future king.
In contrast, his younger brother has become known in the tabloid press as the “Playboy Prince,” squandering the public’s goodwill and causing headaches for his family — and the palace PR people.
Only last week they arranged for him to be filmed helping load aid for the Asian tsunami, showing the royals in a positive light. Today they are trying to dig him out of a very deep hole.
Fitness for duty?
Some commentators and politicians are now questioning Harry’s fitness for public life — and even his plans to become an officer in Her Majesty’s armed forces.
Now I have kids of my own around about Harry’s age, so I’m a veteran of teenage pranks. I still remember my neighbor complaining (quite fairly) about being awakened at 2 in the morning by a naked and drunken teenager who thought he was visiting my stepson.
But Harry’s become a persistent offender, hell-bent on having a good time.
Three years ago he was sent to rehab after he confessed to smoking cannabis and drinking alcohol under age.
Last year a former teacher accused him of cheating during his high school finals. He was subsequently cleared — but his results were disappointing.
And last fall he was caught on camera punching a paparazzo in a nightclub brawl.
Not quite what you’d expect from a representative of the family affectionately known by some here as "UK Inc."
Dickie Arbiter, former press secretary to the queen at the time of Charles and Diana’s breakup and someone who knows the boys, puts the blame on a simple lack of discipline.
"If there were checks, he wouldn’t be allowed to go on like that," he says.
Of course, palace officials have moved quickly to try to defuse the situation, issuing a statement of regret on the prince’s behalf.
In it he says, “I am very sorry if I have caused any offense. It was a poor choice of costume and I apologize.”
But that may not be enough. Some senior figures are calling for the prince to make a personal statement on camera — an unprecedented step and, perhaps, a measure of the offense he has caused in some quarters.
Michael Howard, leader of the British Conservative Party, said, “We all make mistakes, and Prince Harry is a young man. But what he did offended a lot of people, and a public apology would be appropriate.”
Not all agree. Royal biographer Robert Lacey believes people are judging Harry too harshly. “This is the misjudgment of a kid who has already apologized — and in my opinion, that’s enough."
The wild antics of a kid don’t help explain the behavior of the other prominent and privileged "mother’s son" also making headlines on Thursday.
Lady Thatcher’s son Mark is 51 and has just been fined almost $500,000 and given a suspended sentence of four years jail for his part in a proposed mercenary coup.
The “Iron Lady,” whose health is frail these days, traveled all the way to South Africa to help her son as he faced accusations that could have led to his extradition to Equatorial Guinea and — if convicted — a long stay in a very unpleasant jail.
Like Prince Harry, Sir Mark (he inherited his late father’s title) has brought himself and his mother plenty of unwanted attention through the years.
Several times throughout her premiership, her son found himself in hot water — from getting “lost” for days in the Sahara during a car rally to gaffes, controversies and allegations about how he made his millions — including accusations that he traded on being Margaret Thatcher’s son.
Mrs. Thatcher’s erstwhile press secretary was so exasperated that when Mark asked how best to help his mother win re-election in 1987 he reportedly advised, “Leave the country.”
It would be a brave or perhaps unkind person who would say, in either Mark or Harry’s case: Blame the parents. But you have to wonder if doing their high-profile jobs meant they took their eye off some other important aspects of their families’ lives.
In my experience, families are usually quick to forgive. The same can’t be said, alas, for the general public. Harry, for one, needs to learn that — and fast.
Until he does, the BBC would be wise to go down to its cellars, dust off its videotapes and rerun the best episodes of "Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em." At least the British public knows we’re supposed to laugh about those antics.