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‘Harry and Meghan’ Netflix series revives controversy over British royals and racism

The release of the first three episodes of “Harry and Meghan,” the Netflix series from King Charles III‘s younger son and his American spouse, Meghan Markle, sent a nation accustomed to palace intrigue and royal drama into overdrive Thursday.

The BBC, the Guardian and the Daily Mail launched live blogs that were active for hours while the show aired, giving it the same treatment as developments in the Russia-Ukraine war and the recent contest for prime minister.

TV news in the United Kingdom has led with the series, in which Prince Harry accuses his family of having an “unconscious bias” against his biracial wife, and Markle characterizes the British media as being out to “destroy” her.

Royal commentators and paparazzi, last out in full force months ago after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, are now able to renew the symbiotic relationship with a palace that needs them to thrive.

The six-part documentary series follows the Duke and Duchess of Sussex from their first flirtations through their dramatic departure from London to California, where they live on a sprawling ranch in Santa Barbara County. It was filmed between 2020 and 2022 and wrapped up before Elizabeth‘s death in September. (Her son King Charles III will have his formal coronation in May. His elder son and Harry’s brother — Prince William — is next in line for the throne.)

Trailers for the series, which includes three more episodes to be released Dec. 15, hint at increasingly sour relationships between the brothers and their wives as well as Harry and the king, much of it centered on race and Harry’s decision to marry an American from Los Angeles instead of a member of the British elite.

“They do appear to be declaring war on the family,” said Pauline Maclaran, a professor of consumer research at Royal Holloway, University of London, who studies the royal family’s global image. “In a way, they are establishing their own royal court — in America — away from the legitimate court across the Atlantic.”

The prince and Markle, an actress known for the show “Suits,” previously aired their grievances over life as royals in a two-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey that aired in March 2021. Markle ignited controversy at the time when she said a member of the royal family, whom she did not name, had asked before her first child’s birth “how dark his skin might be when he’s born.”

Harry, meanwhile, said his father had stopped taking his calls before the couple announced their departure from royal duties. “My family literally cut me off financially,” he said, which spurred the deal with Netflix and another at Spotify.

But for all the hype, the long-awaited first three episodes didn’t reveal much of anything new about the couple’s struggle within the family or with the paparazzi that they liken to those that chased Princess Diana through the streets of Paris before her death in 1997.

Many in right-leaning tabloids and TV programs have accused the pair of hypocrisy for wanting to be away from the media yet jumping head-first into creating their own media empire. Markle’s “Archetypes” podcast regularly tops the most-streamed list on Spotify, and Harry is scheduled to release his memoir, “Spare,” on Jan. 10.

In an interview, Dickie Arbiter, a prolific royal commentator and former press secretary for Elizabeth, described the “Harry and Meghan” episodes as “boring programs.”

“The only thing we learn is that they are so wrapped up in themselves that nothing else matters,” he said.

Nonetheless, he added, “merely doing this documentary is still an attack on the family. [An] olive branch it ain’t.”

The Sun tabloid’s main online story Thursday described the documentary as “Netfibs” — detailing five times that the couple appeared to have changed their story. Another article was headlined “MEGA SHOW,” a play on Markle’s nickname “Meg.”

In London, where the population’s feelings on the royals ranges from deep respect to indifference and even disdain, a few pubs were said to be showing the series Thursday, though public viewing parties were not widespread.

“What I like most about these two is how they stick it to the monarchy,” said Rachel Mandeville, 34, a finance worker who lives in Hackney in East London. “I heard it was going to be aired at some of the local pubs, but I’m just going to watch at home whenever I get time.”

Her friend and neighbor, Jeffrey Jules, who also works in finance, had a different take.

“I’m not a fan of the monarchy at all,” said Jules, 36, who had watched one episode so far. “But I do question the motives behind this series. Is it money or fame or to get back at your sibling and father?”

The palace has not commented on the show. On Thursday, at an Advent service in London, Charles ignored a question shouted his way about his take on the Netflix release, and instead wished cheering crowds a “happy Christmas.”

Two trailers for the series have been attacked for using footage that is misleading or inaccurate. Some shots that appear to depict the media hounding the couple were from events unrelated to the pair.

One photo singled out shows dozens of paparazzi lenses trained at an object, which is out of view. The image is from the premiere of a “Harry Potter” movie in 2011. Another image, showing members of the media holding cameras aloft as they try to take pictures of someone inside a vehicle, is from the trial of former President Trump’s onetime lawyer Michael Cohen.

Nicoletta Gullace, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who studies the royal family and modern British history, said that in the budding war between the Sussexes and the royals in the U.K., the winner was yet to be determined. She also said that such rivalry is nothing new.

“The idea of a split in any royal family been going on for centuries. You always have this, maybe with one younger son versus an older one, or other family members,” she said.

And “now you have two giant media machines. One is Netflix and one is the palace,” Gullace said. “They are duking it out for who can hold the attention of the public. I think the result will have to wait until the full series comes out and we see what’s the totality of it.”

Staff writer Kaleem reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Boyle from London.

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