Focus: Prince in a spin

As the heir to the throne approaches 50, king-makers are subtly restoring his tarnished reputation
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Indy Lifestyle Online
TWO PRINCES were displayed in fresh colours last week, all buffed- up and a lot less tarnished than they used to be. As the Queen unveiled the newly gilded statue of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, in Kensington Palace Gardens, two newspaper series about her heir signalled the start of a campaign to put a shine on his faded reputation as he approaches his 50th birthday.

Trying to draw parallels between Albert and Charles does not work for long. The Prince Consort was, by all accounts, a fond and faithful husband who commanded general respect and managed to carve out a useful and quite influential role for himself despite an imprecise job description. Not even the Prince of Wales's apologists would claim success for him in those areas.

Instead, Albert's independent cast of mind and his early death suggest it might be more apt to compare him with Diana, Charles's late princess and still in some degree his rival for public regard. Coincidentally, on the day the refurbished Albert Memorial was reopened, the Princess's posthumous cause received a setback when a plan to build a monstrous pounds 10m garden in her memory outside her former palace, only a few hundred yards away, was significantly scaled down.

WHEN WE look back from the vantage point of the next millennium, it will become clear that the Restoration of Charles III began in earnest on the anniversary of Diana's death seven weeks ago. Her worshippers stubbornly refused to do what the media expected of them. They did not reproduce last year's open displays of grief at their heroine's death nor their indignation at the way she had been treated by the Royal Family, especially Charles.

That has given the Prince and his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, the opportunity to make a new pitch for the popular affection so long denied them. Nothing so vulgar as a propaganda counter-offensive is required, because his 50th birthday on 14 November was always going to provide the pretext for hundreds of thousands of words and images about the man who may be king.

In addition to last week's series in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, and a lengthy screed in today's Mail on Sunday, a raft of books is imminent and major profiles are planned on both BBC and ITV. Next weekend the Prince leaves for a cleverly timed trip to the Balkans, taking a plane- load of reporters primed to fill more column inches with tales of his new-found affability and poise.

The role of the now quite sophisticated publicity operation at St James's Palace is not just to make sure that the Prince's case is properly put but to direct writers towards friends prepared to sing his praises. The voices of Nicholas Soames, Patty Palmer-Tomkinson and the like came through strongly in the Telegraph and Mail pieces.

"It's natural that people want to write about him on his 50th birthday," says his press secretary, Sandy Henney. "The initiative didn't come from us. Our job is to give journalists as much help with the facts as they need."

Charles's private secretary, Stephen Lampart, seconded from the Foreign Office, is often credited with initiating the revival of Charles's image, but writers who deal with St James's Palace confirm that the pivotal role is played by Mark Boland, his deputy private secretary of nearly three years. His duties are imprecise, but as a former director of the Press Complaints Commission he has vital experience of the reptilian techniques of journalists. Although he seldom talks on the record, his open, friendly manner contrasts with that of many royal servants.

The authors of last week's two lengthy series - neither of them full- time royal specialists - are indignant at any suggestion that they were put up to it by Mr Boland and his colleagues. "It's a reflection on how people, especially other journalists, look at things," says Ann Leslie, the veteran Mail correspondent.

"Whenever you write anything supportive of someone or something, people say she must be in their pay in some form or another. You're thought to be a toady or a crawler. But if you attack someone, you get a reputation for being brave and fearless. In Prince Charles's case, it's more fearless to be nice to him."

Graham Turner, who wrote the Telegraph articles, took a less partisan stance, but in the end came down on the Prince's side, describing him as a "talented" man of "considerable achievements". Yet he also revealed that friends call Charles "King Whinge" because of his complaints about his press coverage. And the first of Mr Turner's three articles surprised St James's Palace with its frank account of Charles's sexual adventures almost from the age of puberty.

It also contained the only true scoop in the torrent of words that have appeared so far. Mr Turner disclosed that the Queen is implacably opposed to her son marrying the divorced Camilla Parker Bowles, although he is openly conducting an intimate relationship with her.

The source of this revelation - now confirmed by people on both sides of the argument - appears to have been an adviser to the Queen herself. It has angered the Prince's party, for it is a symptom of the most significant aspect of the royal story today: there is a deep gulf, involving rivalry and even distrust, between officials at St James's and Buckingham Palaces. Anthony Holden, whose third book about the Prince has just been published by Bantam, has watched the rift grow. "Senior courtiers at Buckingham Palace take a dim view of Charles and think he's done enormous damage to the monarchy over the past decade," he says.

"His media relations were handled by Buckingham Palace until he got his own press set-up in 1993. Then came the debacle when he admitted to Jonathan Dimbleby that he'd committed adultery. He didn't realise how damaging that would be, given that he's going to be head of the Church of England. That's one reason why I think he ought to marry Camilla."

The Queen, by contrast, clearly takes the view of a priest quoted by Graham Turner, who said that the Prince ought to renounce Mrs Parker Bowles to concentrate on serving the nation, bringing up his children and increasing his sensitivity to God: "The effect of such a witness would be miraculous."

Miraculous and highly unlikely. Meanwhile, the Queen's disapproval of her son's affair may account for her never having spent the night at Highgrove and, according to Ann Leslie, declining an invitation to the birthday party being organised by Mrs Parker Bowles there next month.

Ms Leslie's articles show her to be very much on the Prince's side in all this. While putting much of the blame on Diana for the breakdown of their marriage, she allows his friends to sing his praises. Nicholas Soames tells her: "He does countless acts of kindness to people in all walks of life, but you'll never hear about them because he doesn't want you to."

Even Marjorie Wallace, director of the mental health charity Sane, is rounded up to disclose that Diana did not have a monopoly of late-night visits to people on the edge of despair: "He's even come here at midnight, often exhausted after a long day, to support the volunteers manning the helplines, because he cares desperately about the plight of the mentally ill."

IN HER final article, Ms Leslie praises Charles's "old-fashioned, unflashy but enduring qualities", and declares: "No Prince of Wales has worked so hard for the nation or devoted himself so completely to the job."

She told me: "I've always liked Prince Charles. I had quite a few meetings with him a quarter of a century ago and I know he's a decent man. He's utterly traduced by people who've never met him - like Julie Burchill in that fatuous book of drivelling adulation of the Princess.

"So I set about persuading people who knew him to talk to me on the record. Of course I got some help from St James's Palace but the idea that they were falling over themselves to help is far from the truth."

While Ms Leslie has planted her standard in the Prince's camp, Mr Turner has drawn equally from the wells of guidance provided by the two rival palaces. He has come away from the experience deeply unimpressed with any of the dramatis personae in this Shakespearean tragedy - a steamy blend of Antony and Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew, with hints of Hamlet.

"They're all essentially flawed in one way or another," he sighs. "It's a grim business really ... It was hard to write and hard to get people to talk. Thank God it's over and I don't have to write about them all the time." Happy Birthday, sweet Prince.