Is William the new Diana?

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The Independent Online
A17-year-old boy wears a pair of sunglasses. He gets into a car and drives a few yards. He passes his driving test. "It was", said a lorry driver who was lucky enough to observe the latter event, "fantastic to witness the moment". Almost overcome with emotion, he added: "I was so stunned I nearly dropped my sandwiches." Who can blame him? It is not every day that a teenager passes his driving test in this country, and at the very first attempt. Actually it is, but this perfectly ordinary occurrence is transformed by the boy's identity into front-page news.

Unquestionably he has That Diana Touch, as even a thoughtful broadsheet editor tried to persuade me last week. This means not just that he is Her son, but that he has inherited the mannerisms, that shy upward glance and that apparent ability to ignore the hungry cameras trained on him at events like polo matches, providing fantastic pictures. He also shares the late Princess's capacity to behave conventionally in public while giving the impression that he is, underneath, far less stuffy than the Windsor side of the family personified by his socially gauche father, Prince Charles.

Prince William is, in other words, shaping up to occupy the role in the nation's life which was left gapingly empty by the sudden death two years ago of his mother. This is good news for two constituencies, ardent monarchists and tabloid editors, who have strikingly similar needs - a personable royal pin-up - even though their motivation is rather different. Immediately after Diana's death the question of whose picture would fill up all those pages that used to be devoted to the late Princess produced some odd answers. There were the Di lookalikes, including Sophie Rhys-Jones and the unfortunate Jill Dando, and a not very successful attempt to elevate Diana's bitter rival Camilla Parker Bowles to star status; there were even indications that Sir Elton John might be a contender.

None of it worked and, for a while, as the nation waded through soupy retrospectives and breathless tribute books, it looked as though the new Diana was ... well, Diana. She certainly left behind the most comprehensive picture library known to humankind, with thousands of unpublished shots to choose from. But pictures date and fashion is a cruel master, as William would have discovered if he happened to read the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday. "Prince William's wraparounds may have got everyone talking - but are they really fashionable attire?" agonised Melanie Rickey, in an article devoted entirely to his choice of eyewear. "I completely understand Prince William's situation", conceded a sympathetic fashion stylist, pondering how he had come to make what the newspaper characterised as a "fashion mistake".

Of course I know that "everyone" in this context means a couple of bored journalists. But witless stuff about the Prince is spreading through the media like honey fungus, prompted on this occasion by a photocall to show off his driving skills at Highgrove last week. Three days later, the Sun reacted as though it had been privileged to witness the first stage in William's beatification, presenting us with the Miracle of the Driving Test and a holy relic in the form of a mock-up of the Prince's new licence.

There have been many discussions about invasion of privacy since Diana's death, and Monday's stunt at Highgrove has been presented as an attempt to protect William and his younger brother, Harry, from unwanted intrusions by the press over the summer. Yet there is something just as distaste- ful about these official sight-ings, when journalists are encouraged to produce grossly sentimental copy about the Windsors, as there is about snatched photographs. Obsequiousness and the kind of prurient press interest from which the late Princess suffered have similar roots, elevating what are essentially private acts, unimportant except to the person carrying them out, into a species of public performance.

It is a curious turn of events that, at a time when church and state have reluctantly withdrawn from the business of regulating private life, so many celebrities are eager to subject both mundane experiences and intimate acts to public scrutiny. Diana herself was singularly foolish in this respect, and royal watchers were the last people on earth to discourage her. But their relentless curiosity, and the Windsors' willingness to feed it, are equally infantile in origin. William is the new Diana - but just wait a few years until he becomes a love rat. These are tiresome and inevitable developments, which should be met with a protracted yawn.