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The Prince re-invented: How Charles won us all over

Emily Hourican looks at how the heir has transformed himself from handsome young royal to errant husband to media manipulator

In the various official portraits of Prince Charles with little Prince George, he looks every inch the doting grandfather; fond, relaxed, proud. No doubt a stream of similar pictures will shortly appear of Charles with his new granddaughter, Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. It's a role that suits him, playing to the kindly, familial side of a man who has had more media manifestations than any other Royal, and not all of them benign.

In the days of his youth and bachelorhood, the public tried hard to cast Charles - who makes an official visit to Ireland later this month - as the dashing young prince. His sporting activities - polo, hunting, parachuting - helped, as did the various photos of him stripped to the waist, looking toned and buff despite his leanness, and, of course, the stream of exciting girls he dated, including Sabrina Guinness, Lady Davina Sheffield, documentary-maker Cindy Buxton and actress Susan George. When he married Diana, he seemed steady, romantic, protective, a man poised to step confidently into adult life, as a husband, a father, a king. But the years were not kind to Charles; too much waiting, too long in a state of suspended animation, ready to rule but without the opportunity.

From protective, loving companion to Diana, he was gradually recast as cold, indifferent, even cruel. A man who brought a third person into his marriage. For the years of the growing estrangement with Diana, followed by their divorce, Charles became almost a pantomime villain, accompanied by faint boos and hisses, as one part of the public refused to forgive him for Diana's unhappiness.

Before Diana's death, efforts to recalibrate his public image failed. There wasn't room for two versions of that story, and the public chose early and often: Diana was the beleaguered heroine, with Charles as the wicked tormentor. His natural reticence and growing weight of responsibility played towards this version of him. From young and relatively carefree-seeming, Charles entered a period of middle-age in which he appeared almost constantly harried and concerned. His duties, or perhaps lack of, sat hard upon him, and never was he a match for Diana's instinctive ability to reach out to the people. At best considered a decent man trapped by an unfortunate choice, at worst he was a kind of Dangerous Liaisons figure, calculating with his mistress how best to serve their own ends, without regard for the innocent young girl they involved.

He wasn't a king but neither was he any longer a handsome young prince. He couldn't be a father, because Diana was too much a mother. Couldn't be fun, or modern, or affectionate or endearingly silly, because she was all of those things. And then Diana died, and finally there was space for Charles to begin again, to project a different version of himself, something more sympathetic, more human, affectionate and emotional. And he succeeded, gradually turning the tide of opinion away from Charles The Cold, to Charles The Decent.

With Camilla increasingly at his side, he weathered the initial public reluctance towards her, steadily pushing towards a place where he could appear to advantage, as a father, primarily, then as a king-in-waiting, and finally, again, as a husband.

The public got used to the new narrative, liked it, and allowed Charles to be what seemed, at last, perhaps an accurate reflection of his personality: someone steady, responsible, dutiful, disciplined. Until recently, when two separate but sufficiently similar events raised all the old spectres of Charles's manipulation and arrogance.

At almost precisely the same moment, a two-part BBC documentary, Reinventing the Royals, and news of what are being called the 'black spider' memos - which were released this week - surfaced. Together these paint - again - a picture of Charles as manipulative, meddling, arrogant and hopelessly out of touch on the eve of his visit here, from May 19 to 22.

The first the public heard of Reinventing The Royals was the fact that the documentary - exploring the tactics used by Charles' spin-doctor Mark Bolland to enhance his image after Diana's death and gain public acceptance for the presence of Camilla Parker Bowles in his life - had been postponed after intervention from lawyers representing the Royal family, and that Charles was reportedly 'furious' at the controversy unleashed by it. There was talk of problems with permission for archive footage, but also that Clarence House had intervened to stop transmission. That the heir to a constitutional monarchy - something defined by historian Thomas Macaulay as 'a sovereign who reigns but does not rule' - should seem to try and muzzle the free media was a bad start. The documentary, when it finally aired a month or so late, rather worse.

Reinventing The Royals, presented by Steve Hewlett, who was editor of Panorama in 1995 when Martin Bashir's inflammatory interview with Princess Diana was broadcast, deals with the period in which Prince Charles hired Mark Bolland, formerly with the Press Complaints Commission, to act as a spin doctor. Bolland went at the task in hand with energy and ingenuity, applying all he knew of the wider world of image manipulation to Charles's particular case, trying to repair the prince's image in the most effective way possible: by showing him as a caring, committed father, a single parent doing his best to love, protect and raise his sons in the aftermath of a tragedy. At the same time, Bolland was tasked with winning public acceptance for the woman the prince described as a 'non-negotiable' part of his life - Camilla Parker Bowles - in something apparently dubbed 'Operation CPB'.

Reinventing The Royals includes the first-ever television interview with Sandy Henney, press secretary to Charles at the time of Diana's death, when the prince was already worried that his reputation was 'in tatters'. That, of course, only got worse after Diana died, when the entire royal family became targets for the hate-seeking missiles of a bereft public. "[Charles] was getting some pretty virulent criticism - bad father, unloving husband," Sandy Henney says in the documentary. "I think he was pretty hurt ... if you've got a middle-aged balding man and a beautiful princess, it's a no-brainer as to who is going to get the media coverage."

With anti-monarchist feeling in general, and anti-Charles in particular, running high, the prince apparently decided to go on the offensive, hiring Bolland to remould him in more palatable form. The problem was that the surest way to do this - to use the young princes, William and Harry - was a high-risk strategy at a time when public feelings of protectiveness for the two motherless boys was at a peak, and a kind of gentleman's agreement had been reached between members of the press, to allow them to be educated free of paparazzi intrusion in exchange for regular updates on their lives. And Charles may well have been unaware of what Bolland was doing, but ended up nonetheless tarnished by it.

The princes themselves, William in particular, were at that time deeply antagonistic to the press in all its forms, blaming paparazzi frenzy for their mother's death, and unwilling to engage with them, even under cover of the agreement. And yet, according to the documentary, Bolland decided to use them to shore-up the prince's reputation. In particular, the first meeting between Camilla and William, aged 16 at the time, just ten months after Diana's death, was leaked to the Sun, apparently by Bolland (an accusation that he denies, although he declined to be interviewed for the programme). "We got all the details, her [Camilla] drinking the gin and tonic, her having a sneaky fag beforehand because she was nervous and everything else," said Charles Rae, the Sun's then royal correspondent. "So all the detail came to us and was, if you like, absolutely kosher. Apart from Camilla and William telling us, you couldn't have got it from a better source ... It was Mark Bolland."

Sandy Henney described that as a "defining moment for Prince William, who felt as if he had been used to further his father's interests". "He [William] was justifiably and understandably really upset because it was really private," Henney said. "Apart from obviously being angry and upset that this story got out, he said, well, 'How had it happened?'"

Henney was responsible for appointing award-winning Downpatrick cameraman Eugene Campbell and a Daily Telegraph photographer Ian Jones who spent two weeks with the Prince with unfettered access to him to prepare an archive of images to tie in with his 18th birthday. The Prince was filmed playing football with his friends, working at a computer and cooking paella.

Richard Kay, royal correspondent for the Daily Mail from 1986 to 2007, speaking about the same period, said "He [William] didn't like being used by anybody and he felt, from what I remember, that he was being used by his father's staff".

Then there was the whole Harry-in-drug-taking saga. The News of The World ran a story headlined 'Harry's Drug Shame', beginning: "Prince Harry was ordered to visit a drugs rehabilitation clinic by his father after the teenager confessed to smoking cannabis and heavy drinking, it was revealed last night." Prince Charles, according to the piece, "confronted his younger son after noticing a dramatic change in the boy's behaviour ... Prince Harry began experimenting with the drug when he was left alone at Prince Charles's country home, Highgrove, during the summer," and including "friends" quoted as saying "He has a lot to be thankful for. If his brother and father did not care so much about him, there might well have been a different end to this story."

Basically, under cover of a piece about Harry smoking marijuana, it is a thinly-veiled endorsement of Charles's parenting skills. And that, apparently, was the strategy. According to the BBC documentary, the prince's office agreed not to contest the drug claims - although Harry denied at least some of them - in return for a positive piece about Charles as the good father. The rehab visit, it turned out, actually took place months earlier and entirely coincidentally, and was simply used to try and position Charles as a committed parent.

Whether Charles knew exactly what was being done (and how) or not, for seven years he stuck by Bolland, despite deep dissatisfaction from others around him, including members of the royal family, only parting company with Bolland in 2002, possibly on foot of intervention from the Queen.

Hot on the heels of Reinventing the Royals, came news of the 'black spider' memos. These are 27 pieces of correspondence, written by Charles to ministers in Tony Blair's government and so-called for the spidery nature of the prince's handwriting, that promote the prince's private views on various matters, including business, health, schools, environment, culture and Northern Ireland. For 10 years, the British government had fought to keep these memos secret, in the teeth of significant opposition from the media, only admitting the battle was over after a Supreme Court ruling that the government had unlawfully blocked publication of the memos. An initial freedom of information tribunal concluded the same thing - that the papers must be released, on the basis that "it will generally be in the public interest for there to be transparency as to how and when Prince Charles seeks to influence government." However, the then attorney general Dominic Grieve summarily overruled that tribunal and vetoed publication, arguing that the contents of the letters could damage the political neutrality of the prince and 'seriously undermine' his ability to carry out his duties if he became king.

The letters won't be released until July, as there are ongoing legalities around how much of them should be blacked out, so as to preserve the privacy of other people mentioned. Until their release, there is no way of knowing if Charles' political interventions are actually sinister, or simply stupid. But that is the problem: on the basis of current evidence, if Charles is not a manipulator, there isn't much scope for him to be anything other than a naïve, foolish meddler. Someone who sticks his oar inappropriately into the running of the country and allows himself to be used by his media handlers. Neither is a good look for The Man Who Will Be King.

Belfast Telegraph

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