Witty and bold: the Prince Philip I knew, by Britain’s top royal reporter

Robert Jobson
·5-min read
<p>The Duke of Edinburgh delighted in teasing journalists</p> (Getty Images)

The Duke of Edinburgh delighted in teasing journalists

(Getty Images)

I am fortunate to have met the Duke of Edinburgh many times — both in public and in private — in my capacity as a royal correspondent and author. He was also president of my London club, the Naval and Military Club, in St James’s Square. Although Philip was always very reluctant to talk about himself and his achievements — “I couldn’t care less,” he would say gruffly when asked if he thought he had been successful in his role — I am sure he did consider his legacy.

After all, he achieved a great deal in his life both as a role model and leader. Perhaps his most far-reaching initiative is his Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which has stretched the capabilities of millions of young people globally, and inspired them to be the best they could be, to develop strength of character through action and experience.

In my experience, he was funny, sometimes audacious, and sharp-witted, a man who didn’t care about offending the politically correct brigade and spent even less time on any criticism they may have thrown his way.

As for the press, he had even less time and, despite having a number of friends who were journalists in his earlier years, took to referring to them as “The Reptiles”. Indeed, he saw journalists as fair game — and whenever he came into direct contact with one he would toy with his prey, offering withering put-downs and salty asides.

For the press he had even less time and took to referring to them as “The Reptiles”

Take the time he was guest of honour at the 60th birthday dinner of the Foreign Press Association in London in 1948, when he described journalists as “the people’s ambassadors” — but then added, caustically: “I often wish the people didn’t want to know quite so much.” The Parliamentary Press Gallery invited him as its guest of honour in 1956 and asked for his views on journalists in general. “It is very tempting,” said the duke, “but I think I had better wait until I get a bit older.”

He been making jokes at the expense of the press for years. Looking at the Barbary apes on a visit to the Rock of Gibraltar in 1950, accompanied by the press pack, he joked: “Which are the apes and which are the reporters?”

Even senior newspaper executives who had been invited to his home were not safe. I remember at a media reception held at Windsor Castle in 2002 to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, which I attended, he was on top form. “Who are you?” he demanded of Simon Kelner. “I’m the editor-in-chief of The Independent, sir,” was the reply. “What are you doing here?” retorted the duke. “You invited me,” came Kelner’s reply. Philip quipped: “Well, you didn’t have to come!”

His next victim was Martin Townsend, the bespectacled and affable then-editor of the Sunday Express. “Ah the Sunday Express,” said Philip. “I was very fond of [previous editor] Arthur Christiansen.” “Yes, there’s been a long line of distinguished editors,” replied Townsend. “I didn’t say that!” Philip replied bluntly, before walking away.

At the same reception, I was chatting to two distinguished Irish journalists as the royals worked the room — when out of nowhere the duke appeared. He peered at the labels on our lapels and as soon as he had deduced that they were Irish he proceeded to tell a completely inappropriate Irish joke.

PA
PA

Then he read my name badge which said “Robert Jobson, Royal Correspondent, The Sun”. He also recognised my Naval and Military Club tie and just tutted, said, “They’ll let anyone in these days” — then walked off to find his next victim, with the enthusiasm of a naughty schoolboy. When asked if he felt the press had been unfair to him or misrepresented him over the years, he said, “I suppose, yes, occasionally but I think it has its own agenda and, that’s it, you just have to live with it.”

Despite his reputation, though, he wasn’t always so rude to photographers and reporters — and on rare occasions could be generous and accommodating. On one occasion two photographers had gone out to scout Balmoral with a colleague and had failed miserably. They decided to abandon the royal watch and drive five miles south of Braemar to Loch Muick. After a few minutes a Range Rover pulled up towing a fishing boat, with Prince Philip at the wheel. He was alone.

Getty Images
Getty Images

“Are you guys off duty?” Philip asked, mistaking the two photographers for policemen. “Could you help me launch the boat?” They agreed and made sure the duke was aware that they were Sun photographers, which didn’t faze him.

They proceeded to help him get the boat into the water. Without the photographers asking, Philip said: “I should get some fish in a while, do you want to get some shots of me pulling them out of the water?” The pair, both unassuming in their approach, were delighted and sent the excellent and exclusive shots to the picture desks in Glasgow and London who were also thrilled.

Ultimately, he had his run-ins with the press over many years, but in 2011 Philip was touched at getting an award as “Oldie of the Year” from The Oldie magazine to mark his 90th birthday. In a witty and self-effacing letter to the organisers of an awards ceremony to celebrate the achievements of the elderly, the duke admitted that time is passing “ever more quickly” as he prepared to enter his 10th decade, with the inevitable effect on his “morale”.

Looking at the Barbary apes on a visit to the Rock of Gibraltar in 1950, accompanied by the press pack, he joked: “Which are the apes and which are the reporters?”

In accepting the award, Philip showed he hadn’t allowed physical frailty to affect his sense of humour. He apologised for not being able to appear in person at Simpson’s in the Strand to collect it and added, “I much appreciate your invitation to receive an ‘Oldie of the Year Award’.

“There is nothing like it for morale to be reminded that the years are passing — ever more quickly — and that bits are beginning to drop off the ancient frame. But it is nice to be remembered at all.”

Robert Jobson is the author of Prince Philip’s Century 1921-2021: The Extraordinary Life of The Duke of Edinburgh

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