Realistically, there are only two reasons anyone would ever want to listen to a podcast named The Queen’s Reading Room. The first is that they really like reading. The second – and I can tell you’re already way ahead of me here – is that they really like the Queen. So it brings me nothing but dismay to inform you that a full 50% of The Queen’s Reading Room listeners are doomed to come away from the endeavour feeling bitterly disappointed.
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The Queen’s Reading Room is the podcast offshoot of Queen Camilla’s charity-slash-bookclub where she recommends books for her loyal subjects to read (titles thus far have included Frankenstein, Lessons in Chemistry – and The Year of Eating Dangerously by an obscure young up-and-comer by the name of Tom Parker Bowles). The thought of expanding this pursuit into podcasts seems like a natural one, since hearing the Queen discuss her favourite books at length – perhaps with people whose backgrounds would help to challenge her interpretations – would surely be the ideal way to humanise an aloof and out-of-touch monarchy.
Well, tough luck. That isn’t what The Queen’s Reading Room is at all. Instead, it is a deeply generic author interview podcast where Camilla sort of pops up at the end to tersely announce that she quite likes Harry Potter but refuses to do the voices, before rapidly retreating in a cloud of cigarette smoke and gin fumes. In other words, this isn’t the sort of thing you’d listen to if you wanted to learn anything about the Queen at all.
The first episode belongs to Sir Ian Rankin, who gamely spends 20 minutes answering a number of slightly nondescript questions about his favourite books. The podcast’s weird format means that all the actual questions have been edited out of the audio, which gives the impression that Rankin has been forced to directionlessly free-associate about himself under literal pain of death. He was on the You’re Booked podcast in October with an actual, flesh and blood interviewer, and was infinitely more engaged and charming.
The second episode is a little fizzier, by dint of the fact that its subject is Joanna Lumley. Less celebrated an author than Rankin (her published work includes three memoirs, two travel books and a “celebration of Queen Elizabeth II”), she nevertheless comes across as excitable and conspiratorial, and often addresses the listeners directly during her entertainingly scatty sermons about the joys of reading for pleasure. Lumley is so good, in fact, that you find yourself wanting to stage a republican revolution to install her as the leader, so that she’ll get to do this podcast instead of Camilla.
What a waste of a potentially winning premise this is. Had Camilla gone in with both feet, the podcast still could have been a disaster, but at least it would have been an interesting one. Maybe if she could have recorded the opening introduction herself, rather than foisting it off on a lackey, the enterprise would have had a bit of personality. If she’d have gone one better, and fully committed to the genre by doing intermittent blank-eyed sponsored ad reads for vitamin supplements and Amazon Prime Video, I might have been inclined to listen regularly.
At least they have personality … Sarah Ferguson’s YouTube video content.
We’re left with an immensely hollow feeling. There are already enough podcasts in the world, so the last thing we need is one by a woman who can’t even be bothered to show up properly. And it’s not like there was even a high bar to clear here. Before The Queen’s Reading Room, the only member of the royal family putting literary content online was Sarah Ferguson, who liked to dress up and read children’s books on YouTube. Her videos are like something filmed by a hostage to send coded messages to their family, but at least they have some personality. On the basis of its first two episodes, this is something that The Queen’s Reading Room is never likely to achieve.