Saturday Stories: A hit on tour, but will we ever learn to love Prince Charles?

Prince Charles attracted praise from a formerly sceptical press for a new warmth and ease, displayed this week on his trip to South Africa. But, asks Jojo Moyes, is this a real change of personality, or a calculated - and dangerous - ploy?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Set against the hysteria that accompanied Princess Diana's international tours, it was a fairly muted affair. But Prince Charles's tour of South Africa was being lauded this week as a huge success. In the words of one of his aides, the Prince "had played a blinder".

Through the past week, the man whose popularity was described just 10 months ago as being "in freefall" has been seemingly rehabilitated, his tour coverage simultaneously creeping forwards until it was headlining news reports. Even in previously "Dianaphile" America, he has elicited attention and sympathy.

The triumph of this tour, it is claimed, is due to his new, relaxed image; that of a man as comfortable playing straight man to the Spice Girls as he is joshing with the reporters on his plane. This Prince is a family man, "nattering" with his son, warmly guiding him through the protocol of an official visit.

It wasn't just his aides who were congratulating the Prince. The Daily Mail, for example, spoke of "A new warmth, a new sense of passion". The new buzzwords "relaxed", "informal" and "friendly" peppered reports of his visit.

For a man who has been repeatedly castigated and ridiculed in the press, these must have been welcome words indeed. But the Prince was keen to stress that there had been no change, and confessed that he was "mystified" by this warmer reception. "I am just doing my bit for Britain," he said. "I don't do it for me."

The Prince may have been a little disingenuous. There is little doubt that since the death of Princess Diana he has been more acutely aware of the power of image - and perhaps of the need to update his own.

By accident or design, bringing Prince Harry on the tour was a masterstroke; while stressing his new status as a single parent, it also diffused his press coverage and helped convey his "warmth" in an uncontrived manner. As even Stalin recognised, it is a very hard man whose image does not benefit from an affectionate child. The presence of Harry and the ubiquitous Spice Girls also allowed Charles to indulge in some humour. The Prince is not a naturally humorous man; his jokes have the ringing pauses of lines that have been practised too often. But set against the "stiffness" that has characterised his official duties for the past 15 years, he finds an audience only too ready to smile.

Part of this is due to the influence of his advisers; not least one of the newest, Mark Bolland, 31, who holds a special communications brief. It is Bolland who is credited with the warmer, more natural, "people's Charles" who surfaced on 19 September, when he returned to post-funeral public life. Bolland is not cut from the same cloth as his public-schooled, protocol-conscious predecessors.

State-school educated, businesslike, up-front, and a consummate networker, he is said to be able to talk to the Prince "the way no one in royal circles has ever been known to do before". Also influential is press secretary Sandy Henney. The daughter of a Smithfield worker, and married to the head of Scotland Yard's Royalty and Diplomatic Protection branch, she is a down-to-earth former police press officer who earned the Prince's trust shepherding him through the turbulent year following his divorce.

Some of the change is due to his increasing closeness to the new Labour administration, especially spin supremo Peter Mandelson, who can safely be said to understand the importance of image (and, evidently working overtime, praised that of the Prince in a speech to the Design Council earlier this week). This tentative relationship was bolstered by the events surrounding Charles' former wife's death, which convinced him of the need to adapt to a new kind of Royal protocol, the kind that meant Cherie Blair could have a Royal audience last week wearing - gasp - trousers. The Prince made perhaps his clearest reference to the need for modernisation in a speech on tour, in which he stated: "We in Britain, like you, value tradition highly but recognise - albeit reluctantly sometimes - the need for considered change."

But the real reason for the apparent metamorphosis is simple. Prince Charles is a man who has lived through a nightmare, and is cautiously emerging, blinking furiously, at the other side. Ten weeks ago he had to confront the death of his former wife, transformed through public grief into a "People's Princess", and came perilously close to being blamed for that loss. Through a combination of luck and judgement the threat was averted, and a few others besides. If the Prince of Wales was referred to last week as looking like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders, it is probably because it has. And that weight, largely unspoken this week, has been the "D" word.

When some commentators have noted that this "new" Prince is not new at all - merely a re-emergence of the Prince of Wales of the 1970s and early 80s - what they are referring to, albeit obliquely, are his pre-Diana days. The death of Diana, although it seems bad taste to mention it, means that Charles no longer has to fight for prominent coverage; he no longer has to wince at the morning headlines as stories are "planted" by opposing camps; he no longer has to be the staid, fuddy-duddy one. The more tributes he pays publicly to his former wife, or at least her efforts for charity, the more he benefits. In appearing to be generous, some of her enduring public affection rubs off on him. He can be, if not the People's Prince, then at least not the aloof, cranky one of popular opinion. And as the candlelit vigils for Louise Woodward demonstrate, there is a huge public need for a popular focus, someone to fill Diana's place; in asking to be liked, he is presently knocking at an open door.

But it is worth bearing in mind how tenuous that hold on public affection can be. Just 10 months ago, a Mori poll showed that 34 per cent considered Prince Charles had done more than any other member of the Royal family to harm its reputation (only 11 per cent blamed the Princess).

This may be a kind of widower's honeymoon, which could still backfire. One incident on the Royal tour provides evidence of this: the apparent "controversy" surrounding references to Diana and her family during a banquet speech.

The Prince circulated an early draft of the speech, which contained references to both Diana and to the Spencer family's sorrow. The speech he gave deleted any references to the latter - something widely reported as a "snub".

According to a briefing given by Sandy Henney, the Prince decided to remove this section after learning that Lord Spencer would be at the banquet, keen not to presume to speak on the Spencers' behalf. The Mail's Richard Kay (formerly Diana's earpiece) subsequently reported it not as a snub, but as "an act of reconciliation".

But this was not the end of the matter. The second draft of the speech omitted the earlier references to the Princess. When reporters saw this, there was wild speculation that the Prince had decided to snub the Princess. Ms Henney again denied this, and some newspapers were duly "advised" that these were simply sentiments the Prince wanted to make without a script. Not everyone bought this explanation however. The Evening Standard noted: "This falls short of a full explanation because, in the event, Prince Charles did not ad lib but used the form of words in the first draft."

As this incident shows, from being virtually ignored, the intensive attention now paid to the Prince's words and deeds may prove to be potentially explosive. And despite a more visible warmth, there is little to suggest that his personality has undergone a fundamental change. He is unlikely to become a "People's Prince" while he has so little of the genuine empathy with ordinary people that was Diana's currency. When attending a Swaziland banquet, prepared by the local villagers since dawn, for example, he declined even a morsel of the fried chicken and boiled beef, preferring instead the canapes prepared by his personal chef and packed in ice boxes.

Charles is still awkward, aloof and prone to self-pity and petulance. As Dr David Starkey, the constitutional historian, once said: "He is not the sort of personality who easily acts as a vehicle for public relations ... He is knobbly, prickly and arrogant." Despite his acceptance that the Royals need to update their image, he himself presents a curiously Luddite figure. In a "new" Britain, keen to stress its links with the future, he must overcome the fact that he represents an institution that is increasingly regarded as arcane, and to some, defunct.

And there is still the danger area of his relationship with Camilla Parker- Bowles. While there have been no appearances in public since Diana's death, it remains to be seen whether the public is prepared to extend its sympathy that far.

Perhaps Charles' best chance is, ironically, the Royal Correspondents who have made his life such a misery over recent years. There are only so many times a specialist in any field can run stories saying that their chief interest is irrelevant or unloved. It is here that the death of Diana has created the biggest hole of all, and they are under pressure to justify their (often huge) pay packets. The best way for them to do so, for now at least, is to rebuild Charles in the image they need; to make him a figure worthy of fierce attention, to instill in him charisma and empathy, attributes the public demand.

But what Charles must know, and what Diana's death has proven, is that that degree of scrutiny can become a poisoned chalice. It will be a tough balancing act, and one of which, even as he congratulates himself on a week's work well done, he will be all too painfully aware.