The royals & a toxic court

The young Windsors and their hangers-on who keep the royal soap opera rolling. Susie Mesure and Andrew Johnson report on another week of toe-curling headlines
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In the soap opera that is Britain's Royal Family, one part of the cast seems destined to provide less than elevating storylines for years to come: its younger generation and their coterie of friends, hangers-on and trainee courtiers. They are fast becoming the royals' toxic twentysomethings, and in the past seven days they have been on vintage form.

It has been, even by the rococo standards of the Windsors, a fine week for toe-curling headlines. Last Sunday, there was "Royal victim of coke and sex blackmail bid". This was followed by "Police question Prince Harry over hen harrier shooting". And yesterday, the Daily Mail ran a spread headlined "Why does Harry drink so much?" replete with details of Knightsbridge nights running up £1,567 bar bills and 23-hour drinking sessions.

While a propensity to swallow alcohol at a rate that alarms more mature drinkers is hardly unusual in a 23-year-old, the rest of Prince Harry's extra-curricular CV is. There was his idea of a jolly costume party get-up, as a soldier in General Rommel's Afrika Korps, complete with swastika armband. Back in his teenage days there was the infamous News of the World cannabis "sting", which culminated in a day in a drugs rehabilitation clinic. And Harry is not ploughing a lone furrow as a royal roustabout.

Just what is it with the young royals? Is there something about living since birth with titles, money and yes-men and women that does bad things to the character? Or are there bad eggs in their court leading them astray?

The man always nominated as exhibit A in the search for royal wrong 'uns is Guy Pelly, top drinking partner in crime to both the young princes. Mr Pelly, a leading member of the "aristobrat" pack of friends with whom the princes surround themselves, came to notoriety after wrongly being blamed for introducing Prince Harry to cannabis.

Mr Pelly's various transgressions range from impersonating the Queen (and making lewd jokes at her expense) to stripping to his boxer shorts on drunken nights out. At one point Prince Charles was said to be so enraged by Mr Pelly's inappropriate behaviour that he ordered Prince Harry to stop seeing his best friend. Who egged Prince Harry on to don his Nazi fancy dress costume? Why, Mr Pelly, of course.

But it's unfair to lay all the blame for Prince Harry's indiscretions at Mr Pelly's door. There are plenty of other culprits. Take Harry Meade, whose fancy dress bash it was. Mr Meade is no stranger to controversy: he was thrown out of the Labour Party conference for heckling Tony Blair.

Then there are the Van Cutsem sons. The four brothers, whose father, Hugh, was friends with Prince Charles at Cambridge, have all played big roles in the lives of the young princes at various stages. Not least last week: Prince Harry was thought to be out shooting with one of the Van Cutsem clan last month when the two hen harriers were killed. He spends most time with the youngest, William, although it is Hugh Jr who is handiest with a shotgun out on the grouse moor.

Not all Prince Harry's bad influences are male. There's the budding television presenter Natalie Pinkham for one. Prince Harry's girlfriend, Chelsy Davy, is among many who would rather the prince curtailed his boozy nights with Ms Pinkham. She made his acquaintance several years ago when her then boyfriend, an England rugby international, asked her to look after Prince Harry at a match. "Not that he needed much looking after," as she later recalled.

Pictures of him squeezing her breast showed a side of the prince that many members of the British public would rather the third in line to the throne kept to himself.

Not that Prince William often behaves much better. His worst excesses all seemed to occur during his recent split from Kate Middleton, his girlfriend. The break-up turned him into something of a party demon overnight. The prince challenged his friends to drink the entire cocktail menu at the Mahiki club in Mayfair, and inebriation swiftly followed.

Although Prince William's male drinking chums include the likes of Mr Pelly and his oldest friend, Thomas van Straubenzee, they also include rather newer blood in the shape of Holly Branson, who has established herself at the heart of the young royals' set along with her brother, Sam. During the prince's split from Kate, Holly, heir to the Branson billions, was even touted as a potential love interest for the second in line to the throne. She was certainly present at the notorious night in Mahiki.

Another of the princes' inner circle – and now their step-brother, to boot – Tom Parker Bowles has enjoyed his share of impropriety. In 1999, long before Mr Parker Bowles settled down with his wife, Sara Buys, and made a name for himself as a respected cookery writer, Prince Charles's godson was caught offering cocaine to an undercover reporter. Prince Charles was said to have told his now stepson to "pull himself together", which, to be fair, he did.

It isn't just Princes William and Harry busy hell-raising. Princess Beatrice, 19, has been in on the act for some time. Tales of her misconduct usually seem to involve ex-boyfriends, the most notorious of whom was Paolo Liuzzo, an American who faced jail after being accused of the manslaughter of a fellow student in a drunken brawl in 2002.

James Green, whom the princess dated briefly when she was 15, fared little better. He was kicked out of Harrow public school after being caught snorting cocaine. The royal soap goes on. Tune in soon for the next remarkable episode.

William's set

Thomas van Straubenzee is Wills's oldest friend, who accompanied him on his first tour to New Zealand. Harry Meade Harry's party hit the headlines when Wills wore some risqué leopardskin and Harry donned that Nazi costume. Jacobi Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe Archetypal It Boy; a party planner who knows how to let his hair down.

Beatrice's set

James Green, whom she dated briefly at 15, was kicked out of Harrow for snorting cocaine. Lily Allen Bea partied at Allen's pad in Hackney after the Fashion Rocks event. Paolo Liuzzo An old flame of Bea's, their relationship caused a sensation after it emerged that US-born Liuzzo had faced jail on being accused of the manslaughter of a fellow student.

Tom's set

Tom Parker Bowles's best friend is Ben Elliott, nephew to the Duchess of Cornwall. Zac Goldsmith Environmentalist and former editor of 'The Ecologist', now Conservative candidate for Richmond. Peregrine Hood Son of 4th Viscount Bridport, based in Geneva where he works as a bond trader for his father's firm.

Harry's set

Hugh van Cutsem (Jr), apparently the sharpest shot on the grouse moor out of the four Van Cutsem bros. James Murray Wells Runs online firm Glasses Direct. In 2005 was caught with Pelly trying to break into a boarding school "looking for girls". Natalie Pinkham The budding TV presenter is frequently described as Harry's "favourite drinking buddy".