REVIEW / Please don't let one be misunderstood

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NOT quite Charles the Confessor then. Preceded by a strange stepped intake of breath, like a child who has quieted from sobbing, the Prince of Wales braced himself and answered the questions about his marriage with a truthful economy, rationing his candour. As a private man he cleared the hurdle perfectly honourably. His circumspection protected his mistress, more than himself, and if he took refuge in the passive ('It has happened') you could forgive him that. As a potential monarch, though, you had to wonder why he had allowed himself to be forced over the hurdle in the first place.

That opposition ran through the film from start to finish, encapsulated in the subtitle - 'The Private Man, the Public Role'. The rhythm of that lures you into a belief of equivalence but the truth is that the latter has consumed the former entirely, partly for reasons rooted in constitutional necessity but also because of the unhappy, fated marriage of monarch and media. 'I always think there's a camera now,' Charles said in the wilds of Scotland, a remark made with a wistful finality. That he said it in front of a camera only confirmed the irreversible loss of privacy, a virginity that can never be recovered. It isn't divinity that doth hedge a king these days but an army of paparazzi with lenses like howitzers.

You could see the effect of a life under scrutiny in the way that metaphor hovered constantly. He knows this himself, that he is accompanied on every public appearence by a vulture swirl of potential headlines. 'Prince ploughs a lonely furrow,' he offered, after driving a team of oxen on a Mexican visit. The effect couldn't be suppressed, even if you were sympathetic. 'Oops, where am I going?' he said, bumping into someone in a corridor and a mental flash-bulb popped in your head, freezing the caption.

Two reputations rode on the film, and both emerged . . . undamaged. Dimbleby did put the questions, even if he put them with an elaborate courtesy that reminded you of a man walking backwards while bowing at the same time. Charles, on the other hand, came across as a man of worthy ambitions and human failings - the restrained wince of pain that crossed his features when the Royal Film Performance was mentioned must have earned him as many friends as the evident sincerity of his commitment to the Prince's Trust. He gave a good account of himself, in short.

But this hardly solves the problem. After all, a publicly accountable sovereign is a contradiction in terms. At the beginning, Dimbleby described the Prince as a man 'imprisoned by birth to play a part for which there is no script', a slightly ominous paraphrase of words once used by Edward VIII, before his abdication. This film suggested Charles' plight is worse than that. Here is a man destined by birth never to see a piece of litter in his life, but who insists on visiting Mexico's rubbish tips; here is a man who wishes to represent 'ordinary people's thoughts and feelings'. That is a politician's ambition but a king's fantasy, and it suggests that the peculiar inert sacrifice required of a constitutional monarch - to allow qualities to be projected upon you - is more than the Prince can bear to make.

The film's length itself seemed to be a plea for sympathy. If feelings of weary repetition steal over you after just two and a half hours of native dishes and national dancing, of people laughing at anything you say, what horror in the real thing? But that, as Shakespeare's Henry V could have told him, is irretrievably part of the deal.

'What infinite heart's ease / Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy] / And what have kings that privates have not too, / Save ceremony, save general ceremony.'