LONDON – Thomas Markle spent a career in Hollywood, but nothing prepared him for this.
The father of royal bride-to-be Meghan Markle has been quoted as saying he will not attend his daughter’s wedding to Prince Harry this week after suffering a reported heart attack amid the intense media interest around the nuptials.
The retired television cinematographer had been expected to walk his actress daughter down the aisle Saturday at Windsor Castle’s St. George’s Chapel. But celebrity news website TMZ reported Tuesday that Markle would undergo heart surgery and miss the wedding, the latest story in the site’s fluid coverage of whether he would or would not make it.
Kensington Palace on Monday issued a statement calling for “understanding and respect to be extended to Mr. Markle in this difficult situation.” The palace did not say whether wedding plans had actually changed.
The palace issued the statement hours after TMZ first reported Monday that the elder Markle decided to stay away from the event. The website said his decision was due to tongue-clucking over the mocked up wedding-preparation photographs he posed for at the invitation of a paparazzi agency.
But TMZ followed up early Tuesday with Thomas Markle saying that on reflection, he did want to come, if doctors released him from a hospital where he was undergoing tests after a heart attack.
“I hate the idea of missing one of the greatest moments in history and walking my daughter down the aisle,” the news site quoted him as saying.
Meghan Markle’s older half sister said their father, 73, was under an “unbelievable” amount of stress because of media intrusion.
Samantha Markle told the TV show “Good Morning Britain” on Tuesday that journalists “rented the house next to him in Mexico, four or five of them. He can’t open his blinds, he can’t go anywhere without being followed.”
Thomas Markle is not the first person to be bruised in the collision between Britain’s royal family and the media – a relationship that is deep, complex and sometimes toxic.
“It is a symbiotic and parasitic relationship which is harmful to both sides,” said Graham Smith of anti-monarchy group Republic, who is resolutely unaffected by royal wedding fever. “Certainly harmful to the British public in terms of the way in which we are fed this hype and nonsense … and clearly harmful to the family.”
For centuries, Britain’s royal dramas played out at a distance from the public, as a deferential media protected the secrets of the monarchy. In the 1930s, the romance between King Edward VIII and divorced American Wallis Simpson was headline news in the U.S. press, but barely mentioned in Britain until the king abdicated, forced to choose between the crown and the woman he loved.
That changed by the time Prince Charles married 20-year-old Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 in a ceremony watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world. The media charted every twist in the saga that followed: the births of sons William and Harry, Diana’s glamour and charity work, and her evident and growing unhappiness in the marriage.
Charles and Diana both used the media as a weapon as their marriage foundered, giving TV interviews to present themselves in a sympathetic light. It was ratings gold, reaching a peak when Diana told an interviewer that “there were three of us” in the marriage – Diana, Charles and his then-paramour Camilla Parker Bowles, who is now Charles’ wife.
“Diana turned the royal family inside out,” said Ellis Cashmore, honorary professor of sociology at Aston University and author of books on celebrity culture. “All the dirty secrets had come into the public domain.”
Diana became the most famous woman on Earth, trailed by paparazzi wherever she went – including to her death. She was killed in a Paris car crash in 1997 while being pursued by photographers.
Diana’s death provoked a crisis for the monarchy – which was portrayed as remote and cold at a time of national grief – and for the media, accused of hounding a vulnerable woman.
In the years that followed, palace and press reached an uneasy truce. The royal family made concessions to popular interests, including carefully staged interviews and photo opportunities with William and Harry as they grew up. That practice has continued with the three young children of William and his wife Kate.
But Diana’s sons retain a deeply ingrained mistrust of the media.
“Harry’s attitude towards the press is he doesn’t like the press,” former Sun newspaper royal editor Duncan Larcombe, author of “Prince Harry: The Inside Story,” told Town & Country magazine. “In Harry’s mind, it was the press that killed his mother.”
When Harry and Markle decided to make their relationship public, the prince issued a pointed plea for the media to behave. He said the biracial Markle had faced “a wave of abuse and harassment,” including “racial undertones” in comment articles.
“This is not a game – it is her life and his,” a statement from Harry’s press secretary read at the time.
Still, Markle’s media experience, gained during her career as an actress, has been evident from the start. During the couple’s televised engagement interview, she appeared relaxed, confident and happy. It was a far cry from a 1981 interview with shy Diana and awkward Charles, who replied “whatever love means” when asked if he was in love.
Saturday’s wedding is expected to draw more than 5,000 media staff and 79 television networks from around the world to Windsor. American and international TV networks plan hours of live coverage.
“I don’t think anything can quite prepare her,” Cashmore said – though as “an independent-minded woman, brimming with confidence,” Markle is well-equipped to deal with an intense spotlight that is unlikely to dim.
“The media are the public’s proxy,” Cashmore said. “The reason they go for these stories that are ever more intrusive is that we want it.”