LONDON — LONDON -- Queen Elizabeth II, come on down.
Last night, the British monarchy was praised and pilloried in a nationally televised debate that was part game show, part shouting match and most un-British.
"Monarchy: The Nation Decides," a two-hour program broadcast live before 3,000 spectators in Birmingham, showed how volatile the debate over the monarchy's future has become in the wake of royal divorces and scandals.
Historians, war heroes, royal retainers, politicians, athletes, church leaders and audience members traded barbs, creating such a spectacle that journalist Andrew Neil said: "I think it makes Oprah Winfrey look upmarket."
But in the end, viewers at home had the final word, as more than 2 million voted via telephone. Asked, "Do you want a monarchy?" 66 percent said yes; 34 percent said no.
By an overwhelming margin, studio audience members said recent scandals had damaged the reputation of the royals and that the royal family should pay its own way. By a smaller margin, the audience said that Prince Charles should not become king.
And what about the prospect of Prince Charles' mistress Camilla Parker Bowles becoming Queen Camilla?
The audience gave that idea a big thumbs down.
The debate started with a bit of a bang when historian Rosalind Miles noted that the history of the British monarchy was filled with "murderers, usurpers and bastards."
"That doesn't mean we have to do away with them," she said. "If we sweep away a monarchy, we'll have something like Jackie Onassis. Do you want that?"
Another unabashed monarchist, thriller writer Frederick Forsyth got a wave of cheers when he said: "Let's talk about a magnificent queen who has been 44 years our monarch."
But if Queen Elizabeth got the cheers, then her eldest son and heir, Prince Charles, got the jeers.
"When Prince Charles comes to the throne, we'll have a polarized country," said Andrew Morton, whose biographies about Prince Charles' former wife, Diana, Princess of Wales, exploded most illusions about royal family behavior.
Britain's voracious tabloid media also came in for heavy criticism, blamed by many for hounding the royals.
One audience member shouted at a noted royal photographer: "You behave like a psychopath, hovering around Diana, not giving her a minute of peace. Why don't you buzz off."
The crowd cheered.
The republicans in the audience also got in their best shots.
"We are facing the prospect of Charles III," said Stephen Haseler, head of a republican organization. "People want to choose the next head of state. They don't want it imposed upon them."
For the most part, though, the debate was a series of short, flip shouting matches.
"I think it was a disgrace," said Sir Bernard Ingham, who was the press secretary for former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "It was sort of a pub brawl at times."
It certainly was strange.
Paul Kidd, the queen's butler for four years, said: "I found her to be extremely caring."
But one republican shot back: "She is a symbol of everything that is rotten about this country."
A man in the audience admitted that he loved the queen so much that he watched her Christmas Day message every day of the year at 3 p.m. Another audience member responded, "I never heard anything like that in my life. The man is obsessed."
In an earlier poll commissioned for the debate, nearly half of those questioned predicted that there would not be a monarchy in 50 years. Fifty-five percent of Britons polled said they had lost respect for the royal family in the past 10 years.
Forty percent said the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, had done the most to damage the royal family's reputation. Another 34 percent reviled Prince Charles.
Eighty-three percent of those polled said they could not name three good things the royals do.
Britons also were asked who should become the country's president, if the monarchy is scrapped.
The winner? Princess Anne, with 17 percent of the vote.
Pub Date: 1/08/97