Neil Shand, Martin Sorrell & The Queen of Denmark

Over the years I have been privileged to meet a lot of interesting people.  I first met the scriptwriter Neil Shand, who has just died, aged 84, at the end of the 1960s when I was still a student.  He was writing jokes for David Frost at the time - and didn't always find it easy.  He knew I hoped to go into television and advised me to aim to earn £ 3,000 a year and settle for that.  'That's more than enough for anyone,' he said.  'Try to earn £ 5,000 and it will kill you.  Look at David.'  He was a nice man, kind to me, and delightfully self-deprecating.  'I don't really write jokes,' he said.  'I just try to "punch up" the material that's there.'  I last saw him at Ned Sherrin's funeral ten years ago.  That's the one thing to be said for funerals: you do get to meet up with old chums.

It was in 1981 that I first met Sir Martin Sorrell, the advertising colossus who is in the news today because he has just resigned from WPP, the agency he created and turned into the world's largest ad agency.   In 1981 he was finance director for Saatchi & Saatchi and we met up because I was trying to persuade them to help me buy a London theatre.  I failed.  (He was no fool.)

Today is the 78th birthday of The Queen of Denmark.  I first met her sixteen years ago at her palace in Copenhagen.  We talked about her life, about our Queen, and about what it takes to be a successful sovereign.  We also talked about her marriage and her difficult husband, Prince Henrik, who died in February this year, aged 83.  I think her Rules on How to be a Queen have stood the test of time, so here is my account of the time I spent with her.

I am having a master-class on monarchy from one who knows.  I am in Copenhagen, on the first floor of the beautiful Rococo palace of Amalienborg, sitting on a comfy sofa in a cosy sitting-room with Her Majesty The Queen of Denmark.  Margrethe II (Denmark’s first female monarch since Margrethe I in 1412) is 62, tall, slim, chic, bird-like, and, according to Danish opinion polls that have given her an approval rating of more than ninety per cent, year in, year out, for the thirty years of her reign, the world’s most consistently popular head of state.

Queen Margrethe’s court is more formal than I had expected.  Everything here – from the guardsman in bearskins in the courtyard to the Queen’s pages hovering in the palace corridors – is much as you would find it at Buckingham Palace.  But Margrethe herself is very different from her cousin and friend, Elizabeth II.  ‘I am more extrovert than your Queen,’ she tells me, ‘But Elizabeth II is a remarkable woman with a wonderful sense of humour.  I don’t believe the British people realise what a sense of humour she has.  I am sure it is what has helped her survive.’

Given that Margrethe chain-smokes (during our two hours together she gets through fourteen cigarettes, taking them alternately from a packet in her handbag and a dainty silver cigarette box on the table) her voice is surprisingly light and musical.  She speaks near-perfect English: she had a year at school near Basingstoke and a year doing a diploma in archaeology at Cambridge.  Like our own Queen, she is evidently intelligent, informed, interested, articulate, and she laughs a lot, and easily.   But with strangers she is much less watchful, less wary than our Queen.

For example, I ask Margrethe (in a way I would never dream of asking our Queen) to talk to me about marriage.  She looks surprised, but doesn’t hesitate.  ‘What is probably wrong today,’ she says, ‘is that we expect a marriage or a relationship to be happy and successful all the time.  We forget that people who have lived together for fifty years cannot have been happy every single day.  Marriage is like the weather: it changes.  Today I am not very happy, something has annoyed me, or made me sad.  I may think, “He could have spared me this!”  Or, “You know, you have been a fool.”  But this is no tragedy.  It does not mean that your marriage is not working.  It works again afterwards.  People find one another again, without great difficulty.’

Margrethe has been married for thirty-five years.  She met her husband, a young French diplomat (Henri-Marie-Jean-Andre, Comte de Laborde de Monpezet) in London in the mid-1960s, when he was Third Secretary at the French Embassy.  ‘We were madly in love,’ she says.   ‘Has the marriage worked?’ I ask.   ‘Yes,’ she says, simply, ‘because we have given each other latitude, we have given each other space.  We are frequently apart.  Every moment is not perfect.  There are ups and downs.  It has not always been easy for my husband being Prince Consort.’

They have two sons: Crown Prince Frederick, 34, and Prince Joachim, 32.  Last year, when the Queen broke a rib, and the Crown Prince took her place at an official function, the Prince Consort took umbrage.  ‘I have been number two for many years,’ he said, ‘I don’t suddenly want to become number three and some kind of wearisome attachment.’    Overnight, he left the court and retreated to his family vineyards in France.  Margrethe followed him and persuaded him to come home.

It is clear that the poor man, aged 67, had some kind of breakdown.  ‘Is he okay now?’ I ask.  ‘Yes, thank you.’  She smiles and nods and blows away the cigarette smoke.  ‘He’s got over all that.  It’s the sort of thing that happens to you occasionally when you really don’t feel happy.  He went through a very difficult period, but he’s very well again now.’

An unexpected silence falls and I fill it, inanely, by saying, ‘Well, he’s going to get a good write-up from me.’

Her Majesty laughs: ‘I jolly well hope so,’ she says.  ‘He has done a lot for Denmark.’  She lights up once more.  ‘He writes poetry, you know.  It’s rather on the fantastic side, surrealist in tone.  His poems are funny and musical.  He used to play the piano very beautifully.  We are very lucky, my husband and I.  We both do different things in the arts.  We see one side of ourselves as artists.’

Queen Margrethe paints.  She has illustrated an edition of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  She has designed a ballet.  Proudly, she shows me a stylish tissue-box container she has made: ‘I cut out bits from Sotheby’s and Christies’ catalogues and stick them onto boxes and varnish them.  It’s a complete joke, but it keeps me out of mischief.’

The Danish press give the Prince Consort mixed notices, but the Queen is universally admired.  Even the local republicans concede that, during her lifetime, the throne is unassailable.  How has she managed it?

‘I don’t really know,’ she says, laughing, but, when I press her, it is clear that she does know.  The Danish Royal House can be traced back to Gorm the Old (buried 958).  Margrethe is related to all the royal families of Europe.  She is a direct descendant of Queen Victoria; her grandfathers were the kings of Denmark and Sweden; her youngest sister, Anne-Marie, is married to ex-King Constantine of Greece, and his sister is married to King Juan Carlos of Spain. 

Margrethe has seen royalty succeed – and fail – across Europe over more than half-a-century.  I want her to give me the seven secrets of being a successful monarch.  Courteously, with a little diffidence, but managing to look gently amused by my presumption, Her Majesty obliges.

‘Accept your destiny.’  She says this is in a very matter-of-fact way. ‘I did not know that I might be Queen until 1953.  That was when a new law of succession was introduced in Denmark, enabling a daughter to succeed to the throne if the king had no son.  I was thirteen then and very much a child.  I was frightened by the whole thing.  I didn’t know what it meant, except that one day my father would be dead and I hated to think of that.  At school I got really upset if somebody said, “You are going to be Queen one day”, and there was one mistress in particular who kept harping on about it.  It was dreadful.  I was a late developer and very insecure during my adolescence.  I was being prepared for my future role by my parents, but it wasn’t easy.  And I wasn’t easy.  I see now that my insecurity and my malaise were probably an equal mixture of constitutional law and hormones.’  She laughs, quite loudly, and taps the ash from her latest cigarette into a little silver funnel that is part of her ashtray.  She is a very clean smoker.

‘Gradually, I became accustomed to the idea, and two things pleased me.  First, I realised I would never have to leave Denmark.  Traditionally, princesses marry princes from other countries and have to live abroad.  That must be hard and I knew I would not have to do that.  And, second, knowing that one day I would be Queen simplified my life.  My contemporaries had to find what they wanted to do in life.  I didn’t.  I knew exactly what I had to do.’

Rule number two?  Again, she doesn’t hesitate.   ‘Go to your people.  In Denmark, the only person who comes of age on their eighteenth birthday is the heir to the throne and, on my eighteenth birthday, I learnt an important lesson.  My father [Frederick IX, King of Denmark, 1947-72] presented me to the people, here on the palace balcony.  He took me out and showed me to the crowd.  I remember he said to me, “You must receive their applause.  You mustn’t just stand there.  You must show them you care.”  My father had a great sense of theatre.  He didn’t clown about, but he would go out onto the balcony and throw out his arms and show the people he was pleased that they liked to cheer him and that he was touched by their loyalty and affection.  He taught me not to be shy.  Of course, he taught me not to be conceited either.’

I ask Her Majesty to tell me about her weaknesses.  She won’t.  She resolutely refuses to say anything negative about herself, or anybody else.  Being positive is her third rule and it leads directly to her fourth: ‘Be wholly engaged in what you are doing.’  ‘Being Queen,’ she explains, ‘involves a lot of repetition – the same ceremonies, the same functions, the same routine, every year.  Sometimes you think, “Here we go again!”, but my parents taught me something useful that I have tried to pass on to my two boys.  Whatever you are doing, be aware of it and stay involved.  For example, I have to listen to a lot of boring speeches, but I have discovered there is nothing so boring as not listening to a boring speech. If you listen carefully, the speech is very rarely as boring as you thought it was going to be.  You can disagree with the speech in your head.  You can think, “He’s saying it very badly,” but don’t switch off.  Somehow listen.  It is much better that way.’

The closest Margrethe comes to a negative thought is when she turns to rule number five and the matter of the modern media.  ‘Be philosophical about the press.  It is the only answer.  On the whole, I have been fortunate with the press.  With my husband and my sons, at times, it has been different.  For example, Frederick [the Crown Prince, still unmarried] has had a lot of girlfriends over the years and they have all been talked about, all of them.  He was very bothered about it in the early years, but now, he is thirty-four, he’s not a baby any more, and there’s been so much prying over the years, he’s used to it -  he just takes it flying.’

Queen Margrethe comes to Britain regularly.  What does she make of the British press?  She smiles a diplomatic smile.  I raise my eyebrows.  She says quietly, ‘I see a very wide spectrum and some of it is not very edifying.  I have to say that our tabloids in Denmark are not nearly anything like as extreme as your tabloids.’

She smiles and flicks her lighter.  ‘European royalty like coming to England, of course, because no one knows who we are.  We can be anonymous.  And then when people discover who we are, they are always very helpful, so we get the best of both worlds.  Our bread is definitely buttered on both sides.  That is an advantage to being a queen.  People always behave very nicely towards me.’

Margrethe II believes that it is her horses, her dogs and her sense of humour that have helped maintain the sanity of Elizabeth II.   What – other than her dachshunds: they scurry around her feet in exactly the manner of our Queen’s beloved corgis -  keeps the Queen of Denmark on an even keel?  ‘Being yourself, being true to yourself, giving yourself time for yourself,’ she says.  This is rule number six.   ‘My painting is important to me.  I have a studio here in the palace, but I also go out to a studio where I was taught when I was younger.  I decide, “I am going to paint on Thursday at two o’clock” and off I go.  And when I’m in the studio, nothing else matters.  And people know that.  And if they want to talk to me, they can do so beforehand or afterwards or on another day, but not on Thursday between two and six.’

Margrethe has little time for political correctness.  It is known that she smokes and, consequently, the press and the medical establishment criticise her  - fairly relentlessly -  for being a poor role model.  She ignores them.  ‘I really don’t think about it very much,’ she says, a little testily.  And like our Queen, Margrethe has fur coats and is happy to be seen wearing them.  ‘Wearing fur is not so politically incorrect in Denmark,’ she explains.  ‘It is cold here and we breed a lot of mink.’

Denmark likes to see itself as socially liberal and politically progressive.  Why does the Queen think that, in 2003, the monarchy continues to thrive?  ‘Because it is part of our roots, part of our national identity.  In a globalised world, in a world where things change a lot, and where people move around a lot, the fact that you know what Denmark looks like – or what Britain looks like – is in large part due to the monarchy.  It stresses the continuity of a country in a tangible and visible way.’

She is 62.  Might she abdicate one day?  ‘No.  In Denmark that is not part of the story.’  And, in Denmark, will the monarchy continue for centuries to come?  ‘It has a reasonable possibility of doing so.  You don’t have the hoo-ha of choosing the next head of state.  It follows in a natural way.’

And that brings her to the final secret of her success.  She believes in what she is doing.  Absolutely.  ‘It is what I do,’ she says.  ‘It is what I am.  It is what my life has been about.  I am the Queen of Denmark.  It is as simple as that.’

Gyles Brandreth