Michael Vestey

The Prince and the press

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When you’ve seen how much vilification Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles have endured from the tabloids and the republican broadsheets over the years, you wouldn’t have been surprised to see or hear the Prince’s muttered comments about the BBC’s royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell in Klosters last week. Witchell, known inexplicably among his colleagues as the ‘poisoned carrot’, is in fact one of the more respectful of the reporters who follow the royals. But the seemingly innocuous question he threw at the three princes — how were they feeling about the forthcoming wedding — was not as bland as it first appeared. It would have been if addressed only to Charles, but it took on a certain tension with William and Harry expected to answer it.

Witchell knew this and so did Charles, whose patience snapped, though he wasn’t aware his remark would be picked up by the microphones planted in the snow. It appears from what I read that Witchell also has form in the mind of Charles, who is said to disapprove of some of his royal reporting. Such, though, is the conceit of BBC News that it described the incident as a public-relations disaster. For me it was the opposite, and I laughed when I first heard it played on PM and later saw it on television news. Something of the real Charles broke through the artificiality of the wooden and awkward photo call. For the royals, though, there are two BBCs: there is the part of the corporation that maintains good relations with the monarchy and is able to make excellent documentaries such as that currently showing on BBC1, The Queen’s Castle, a fascinating portrayal of everyday life at Windsor Castle (Sundays). And then there is the other BBC: News, which tends to follow up newspaper stories, instinctively feeling that it should report the royals as a newspaper would except for the more lurid tales. Add to that the Prince’s dislike of set-piece photo calls and news conferences, as revealed by his former press secretary Dickie Arbiter on PM last week, and one can understand why it happened.

Talking of the ‘real’ Charles, Clive Anderson on Radio Five Live had a go at analysing his character and personality in The Real Prince Charles (Sunday) and rather unsatisfactory it was. To be fair, anyone close to Charles isn’t going to be particularly analytical, and several of the so-called royal biographers use royal tittle-tattle; others pretend to know the Prince but have heard instances of his behaviour second-hand. I’m sceptical about much of what I read, though I’m an admirer of the Prince, many of whose good causes don’t attract the attention they should — cruel and vicious tabloid sensationalism puts a stop to that. Then there are those such as Princess Diana’s former private secretary Patrick Jephson who’ve been sniping from the sidelines.

I suspect the ‘real’ Charles is a sensitive, thoughtful man who no doubt has his flaws like the rest of us. His former contemporary at Gordonstoun Phillip Paton said in this programme that if you ‘didn’t enjoy homicidal rugby then you were out of it’. He thought Charles had an inner life that made it difficult for him to fit in at school. Instead he sought comfort from acting and art classes. Paton said he was surprised to hear later that Charles had gone into the armed services. In other words, it’s the old distinction between a hearty and an aesthete, and Charles, unlike his father, isn’t a hearty. Lady Mountbatten, his godmother and the only person in the programme who knew Charles well, more or less agreed, saying that as with many people his schooldays were not the happiest of his life.

The programme rehashed the standard depictions of Charles in books and newspapers, offering little that was new. There was much padding with the use of broadcasts from the archives of the Edward VIII abdication speech, the announcement of the first royal wedding, and so on, and Lady Mountbatten being cleverly bland throughout, offering us the stunning revelation that the Queen was ‘excited and thrilled’ at the birth of Charles, which was also ‘very important’ to his parents because he would become king. Well, well. The programme also had that infuriating habit of running clips of unidentified contributors one after the other so you didn’t have a clue who they were. Of the royal biographers in the programme, I would guess that the pro-Charles Penny Junor was the most plausible, though she did take herself rather seriously. Clive Anderson: ‘But was the Queen particularly remote [as a mother]?’ ‘She wasn’t a bad mother,’ replied the biographer of the bedchamber. ‘She was a mother who was doing a very important job at the time ...’

Oh well, let’s hope there’s plenty of public support for Charles and Camilla at their wedding and that it isn’t just left to the sad and embittered clerics to object outside the civil ceremony.