Prince Philip: 'A capacity for unbridled kindness but intolerant of faff' - my memories of the duke

·11-min read

The Duke of Edinburgh was a motivator, an impatient moderniser, but he could be abrupt.

Prince Philip had a directness of manner that seemed to alarm many people and even horrified some. But he was capable of unbridled kindness, with the capacity for huge affirmation, support and encouragement.

People of his generation who knew him well said his character was forged from the rather challenging circumstances of his upbringing. Yes, he was royal: a grandson of the King of the Hellenes but, in truth, not really Greek.

The throne of Greece was given to a Danish prince in 1863 and this accounted for his blonde Viking good looks. But Greece was never entirely at ease under its monarchy and this put many pressures on Prince Philip's family; added to which, his parents did not enjoy an easy marriage.

Whatever the circumstances of his childhood, Prince Philip was conditioned to be independent, capable, determined and pretty intolerant of faff.

Learning about his rather unconventional start in life, from the vantage of today's social understanding perhaps it's easy to grasp why.

But I want to underscore the frequent kindness he showed to me and invested in many people I know.

Letters about mallard ducks and sturgeon pie

In what has been a remarkable life, he occasionally found time to contact me, often out of the blue, to tell me about things he thought might be of interest.

For instance, in my constant quest to find out the provenance behind strange British customs, he would often share things he had discovered while travelling the country with the Queen. After all, most of his life had been spent living among, colliding with or regulated by the oddities of British life.

One letter he wrote to me concerned mallard ducks with gilded beaks.

It had amused him when the Queen, as Duke of Normandy, was presented with two of them on arrival in the Channel Islands, in order to fulfil a feudal due.

Another told me about a pie that had arrived at Balmoral, cooked from a sturgeon, which tradition stipulates must be offered up to the monarch. Both are full of facts, a smattering of humour, but no reference to the weather, how I might be or any other tittle-tattle.

It is difficult to understand why he bothered to do this. But I think he was amused to find someone genuinely engrossed in surprising or esoteric interests.

In fact, he was like this with everyone. Or maybe it was his own fascination and passion to fully understand the obscure and how things worked that, seeing it in another, added to his avuncular intrigue.

"This is Alastair... Bungy's grandson"

Not everyone's life had Prince Philip in it. So, perhaps it's worth explaining how he came to overlap with mine.

In 1950, the Duke of Edinburgh took command of HMS Magpie in Malta GC.

For any officer in the Armed Forces, unit command is the tops! It is where your leadership qualities are fully tested and it's where the possibilities for the rest of your career can be broadly set.

It just so happened that HMS Magpie was part of the Destroyer squadron in the Mediterranean Fleet, which was then commanded by my grandfather, Admiral Sir Peveril William-Powlett.

Grandpa was better known as "Bungy", because, as fly-half for the English rugby team in 1922, he had seemed entirely elastic. Every time he was tackled, while at full pelt towards the try line, he seemed to bounce straight up again and run on.

He was also a keen polo player and, here again, the Royal Navy polo team brought Admiral William-Powlett and Prince Philip together.

One of my favourite photographs of them both shows their exhaustion after a fiery chukka under the Mediterranean sun: the youthful and handsome prince beside his balding boss with cups in hand. Their faces convey the joy and satisfaction of a win - probably against the Army.

Maybe this professional bond between the spirited and able naval destroyer captain and his Admiral made the Duke of Edinburgh, a generation later, hold his avuncular eye out for me.

It certainly meant a great deal to me that, when the duke introduced me to people of his own naval generation, he would say: "This is Alastair... Bungy's grandson."

"Well, get on with it!" - One of the most influential retorts of my life

When I wrote a book about the United Kingdom's coronation ritual, aged 28, I mentioned to Prince Philip that one day I hoped to make a television documentary about the role of ceremony in national life.

In what possibly proved to be one of the most influential retorts of my life, in that it was probably the catalyst to my career heading where it has, he eyeballed me and said: "Well, get on with it!"

With this, he got up and went. And so did I. To do what he suggested.

In fact, within a few months and a great deal of work, I found someone willing to produce the film and it was commissioned by ITV.

Hearing about this, Prince Philip called me into Buckingham Palace for dinner to hear how the project was going. He also invited the film producer, Lord Brabourne; they were cousins by marriage, through the prince's uncle, Lord Mountbatten.

They bookended me at a heavily polished table in a small dining room overlooking the central quadrangle and listened as I explained the litany of refusals and hesitations our production faced from organisations that viewed cameras as invasive, back in 1992.

One by one, they suggested ways that might help me out. But, make no mistake, it was for me to do the legwork, not them.

When one of the solutions these two champions had plotted for me went horribly wrong (I mean, horribly!) Prince Philip tenaciously engaged with the matter, until a solution was found.

During this spat, there was a big parade for my regiment, the Scots Guards, at Holyrood in Scotland.

The duke, who was for many years the Senior Colonel of the Household Division, attended this and, afterwards, he spotted me across the throng. Striding over, he delved straight into the precise details on what had happened.

His escorting officers, all of whom were much senior to me, listened while the prince and I forensically unpicked what might solve the problem.

The trick was to bite the cat back - respectfully

The duke also had the measure of my often unbridled tenacity too and, when I made an office call to discuss something or other, he greeted me with: "So who have you infuriated today?"

His staff often berated me, probably with good reason, but I never felt this was at the direction of the prince. Actually, I sensed he rather appreciated a "why not" attitude, wherever he found it.

In fact, he loved to hear about the conflicts I had with organisations, which deemed my requests for filming access inappropriate. Perhaps this was because it reminded him of the challenges he faced, as the young consort of a new monarch inheriting a world of fixed attitudes in 1952 set by his late father-in-law's courtiers.

But Prince Philip was no rabble-rouser and, if he judged the defeat I faced as justified, he freely added his reproach, or added criticism.

To get the best from Prince Philip it was vital you girded yourself for his directness of speech, some blunt criticism and refreshingly ruthless cross-examination.

For some, this cat-plays-with-mouse treatment was daunting. But I learnt quite fast that the trick was to bite the cat back, respectfully, of course. Prince Philip admired a robust response.

Occasionally, he would ask for an absolutely truthful view. You knew this moment in his eyes. When it came to this moment, I would like to think the prince knew I gave it straight. And, assuming you could prove a point that countered his, he accepted with implicit respect.

The duke's extraordinary 'Chamber of Horrors'

On one occasion, the prince took me into a room at Buckingham Palace that I think he called his "Chamber of Horrors".

Here he had gathered an extraordinary array of the presents he had been given during a lifetime of public service, openings and anniversaries.

"What do you think that is?", he asked, while handing me a rough lump of worn and rusted metal mounted on a wooden base. My fingers felt the dedication label and instinctively, I was moving it towards my eyes. "No, don't read the inscription - think! Guess?"

Well, my suggestion was way off the mark. "It's one of the teeth from the machine that dug out the Channel Tunnel," he revealed

It was clear he was interested in the object, what it had done, but I could see why it had not been put on display.

A forgotten meeting and remarkable patience

The duke was a masterful and timely letter writer, never wordy and always to the point. He typed most of them himself, adding his splendid, powerful but minimal signature "Philip" by hand.

While his staff used paper embossed with his heraldic badge in black, the prince himself had it printed in his chosen livery of green. If you sent him a letter, you could be certain that the postman would be back at your door within three days, with a special delivery reply. He dealt with everything with the discipline and efficiency of a wartime naval officer.

On one occasion, I can't think why or how, I completely forgot an office call I had booked with Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace. But then, I am and have always been horrifyingly forgetful.

I remembered with a jolt when the prince's military equerry rang to ask where I was. I admitted that I was in Hampshire. In a voice that sounded barely muffled by a hand, I could hear: "He's in Hampshire, Sir."

There was a short pause, the sound of the telephone being grasped and then: "You're a bloody idiot!" from the prince. Then, with probably as much surprise that I had achieved this particular forgetfulness, he added by way of instant forgiveness: "You had better sort out a new time. I'm here a lot next week."

Indeed, the prince was remarkably tolerant of my inefficiency considering he was the personification of the efficient. One story fully bears this patience out - particularly, as I did not deserve it.

I have already referred to the Duke of Edinburgh being Senior Colonel of the Household Division, which included my regiment. When I wrote a book with the photographer Julian Calder on the Queen's Birthday Parade, Trooping the Colour, we wanted a foreword from the senior colonel.

His private secretary asked when the book was to be published. Next week, I replied.

"Next week?!"

Sure enough, within seven days a message of eloquence was ours to print and it made all the difference.

"You're a bloody idiot! Nobody will be interested!"

Within the last few years, we were at someone's house for dinner and, afterwards, while coffee circulated, Prince Philip came and sat beside me on a sofa. He told me how he had been flicking through the TV channels, probably looking for a documentary on nature. "And there you were talking a lot of nonsense about me!"

Well, inevitably, he thought the programme was "jibberish" but, as if, in fact, affirming what I had been saying in the programme, he took up the points I had been making and explained precisely what had been his view of the situation.

In this way, Prince Philip was endlessly robust, consistently gave zero quarter but would readily square up and be open about facts he knew, if faced by genuine interest.

I think my favourite story about him is not even a memory of mine but one that my mother and father told me once.

The night they announced their engagement, in Malta in 1950, Prince Philip shared a taxi home with them to the road where the two families, my mother's and the Edinburghs', lived.

On the way, a box of chocolates was passed along the line and the prince picked the strawberry-flavoured heart, broke it and gave them each a half.

He came to their wedding, where everyone was in white because this was the naval uniform at the time. This adds a magic to the black and white photographs, some of which include the dashingly Viking chisel-cheeked duke enthralled in conversation.

I still have the clock on my mantelpiece that he and Princess Elizabeth gave as their present, complete with the message of goodwill inside, handwritten and signed by them both.

Within a year, she was our Queen and he her loyal, robust and supporting consort.

This change in the duke's life was seismic.

He must always have known it was coming but the suddenness was stark, especially for a capable naval commander whose upwards career was now set by the annual reports he earned from my grandfather's judgement.

From even the small knowledge I have of this titan in British public life, who took such a generous interest from time to time in what I was up to, I can be fairly certain of what he would say to me, after reading this.

"You're a bloody idiot! What a lot of nonsense. Nobody will be interested in this!"