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Some day my prince will say something interesting

Fergie, it is said, found her husband deadly dull. But is the Duke of York really so vacuous? By Jojo Moyes
At Royal Ascot, the preferred transport of wealthy owners and punters is the helicopter. While owners retire to the members' enclosure, the pilots congregate to chat while they wait. Well away from the Queen and other guests in the Royal Box, this is where, at a meeting, one could have found Prince Andrew - mucking in with the other pilots, talking about choppers and drinking tea.

This is typical of the popular image of the Duke of York; down to earth, blokeish, "one of the lads". His nickname "Randy Andy" and the tabloid antics of his pre-marriage days suggest a hearty, lusty, good-natured individual; a suitable candidate for Prince Regent.

Even when he was forced to deny persistent unfounded tabloid reports of illness, his response - "Look at me. I must be the first person in medical history to contract Aids and put on weight!" - was typically waggish.

But in the last few years the Duke of York has become less visible; outside his job helping to train Navy helicopter pilots in Portland he has become something of a recluse. As the column inches documenting the lavish lifestyle of his now ex-wife have multiplied, those documenting his own have diminished at a parallel rate.

Unlike her, since their separation he has been linked with few romantic partners and no scandal. Friends say there is no significant woman in his life. Unlike her, he has chosen to lead a low-profile, low-key existence; his main indulgence being his passion for golf. Last year he performed a total of 81 public engagements in the UK, although he no longer receives anything from the civil list.

In recent years the public seems to have lost sight of Andrew. While it has a good grip on the main characters that make up the royal soap opera - Charles: whingeing, eccentric; Diana: spoilt, neurotic; Anne: blunt, hardworking - it no longer knows what to make of him.

Recent newspaper reports suggest that crucial to his reduced profile is Andrew's growing belief that he may yet have a far more significant role within the Royal Family, should Charles not become King. In recent months he is said to have taken his paperwork "far more seriously" and realised that his marital situation could be an impediment to future role.

But some believe there is less to it than that. "Enigmatic is what everyone says about people who are pretty vacuous," says one royal biographer. "He's actually a very 18th-century sort of character. You know, wine, women and song. And why not?"

One friend described him as a labrador - "Every time he wags his tail he knocks over the best china. He's a fairly nice, harmless person." Andrew, those who know him suggest, is neither the rollicking prince, nor the Machiavellian heir apparent. He likes music by Elton John and Fleetwood Mac, he is teetotal and hates smokers, and his idea of a good holiday is with his parents in Scotland.

Fergie is said to have found him dull and boring and balked at his life of sea, golf course and watching television. The Queen, one afternoon, is reported to have jokingly remarked to the Duchess of York: "I'm so glad you've taken Andrew off our hands

Andrew's widely documented "schoolboy" humour is said to denote a lack of emotional maturity and to be used as a way of avoiding any real contact with people. He appears to be most comfortable in the company of men and believes in "anything for a quiet life". His absence from his wife during their marriage - one year, she says, she saw him for a total of 42 days - suggests someone emotionally semi-detached.

Susan Barrantes is less generous about her easy-going son-in-law. In an interview with an Italian magazine shortly after their initial separation, she said: "Andrew is a good-looking boy - but he has not got any character, absolutely none. If he had, maybe his marriage would not have broken up.''

This may be the case. But as his failed marriage and wayward ex-wife again enter the eye of the media storm, Andrew will again manage to comfortably sidestep the attention. He will start work at eight and finish at five. He will stay at his single man's quarters in land-based HMS Osprey, plastered with pictures of his daughters and wife, where he is known as Lt Commander Andrew York. On his days off, according to one golfing partner, he will order a ginger ale at the clubhouse and "josh about". And this weekend, as always, he will visit his wife and daughters at Wentworth for lunch.

Meanwhile, in an age where royal excesses are loudly castigated, Andrew's very ordinariness appears to be bringing about his rehabilitation, in the same way it has for his sister, Anne. As the Duchess of York details her every post-marriage thought and pop-psychological self-analysis in the pages of Hello! magazine, his silence has endeared him to the public. He is, according to the latest royal biographer, seen as a "decent, likeable bloke, who's had a hard time of it". Perhaps the "characterless", "vacuous" Duke of York is actually playing the cleverest game of all.