'Prince Philip disapproved of dogs at dinner – the Queen fed them titbits under the table'

Selina Scott
·7-min read
Selina Scott interviewed Prince Philip for a documentary about Edward Seago
Selina Scott interviewed Prince Philip for a documentary about Edward Seago

Like the rest of the nation I will be watching television today at my farmhouse in the Yorkshire countryside when Prince Philip is laid to rest in St George’s chapel, Windsor, before he is finally interred in Frogmore, with the Queen, when she dies. For all of us it will be an emotionally charged moment of significant national importance; as someone said this week, “when a great oak falls, the view changes.”

The landscape that is the Royal family is now very different to the one we have all known since Philip married Elizabeth more than six decades ago. Frogmore House was a special place for the Duke. It was here he had salvaged much of the interior of HMS Britannia, surrounding himself with mementos from the ship that meant so much to him in a life well lived.

The dining table and chairs from Britannia commanded much of the room, its walls encased in the ship’s original walnut panelling, while there were silver mementoes and photos of the vessel at sea and in the various ports visited, and a tattered fragment of the Union Jack brought back from Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. As Philip’s final journey unfolds before he is interred in the sacred resting place of the House of Windsor, it is inevitable I’ll reflect on the day he invited me to spend an hour or two with him, much of it filled with laughter in Frogmore. We met just after the turn of the century to record a TV programme on a subject few knew he was passionate about, his love of painting – Philip himself was an accomplished artist – and to talk about his great friend the late Edward Seago whose work was being exhibited in a London gallery.

Norfolk-born Seago had joined Philip on his 1956 Britannia voyage to Antarctica to paint its icy seascape and menacing mountains, finding time to also capture Philip on deck in sub-zero temperatures, seated at an easel as he, too, put the continent he saw before him on canvas. Today Seago’s pictures fetch thousands. Prince Philip had 60 in his collection, most hung at Balmoral.

The Prince brought many of them down from Scotland and talked passionately about the voyage, his memory pin sharp on places, names and the whaling station on South Georgia, clearly entranced by the mystery and pristine landscape of Antarctica. I thought we had got on pretty well, after all I had interviewed Philip before, at Buckingham Palace, where I was summoned to talk to him in the late Eighties about the World Wildlife Fund, of which he was the first president.

The Queen and Prince Philip on their honeymoon in Malta -  HULTON ARCHIVE/ Hulton Archive
The Queen and Prince Philip on their honeymoon in Malta - HULTON ARCHIVE/ Hulton Archive

I had not forgotten his forthrightness or that I was not allowed an easy ride. After we spoke about saving endangered species he lobbed a hand grenade my way. “I want to know how you feel about pheasant shooting?” he demanded, knowing full well I was opposed to it. When I told him I thought it upset the balance of nature he entered into an argument with me insisting the pheasants he shot at Sandringham were wild and not bred simply to be shot. Our differing positions went back and forth lasting longer than my interview.

It was much the same no frills critique when he watched my programme about Seago. In a letter postmarked Balmoral he wrote “Dear Selina, Many thanks for your letter. I enjoyed the Seago programme, although I was a bit disappointed that neither the dates nor the titles of pictures shown were mentioned and I did not see the point of filming scenes in Norfolk – sometimes the same scene more than once. I have to say that I am not enthusiastic about making documentaries but I am quite prepared to listen to your ideas. Sincerely Philip”

Others might have thanked me, kept any reservations they had to themselves and moved on – but not the Duke. His comments were by no means impolite but they were straight and to the point. This was his style.

Others, having felt the lash of his tongue, described him as cantankerous, tetchy, argumentative, wilfully contrary, aggressive and rude. And that on a bad day, he was a walking timebomb, never knowing when he would go off or who would be in the firing line.

Lord Mountbatten was fond of recounting the story of the Queen and Prince Philip driving to Cowdray Park for polo. Philip was late and driving fast. The Queen sitting beside him kept bracing herself as if for a crash “if you do that once more I shall put you out of the car,” he snapped at her. Mountbatten asked the Queen why she continued to suffer in silence. She replied, “you heard what he said and he meant it.”

What made Philip so unpredictable? Was it simply that his rank allowed his occasional boorishness to go unanswered? Or was there something deeper and darker that remained only partly resolved throughout his long life...something that lies in the troubled trauma of his childhood in exile?

It is a matter of record that, born sixth in line to the Greek throne, Philips’s grandfather the King of Greece was assassinated, his father narrowly escaped execution, later taking up life with his mistress, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown, his four spirited sisters were married off to German princelings, some of whom were dedicated Nazis, and he, Philip, lived in gentle poverty for his first eight years with any relative who would put up with him.

Prince Philip at school in Gordonstoun - Fox Photos/Hulton Royals Collection
Prince Philip at school in Gordonstoun - Fox Photos/Hulton Royals Collection

His answer when he was asked how he endured this nightmare was a curt “I just had to get on with it,” a neat way of deflecting anyone trying to penetrate his shell. But how true was that?

When Constantine, the former King of Greece, a cousin of Philip, invited me to join him and his family when he revisited his country in 1993, for an ITV documentary, it brought home, dramatically and vividly, the pain of exile – especially when Constantine returned to his family home on the outskirts of Athens where his parents are buried. A place that he had the fondest memories had been desecrated and treasured family possessions looted. Everywhere we went, ex-King Constantine was greeted with cheering crowds but the government of the day were strongly concerned about his heroic reception and did all they could, often using the military, to disrupt his journey. To have had so much and to have lost it is obviously painful. One can only imagine the kind of conversation Constantine and Philip would have had about their shared experience, both steeped in their country’s history, with memories of what happened and what might have been.

The Duke of Edinburgh in the navy -  Hulton Deutsch/ Corbis Historical
The Duke of Edinburgh in the navy - Hulton Deutsch/ Corbis Historical

I got to know Constantine after he found safe haven in Britain living in Hampstead. It appeared to me he managed his family’s tragedy and the cruel card that fate had dealt him, pragmatically. Philip, in spite of his seemingly philosophical acceptance of his own family tragedy perhaps did not bury it quite so well, the anger deep inside of him surfacing in some of his more short tempered retorts. Maybe the difference was Constantine went into exile cushioned by his family. Philip was cast adrift. And made a vow never to talk about himself, his gruff remarks preventing anyone getting close to him and his deeper emotions. Even his habit of signing visitors' books with the address “of no fixed abode,” gives a clue to what continued to boil inside him.

It has been my good fortune that my memories of Philip are all sunny ones. He was an engaging dance partner when we stepped out to the music of New York band leader Lester Lanin at some swell London party and I still laugh at the night we were seated next to each other at Princess Michael’s elegant dinner party in Kensington Palace. Her Labradors rushed in to greet us as dinner was about to be served.

Philip disapproved of dogs at the table – perhaps he had endured a lot of canine capers with the corgis – and quite bluntly said the dogs should be removed, while all the time the Queen was feeding them titbits under the table.

Philip arrived in Britain penniless and stateless, certainly not a Greek bearing gifts, but as I said earlier, leaves us mourning the loss of the colossal oak that he was.