Mark Bolland: Marital aide

As deputy private secretary to the Prince of Wales, Mark Bolland was responsible for the rehabilitation of Charles and Camilla's public image. With just days to go before their controversial wedding, he tells Sholto Byrnes how 'The Firm' have ruined all his good work

Prince Philip might not be able to make it. The Queen's fed up with it already. Charles was so stressed about it he almost called it off. Every day brings more disastrous news of an event that ought to be a PR triumph - the forthcoming wedding of the Prince of Wales to Camilla Parker Bowles. It would all have been very different, whisper royal observers, if Mark Bolland were still the prince's deputy private secretary, if he had not departed two years ago, amid stories of vicious infighting in the royal households and a feud between him and Sir Michael Peat, the rather more old-school accountant who became Prince Charles's private secretary in 2002.

Prince Philip might not be able to make it. The Queen's fed up with it already. Charles was so stressed about it he almost called it off. Every day brings more disastrous news of an event that ought to be a PR triumph - the forthcoming wedding of the Prince of Wales to Camilla Parker Bowles. It would all have been very different, whisper royal observers, if Mark Bolland were still the prince's deputy private secretary, if he had not departed two years ago, amid stories of vicious infighting in the royal households and a feud between him and Sir Michael Peat, the rather more old-school accountant who became Prince Charles's private secretary in 2002.

The marriage is the culmination of Bolland's work. It's an outcome that could barely have been conceived of when he was lured to the prince's employment from his job as director of the Press Complaints Commission in 1996. Gradually, he stage-managed Camilla's transformation from a marriage-wrecker to a warm, loyal woman who has been Prince Charles's companion and lover for three decades.

But Bolland's silky tones and sure hand have certainly been missed in recent weeks. "It does look a bit of a muddle," he agrees lightly when we meet at the airy offices of his PR firm, Mark Bolland & Associates, in Clerkenwell. What would he have done? "I don't think it's my place to critique what the new team are doing, because I'm not there. But I can guess what has happened." Bolland believes that there must have been a decision in the highest royal circles not to explain the event. The steady drip of "revelations", including the question of the legality of the marriage and whether Camilla will become queen, he thinks are cock-ups rather than conspiracy.

Bolland explains that the royal family's "do nothing, say nothing" policy is utterly wrongheaded. "It is indisputable that an invisible royal family dies," he says. "I'm not saying that they have to become celebrities, but you can't pursue a policy that regards the media as the enemy."

Bolland's tactic was radically different. He steered Prince Charles towards media-friendly photocalls with the likes of Nelson Mandela and The Spice Girls. He regularly briefed the press with stories showing the prince in a good light. He made his crotchety, insecure, old-fashioned and out-of-touch boss seem human. He would have ensured that tales of flunkies squeezing toothpaste onto the royal toothbrush remained inside St James's Palace and not on the front page of the tabloids.

It may have helped that Bolland, 38, was never the typical royal employee. Born and raised in Canada until he was eight, he is the son of a former bricklayer-turned-small businessman. The family returned to England, and Mark attended King's Manor Secondary School, a comprehensive in Middlesbrough. He then read chemistry at the University of York, where he was part of the Socialist Workers Party crowd. "I still see some of them," he says. "They have forgiven me for going off and trying to save the royal family." After graduating with a 2.1, Bolland joined a PR company and then the Advertising Standards Authority, where he worked for its chairman, Lord MacGregor. When Lord MacGregor became chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Bolland followed, becoming its director in 1992.

Camilla Parker Bowles's lawyer, Hilary Browne-Wilkinson, was also on the PCC, and it was through her that Bolland was approached to join the prince's office. He was interviewed first by Camilla and then by Charles, who, to his credit, was not remotely bothered when one of the fustier old courtiers pointed out that Bolland was gay. To begin with, all went well. Bolland's work on Camilla's image led to "Operation Ritz", where the couple appeared in public together for the first time, a crucial step towards the royal consort's acceptance by the nation. With his Fleet Street contacts, Bolland was credited with keeping coverage of William and Harry low-key.

But he was also accused of leaking disobliging stories about other members of the royal family. By making them look bad, it was said, he made his boss look good in comparison. The storm clouds broke when Prince William was studying at St Andrew's University, and a camera crew from Ardent, the television company run by his uncle, Prince Edward, supposedly contravened the agreement to leave him alone.

Very detailed accounts of Charles's reaction to the news and his feelings about his younger brother - "the arrogance of this man is breathtaking" - appeared in the papers. Buckingham Palace was furious. The finger was pointed at Bolland, whose mastery of the spinning arts had by this point earned him the nicknames "Lip Gloss" and "Blackadder".

"It was all about Camilla," he says now. "All about the refusal of the Queen and Buckingham Palace to take the relationship seriously and assist the prince in reaching a conclusion. That underpinned everything." It seems extraordinary for royal servants to be briefing against other members of the reigning family. "The team that was there probably cared too much and got too emotional about it at times," concedes Bolland. "We got in a sort of Prince of Wales bunker within the House of Windsor. But to an extent that reflected him."

When Sir Michael arrived in 2002, replacing Stephen Lamport as Prince Charles's private secretary, relations with Bolland were initially wary but good. "I probably should have gone when Stephen left," he says, "but it's a hard place to break away from when people put pressure on you to stay." But Bolland was gone within the year. "It suited Michael to look like the tough guy who'd come in and cleared out the band of characters who'd been around the prince for the previous few years. Michael and I were not perceived as being able to work together." Bolland says now that he chose to go. At the time, friends said he'd been forced out. Bolland is still critical of how the Paul Burrell trial was handled - "a completely avoidable disaster" - by Buckingham Palace, and by Sir Michael at St James's Palace. The latter then conducted an internal inquiry into the trial in which Bolland felt unfairly treated. "I can have all sorts of views about Michael Peat," he says drily. "What he's like, how good he is at his job etc. But I really can't be bothered. History will judge." Bolland says that those who know him think he is much happier now than he was then. "Despite what people think, I'm not a character who thrives on that kind of political environment."

For someone who still clearly cares a great deal about Prince Charles (although rather more, I suspect, about Camilla), Bolland doesn't conceal his criticisms. He's referred to this approach as "tough love". How does it go down at St James's Palace? "I don't think it goes down very well," he says, "but often people don't like to hear the truth." Particularly his old boss, it would seem.

"One of the Prince of Wales's problems - and it's a problem that's unique to him in the royal family - is the extent to which he is remote from public opinion. He doesn't read the newspapers, he doesn't watch television news, and he doesn't even really see letters that people write to him." Bolland worries that this leaves Charles too isolated from the people over whom he may one day reign. "I think it's a strange position when you have an heir to the throne who you feel is more out of touch than his mother, who's 20-odd years older."

When Bolland was with the prince - and his partner, Guy Black, in Bolland's old job at the PCC - the couple seemed to be at the centre of a huge network of politicians, editors and royals. But it provoked jealousy, and sniping that their holidays with Ross Kemp (a childhood friend of Black's) and his wife, The Sun's editor Rebekah Wade, were just a little bit too cosy. Other criticism, he thinks, was driven by homophobia. "Fortunately, we've always worked for people for whom it's never been an issue."

Explanations were occasionally necessary - not least that the two were an item - when they both started to feature prominently in the politico-media establishment. "It was interesting for us to see how people were," he says. "Maybe we've changed opinion in some of those places. I like to think we have, without making a noise about it. Although we can make a noise about it when we feel like it, I can assure you."

Bolland was once described as someone who loves tossing stones into calm ponds. "I think that everyone who's a free spirit is a bit mischievous," he says. "People shouldn't be inhibited in saying what they think, because that's how you get a proper debate." He won't be throwing many more stones into royal ponds from now on, however. With the marriage coming up, he says, "the credits are running on the movie I was a part of". Will he be going to the wedding? "No. I'm not a friend, I was there to do a job. I'm an ex-member of staff. I was talking about the debris left over from the difficulties between the Queen and the Prince of Wales - I'm a bit of that debris."

Yet he was clearly so much more than that. Bolland's mission to make Mrs PB acceptable may have been almost completely successful, but unless her future husband takes a little more care with those who have his best interests at heart, the issue of whether Camilla becomes queen may end up being a hypothetical question. They may regret dispensing with the services of Blackadder then.

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