TELEVISION / The private man, the primetime exposure

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The Independent Culture
ON 1 JULY 1969, the children of Wales were given a day off school. My sister and I came home bearing a commemorative china mug: on the back was a feathered crown, on the front a picture of the man who was to be our Prince. The feathers were good, but we would have preferred a proper Prince - this one was nobbly with huge jug ears. Poor dab - like a sad camel, my auntie said.

The Prince disappeared shortly after his Investiture and the commemorative cup was put away in the cabinet for best.

I thought of it during Charles: The Private Man, The Public Role (ITV) - reverently handled, unmarked by common use, and destined to sit on the shelf awaiting a special occasion. Oh yes, one way or another being Prince of Wales was always going to be a mug's game.

The mug has played the game with such passion and determination that you could almost forget the result was a foregone conclusion. This was the big theme of Jonathan Dimbleby and Christopher Martin's documentary.

Sprawling over an astonishing two-and-a-half hours (this is Prince Charles not King Lear for chris'sake), it was both privileged and self-indulgent - the very qualities it strove to play down in its subject. If the idea was to impress upon viewers the tedium of the Prince's life, then by 10.10pm, when we had had our third official visit and were well into a meeting on inward investment in the East Midlands, it had succeeded brilliantly.

Newspaper commentators had issued lofty warnings against the Prince submitting his person to the vile telly-box - the medium which, so the theory goes, has been gnawing away at the brocade of monarchy since Richard Cawston's Royal Family in 1969.

In fact, television by and large retains a habit of deference and affection long forgotten by the chippy press. Royal Family and Edward Mirzoeff's Elizabeth R (1992) did the Windsors a power of good - giving you some hope, against the odds, in the good of power.

Both were scripted by Antony Yes Minister Jay, and his wry, elegant hand was sorely missed in Charles. Dimbleby's commentary covered the ground, but his rhetorical flights were as dodgy as the Prince's real ones. Here he is musing on the Windsor fire: 'The fizz and fizzle of public debate about the future of the monarchy echoes down the history of a thousand years.' Try asking yourself what an echoing fizzle sounds like - Jonathan clearly hadn't.

By posing the big infidelity question, Dimbleby kept his journalistic credibility, but also drew attention away from a docile approach elsewhere. You could almost feel the reporter nodding along to the Prince's gripes about his schedule ('The horror of it. You see your life being set in concrete').

The fact that the man of the people failed to point out that the majority of Sir's subjects were far more immured in drudgery did nothing to dispel the impression that Jonathan was fast becoming a man of the purple. And there was no escaping the irony that it was to a camera that the Prince wistfully confided his despair at constant media intrusion.

Access to its subject's emotional life still makes Charles the most remarkable royal film ever made. The headlines predictably zeroed in on the Prince's adultery and broad definition of faith, but 13 million viewers will have taken away a picture of a man as decent as he is troubled. Although he invariably sounds like Bertie Wooster cramming for his sociology finals, the Prince's actions, thank God, speak louder and clearer than his words. We saw him attending a concert for the Prince's Trust: his commitment to the lost boys and girls present was evident, but when they sang 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' he simply couldn't join in. The ears wiggled, willing him on, the lips moved, but nothing came out: he is afflicted not just by lockjaw but lockbody - a crippling formality that finds spontaneity about as welcome as a sudden bowel movement. We got through the armour just once.

The entire year Dimbleby spent with the royal roadshow was worth it just for the scene at the Palace where a chamber orchestra was gracefully moving up and down stairways of baroque chords. The camera pans along the front row, noting the unmusical Windsors - fidgety Queen, implacably beautiful Diana, shifty Philip, bored Margaret - but there in the middle of them sits Charles, his eyes deliquescent with tears. One plops out and, understandably amazed to have escaped, dawdles there awhile before trickling down the Prince's cheek. He bows his head. A serious case of locksoul, poor dab.

The man who emerged by the end of the film reminded me of Rogers and Hart's Funny Valentine - 'Thou noble, upright, truthful, sincere and slightly dopey gent'. I walked out of the private press-view into an electric storm of TV lights: the self-styled royal experts were giving their verdict to a hushed crowd. The Prince, it was clear, had grown enormously in 25 years from that nobbly nob I took a dislike to, but time has been less kind to royal hangers-on who have evolved in just one generation from poodles to slugs. Whatever the Prince has done, he surely cannot have deserved James Whittaker. Next day on This Morning (ITV), Audrey summed up the dominant feeling of the callers to the Prince Charles phone-in: 'I don't think the press are in tune with the people.'

A 25th anniversary your reviewer can't get enough of was marked by the two-part One Small Step: Man on the Moon (BBC2). It is probably safe to say that those who watched the Investiture of the Prince of Wales will not have shared the feelings of the American scientist witnessing the landing of Apollo 11: 'Your whole body burst with passion. If I could have climbed into the TV set I would have done so.'

In the first film, which tracked the space race, producer Jenny Abbott played off ravishing, portentous footage of bodkin rockets trailing amber ballgowns against clips from the polystyrene sci-fi series, World Beyond Tomorrow.

It neatly captured the naivety of the US in the late Fifties, but also told you that there was no cause to feel superior: only such wide eyes could have seen their way to the Moon. Astronaut Frank Borman, now in his snowy seventies, chuckled at the memory of President Kennedy's claim that they were pursuing their goal for science: 'Fiddlesticks, we did it to beat the Russians.'

True, of course - as true as the civil rights banner saying 'Rockets not Rickets' - but all irony and distaste melts away when confronted by those icy spires.

In the second film, Richard Bradley took us through the countdown and lunar landing. There was Apollo 11, smoking nonchalantly out on the pad against a lilac sky, orange bleeding into the first crack of dawn. We think of science and poetry at loggerheads; in the space programme they seemed locked in an embrace.

Asked if he had any regrets, astronaut Buzz Aldrin said yup, he wished he'd looked out of the window more. At home, we looked through our window all we wanted. Looking into it again 25 years later only confirmed your instinct at the time: nothing became our tenancy of the Earth like the leaving of it.

Back in the present, American boys made from metals developed during the space programme were burning their way through Wimbledon (BBC), leaving scorch marks on the grass to let blinking spectators know they had passed through. Years ago, the joke of the tournament was a gorgeous guy called Roscoe Tanner from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.

The joke was that Roscoe had a giant serve, but not much else. Now, it turns out that Roscoe wasn't a joke; he was the future. Todd Martin is like Roscoe with altitude: the only person who could beat him was Pete Sampras, a one-man Lookout Mountain. In today's final, Lookout Mountain plays a Croat who has taken time off from the Balkans to engender fear and loathing in SW19. For the first time in 20 years of Wimbledon watching, I don't want either man to win.

In a devastating report for Panorama (BBC1) on Rwanda, Fergal Keane spared us the heart-of-darkness routine and laid bare the sinews of the conflict. All war reporters sup full of horrors, but Keane pondered the taste, swilled it around until he could tell us what it was like. 'It is as if all the good and life in the atmosphere had been sucked out and replaced with the stench of evil.'

His lyric gift was not wasted on these obscenities: a Red Cross hospital full of macheted children became an 'acre of suffering' which picked up the ache as well as the magnitude.