Never let it be said that Charles can’t judge a room. In September 2018, on a purpose-built stage in the Turbine Hall in London’s Tate Modern, the Prince Of Wales received an award for Services To Philanthropy at the GQ Men Of The Year Awards. He started well: “First of all, I really wanted to apologise for being wrongly dressed. When they first announced I was winning this, I felt sure it must have been some kind of ill-deserved fashion award. In those terms I’m like a stopped clock. I’m fashionable once every 25 years.”
In front of six hundred of the most famous, connected, and entitled people in the world, Charles played the cards of self-deprecation so deftly that for the next ten minutes he had the audience in the palm of his hand.
He also went on to thank us personally, jokingly saying, “I’m grateful to GQ for giving me a preview of my obituary.” Mocking the actual size of the award we had given him, he also said, “I’m enormously grateful for this award and I see it’s something I can throw at a burglar.”
Earlier that year I’d spent two months shadowing him, accompanying him on official trips in London and France, seeing at close quarters just how he operated, and, far more importantly, seeing how the people around him operated.
My first assignment was travelling with Charles and Camilla to the south of France, to attend the commemoration of those who had lost their lives in the attack by Islamic State on Le Promenade des Anglais in Nice in July 2016. This was followed the next day by a VE commemoration in Lyon, a briefing session with Interpol and a visit to the ISARA university before flying off to Athens for meetings with President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
Greece was among the few nations – and the only EU member state – not to have been officially visited by the Queen. In what one might have called a period of transition, as the Prince started to carry out some of the Queen’s duties on her behalf (all the family was stepping up to take on more work since the Duke Of Edinburgh had stepped down from royal duties), the trip had been planned principally as a Brexit charm offensive.
As a consequence, the visit would also help heal old wounds. The Duke Of Edinburgh, born a Greek prince on the island of Corfu, was forced to flee after the Greco-Turkish War (the so-called Asia Minor Catastrophe) in 1922, while his own father, Prince Andrew, had only narrowly avoided being sentenced to death and shot. Relations soured further when the Greeks famously voted to oust the monarchy for good, unceremoniously toppling King Constantine II in a hugely controversial referendum in 1973.
Duty. Small talk and big talk. Soft power. Duty was the thing that had underscored so much of Charles’ life. Increasingly, that duty was undertaken to the steady drumbeat of succession. For the past three years, the royal households had been preparing for change, carefully and fastidiously recalibrating the tens of thousands of decisions, both large and small, that affect the monarch on a continual basis, while starting the unbelievably complicated job of preparing for a time when the Queen would no longer be with us.
There were still those who openly espoused the idea of the throne skipping a generation and being passed to Prince William like an unwanted baseball cap, but this was not going to happen. Instead, we could look forward to a path-making reign from someone who had been waiting and preparing for the role all his life. His duty was to serve and yet this would be a tenancy with far greater elasticity than that which his mother endured.
Charles was the most senior travelling member of the Firm, flying tens of thousands of miles a year. The rump of his work still involved the vast number of philanthropic endeavours he supported and yet he was increasingly called upon to visit heads of state, meet recently appointed dignitaries and attend the many dozens of official events that required a royal presence. Then, of course, there were regular visits to all the Commonwealth countries. He had approximately 600 engagements every year and at least a dozen foreign trips. In 2015, for instance, he and Camilla hosted almost 6,000 guests at events at their royal residences and gave 99 seminars, luncheons and dinners in the name of duty. That year he also travelled more than 64,380 miles on official business.
On the trip to France and Greece, the Voyager was full of the royal press corps, the group of journalists and photographers from broadcast media and national press. Charles and Camilla were both good with the press, encouraging access in a way few of their predecessors had. When you did as much as them, it was a good idea to have people around to report it. While some liked to cast Charles’ entire life as a prelude (he was, at the time, the world’s oldest intern), in truth he had lived a life as rich as any king. He had certainly worked as hard. The pack (for a major international ambassadorial trip the press corps could be 70 strong, but on this tour, there were only 20 of us) liked to say the couple ran on Duracell, which, like most things they said about them, was meant affectionately.
Whenever I had an opportunity to speak to those who worked with or for the subject of a profile, I often started with one simple question: “What are they like?” The responses you got were usually defining, whether it came in the form of a gushing validation, a twitch or blink of an eye or, most tellingly, hesitation. In this case, the response was uniformly positive – more so, in fact, than I had expected. Charles’ inner switch was still set to “please”: his critics said that over the years he had built up a carapace of resentment, frustrated by his inability to wear the crown.
In reality – a reality driven by his own agenda – HRH’s life had been fuelled by curiosity and benevolence. Tom Bower’s biography, Rebel Prince, having harvested a crop of anecdotes about Charles’ apparent predilection for petulance and high-handedness, was largely unsuccessful in its attempt to portray him as vain, cold and out of touch. In the months leading up to publication, within the walls of Clarence House, the Prince’s London home, there was wary anticipation, but 48 hours after its release, this feeling was replaced by a sense that a “bullet had been dodged”. It was being described internally as “a piece of fiction”.
Saliently, the press corps appeared to have a collective soft spot for Charles (or “The Boss”, as he’s known by his staff, sharing an unlikely moniker with Bruce Springsteen) and his wife, a sentiment facilitated over the years by kindness, access and a mutual understanding of royal duty.
These were men – and they were mostly men – who had travelled all over the globe with the royals and been party to all sorts of gossip surrounding the various births, deaths, marriages and affairs. Not much got past them. They were also worthy of a sitcom, the banter as good as any on a national newspaper. (“They’ve just announced the maids of honour for Prince Harry’s wedding,” said one royal photographer. “Oprah Winfrey and Scarlett Moffatt.”) As a group they were intensely protective and proprietorial, with the Prince and Duchess as much as themselves. Their respect for them was manifest.
The press corps talked animatedly about the positive effect Camilla had had on her husband
Their days always started with a decision: like every day the couple were on duty, there’d be no lunch for the Prince. The pair would have a big, early breakfast, and then get out on the road, finishing up around 5pm, for some tea, and possibly a rest, before the evening engagement. The choreography of these walk-abouts was a book in itself, and as a result the press corps had to continually bounce around between photo-ops (called “fixed points” on the ever-changing itinerary), accustomed to ever more “hurry up and waits” and organised chaos.
The Prince shook hands everywhere he went, and in one way it was what he did for a living. He kept up a constant stream of small talk, a fusillade of chat. Sometimes these were conversations he’d remember, but you could guarantee that the person he was talking to would remember it forever, making the onus rather more loaded. As he moved on to the next person in line, he’d often turn around and point to the person he’d just finished with, an emphatic gesture that appeared to imply that what had passed between them was of such importance that he wasn’t going to forget it in a hurry.
He would occasionally finish with one of his well-worn bon mots, such as … “as long as you don’t get too many interruptions from people like me.” Sometimes he’d occasionally get stuck with someone, although this was invariably of his own doing, rather than theirs. On occasions like this, the only person who could persuade him to speed up was his wife, illustrating the typical dynamic between husband and spouse. The press corps talked animatedly about the positive effect Camilla had had on her husband; she had encouraged him to look and smile at the cameras, rather than focusing solely on the matter in hand, like many of the other royals.
It was easy to forget how disparaged Charles had been in the wake of Diana’s death, when the British public took it upon themselves to cast him as the villain, although that felt like a world away. One prominent Australian republican said if Charles had assumed the throne 15 years ago then there would have been far more support for Australian independence, but Camilla’s popularity and stabilising influence had put a stop to all that. The rehabilitation of Camilla as the Duchess Of Cornwall had been more than a success, so much so that any constitutional issue concerning her being queen appeared to have been quietly parked.
He still had an issue with communication, however, because while he appeared calm, confident and extremely upbeat when you talked to him in person, stick him in front of a television camera and he tended to freeze, looking maudlin and unsure of himself, still uncomfortable, after all these years, with the medium’s forced intimacy. This was one of Charles’ small tragedies, as the response he generated when out in public was genuinely overwhelming. This inability to connect on TV had often hampered his attempts at messaging, which was even more of a shame when you considered the environmental and climate change gongs he played so well with the woke generation.
The money-shot on the trip to France was scheduled to happen at the flower market in Nice, where the hope was that he would speak about the forthcoming wedding of Harry and Meghan. As it was, weary from the claustrophobic onslaught under the covered market, he moved swiftly by the TV cameras to the car. And off he went, accompanied by Camilla, for once, not smiling. He’d say he didn’t like talking about the royal wedding because he didn’t want to look as though he was trying to exploit happy family moments, yet his resistance sometimes made him seem as though he felt debilitated by the experience, almost as though the cameras were sucking the life out of him.
If he were as natural on television as he is in private (or indeed in public), he would have had the highest approval rating of any living British royal.
As Charles had spent a large proportion of his life being introduced to people, often people he has scant interest in, or will ever meet again, so he had got it down to something of a fine art. The trick with meeting someone – actually, anyone – for the Prince of Wales was to look as though it was an absolute delight to see them, without giving away whether or not he could remember if he had ever met them before. He had mastered the art of looking as though he was completely pleased to meet you for the first time, while at the same time looking as though it was an absolute delight to see you again. Just like it was the last time.
To watch him at work was to witness a masterclass in presentation, class and warmth. The most extraordinary thing he did was immediately put people at ease. He did this the first time he met me, although I was under no illusion that I was somehow special; he did it with everyone, whether he was managing upwards, downwards or sideways (although to be honest he was not often in the position of having to manage upwards). There were the odd occasions when he was talking to someone and you could tell he was getting lost, but often this was because the person he was talking to got tongue-tied. Some people in this situation can be cruel and make it plain that this momentary lack of resolve has diminished them in their eyes, but not him.
Charles' laugh is not unlike Keith Richards
When doing his rounds, Charles had a spontaneous laugh, not unlike the one employed by Keith Richards. Now and then, Richards laughed for no apparent reason, almost as if the ridiculousness of his life had just occurred to him, wheezing and giggling at the preposterous nature of his good fortune. HRH’s face would occasionally explode into paroxysms of good-natured gurning, in the way it probably did 50 years ago when he mucked about with Spike Milligan and the rest of the Goons. It would be easy to assume that the laughs were designed to convince people he was having a good time and yet it looked to me like a double bluff, with the laughs disguising the fact that he actually was having a good time.
One day, having travelled to the old BBC Television Centre in White City, in West London, to open the latest outpost of Nick Jones’ Soho House empire, he broke free from his minders and jumped into a lift with Jones as it made its way to one of the bars on the upper floors. Jones pointed out that he was giving him special dispensation today, as no one would normally be allowed into one of his clubs wearing a tie. “I’ll make a note of that,” said the Prince, “should I come back.”
Dylan Jones is the Evening Standard's editor-in-chief