The royal hunt of the son

When Prince Edward set up his TV production company in 1993, he said it would not produce endless Royal programmes. A pounds 1.2m loss seems to have helped him change his mind Prince Edward's production company aims to turn back losses of pounds 1.2m by cashing in on its greatest asset

The name on the business card was Edward Windsor, the title simply "television producer". The intentions of the young man presenting it were clear: the launch of his company, Ardent Productions, in 1993, was the chance Prince Edward had always wanted to make his own way in the world. "You're not going to see a rush of royal programmes from Ardent," he insisted at the time. "That's not the premise at all." A journalist was later informed that the youngest of the Queen's children did not think it right to trade on his title.

Perhaps that was the naivete of youth speaking. After registering losses of more than pounds 1.2m over its first three years, Ardent seems to have decided to cash in on its greatest asset after all. They may only whisper it, for fear of ending up in the Tower, but Edward's competitors in the world of television are beginning to suspect him of taking full advantage of the influence and access accorded to him as a member of the Royal Family.

Next week the latest in a recent flurry of documentaries about royalty presented by the Prince gets its first national airing. And it has emerged from conversations with Buckingham Palace that officials acting on behalf of the Queen gave Edward's company free use of four years' worth of television footage filmed at their own expense, so that he could make a programme on the fire at Windsor Castle. The task of recording the restoration at Windsor after the fire in 1992 was originally offered to the BBC, traditionally the royal broadcaster of choice. According to a spokesman for Royal Collection Enterprises, which carried out the negotiations on behalf of the Queen, neither the BBC nor the commercial broadcasting company Pearson were able to agree terms.

"The restoration of Windsor Castle was a five-year project, and not many television companies can afford that sort of long-term outlay," said Dickie Arbiter, chief press officer at Buckingham Palace. The project was then offered to Sky and Channel 4 without success, he said. In the meantime, the Collection itself paid "a lot of money" to have the restoration filmed. "It would have been irresponsible to let it slip away. People will want to look at the film archive in 100 years' time."

By the time Ardent bought into the project in 1996, there were four years' worth of material available - footage that was given to Prince Edward's company without Ardent having to pay any compensation whatsoever to the Royal Collection. This week the Palace insisted there had been no relaxation of commercial terms in the deal with Ardent, and that any other company would have also been given the footage. Rival companies can only take their word for it, and reflect that an offer from the Collection to pay for the footage would have made the project an attractive commercial proposition in the first place. Nobody at Ardent was available for comment last week.

The finished film was broadcast by ITV in November. "Dealing with the Palace is not just frustrating, it's not like dealing with anyone else: they speak a different language," said a commercial producer at the time. "Ardent, at least, has an interpreter on the team."

ARDENT initially seemed as ill-starred as the hapless Edward's previous endeavours, but since his change of heart it has earned a series of lucrative commissions. Trailers for the series Crown and Country, to be shown nationally for the first time next weekend on the History Channel, describe its presenter as "a man whose intimate familiarity with the monarchy enables him to reveal the kind of royal stories few others can".

Crown and Country was originally filmed as four series, broadcast separately on regional television over the last 18 months. Each involves Prince Edward visiting places with royal connections. "As an historian who can - in theory - trace his ancestry back to Alfred the Great," gushes the voice- over, "Prince Edward offers a unique insight into his family's influence on the history and landscape of Great Britain." One clip shows Edward at Brighton, home of the Prince Regent, which he says may still be a little fishing village "if it wasn't for the fancy of one of my more flamboyant ancestors".

Dressed in white chinos and a navy-blue button-down shirt, Edward looks relaxed, despite having once said that he saw himself as a producer rather than a presenter (mind you, three years earlier than that the indecisive prince said life as a producer would be boring). The mannerisms are familiar - hands clasped together in front of him, the straight- backed stance - but he comes across as a modern Prince, in tune with the demand for members of the Royal Family to be informal and approachable.

The publicity material for Crown and Country promises "a behind-the-scenes look at parts of royal houses rarely glimpsed by the public" - and there's the rub, as another troubled prince once said. A second spokesman for Buckingham Palace said the idea that Edward was the only person allowed to make documentaries with the involvement of the royal family was a myth. He cited Elizabeth R, made by the BBC in 1991, and Channel 4's Royals and Reptiles, screened last year. "It is not true to say that Edward gets any special access or favours by virtue of being the Queen's youngest son."

However, it is hard to imagine that Edward's most prestigious deal yet would have come about if he were just another producer/presenter in his early thirties. In November, CBS paid Ardent pounds 2.5m for documentaries on the fortunes of clans like the Kennedys, the Gettys and the Fondas. Part of the deal was that they be produced and presented by Edward Windsor himself. Ben Silverman, the US agent who negotiated the deal, was extravagant in his praise of the Prince. "I would mention him in the same breath as Walter Cronkite and Winston Churchill. He has great depth of knowledge and his presence on screen inspires confidence."

November was the month that Edward organised a gala at the Royal Festival Hall to mark his parents' golden wedding. The largest gathering of European royalty since the Coronation watched the likes of Dame Judi Dench and Ian Holm celebrate love and longevity. Members of the public were charged up to pounds 400 for tickets. As producers, there was never any doubt that Ardent would be the company to film the proceedings. Unfortunately for Edward, the BBC declined to spend licence payers' money on what would have been little more than a costly home video made by a doting son.

It emerged in the same month that the Prince had given himself a 20 per cent pay rise, up to pounds 114,125 a year. Ardent was continuing to lose money, but Edward's fellow managing director, Eben Foggitt, said the company had not expected to make a profit until the fifth year, and its directors deserved pay rises because they had performed ahead of targets. Edward was taken off the Civil List in 1993, but he still receives pounds 96,000 from the Queen to pay for his official expenses, including a personal office at Buckingham Palace, where he currently lives.

The Prince is seeking planning permission for the renovation of Bagshot Park in Surrey as a home and a new base for Ardent. He is understood to be taking a 50-year lease on the property from the Crown Estate, which will share the costs of renovating the 120-year-old house and estate. It has been suggested that a move to Bagshot Park will be followed by the announcement of his engagement to Sophie Rhys-Jones, but Edward has told friends that he will not contemplate marriage until he has achieved some measure of professional success.

Ardent is by far his best effort to date. After studying at Cambridge on a military scholarship, he joined the Royal Marines in 1982, but left in the middle of commando training in 1987. That was the year he organised It's A Royal Knockout, a television programme made for charity. It was an embarrassing failure that he later described as "the worst day of my life". Undeterred, he took a job as a production assistant with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful theatre company, where he earned the nickname "Babs" (after the Carry On star Barbara Windsor) and found it hard to shake off the public image of him as little more than a theatrical tea- boy. That was hardly helped when he left in 1990 to help found Theatre Division, a company that collapsed the following year with debts of pounds 600,000.

By the time Ardent was formed in 1993, Edward must have felt he had a lot to prove. He attracted impressive backers though, including the Sultan of Brunei and Tom Farmer, chairman of Kwik-Fit. His colleagues were experienced television executives like Graeme McDonald, former controller of BBC2, but none of Ardent's programmes were shown until 1995, when Channel 4 screened a documentary on real tennis presented by the Prince. It then paid pounds 2m for the political soap Annie's Bar, which was "not a wondrous success" according to the station, and was dropped after failing to attract even a million viewers. Other flops included Glam Slam, a gameshow with two transvestite hostesses that did not get beyond the pilot stage. A drama based on the life of the Queen Mother was commissioned by ITV but dropped at an early stage.

ARDENT'S first big hit was, inevitably, a documentary on a member of the royal family. As presenter of Edward on Edward the prince took an almost frank look at the life of his great uncle, Edward Vll, and defended him against accusations of being a Nazi sympathiser. Screened by ITV in April 1996, it was closely followed by the deal with CBS. Programmers who insisted he ought to concentrate on royal subjects used to frustrate Edward, but by October 1996 he had become resigned to doing what they suggested. "It is a case of taking a commercial decision about the business and everybody whose livelihood depends on the success of the company. If a programme like that is going to be made, better for it to be made by somebody who will give a balanced and accurate picture, rather than somebody who knows very little about it and is going to repeat all the old gossip."

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