HIS ROYALHARRUMPHINESS; Bottom Wiggling in Front of Guests and Put-Downs Worthy of Victor Meldrew. as Philip Becomes History's Longest Serving Consort, Raise Your Glasses (a Pint for Him and a Gin and Dubonnet for Her) to a Very Great Man, Even If He Is ... HOW I SEE

Article excerpt

Byline: IT by Robert Hardman

HE COMES across as a meat and two veg sort of chap, not one of life's lentil or rocket munchers, let alone a fan of nitro-green tea. So the locals might have wondered what was going on a few months ago when an exceedingly familiar face appeared in the Berkshire gastrovillage of Bray, leading a 50- strong office party on a Christmas outing.

After a drink at the Hinds Head pub, he ushered his group next door to one of Britain's most extraordinary restaurants, The Fat Duck. For it was here that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, had decided to treat all his staff and their spouses to a Christmas lunch.

The average Christmas party might entail a sweating slab of turkey and a couple of overcooked sprouts but this collection of secretaries, equerries and retired military men were being treated to plates of snail porridge, egg-and-bacon ice cream, 'foie gras benzaldehyde' and the rest of the Heston Blumenthal repertoire.

It was all the Duke's idea and culminated in the Duke asking for a tour of the kitchen and the potting shed laboratory with Blumenthal.

Now, the workshop of our most cerebral and eccentric celebrity chef might seem the last place you would expect to find an octogenarian war veteran famous for his no-nonsense opinions. But as far as his staff were concerned, this was a classic Prince Philip excursion: unorthodox, fun and with a bit of weird science thrown in.

In any case, this is a man with an extensive collection of cookery books from Elizabeth David to the present (not to mention a library of thousands of books on any subject from meditation to birds). This is a man who prides himself on his ability to produce, single-handed, a perfect barbecue for 20 with no charred offerings. He was in his element.

'Prince Philip had seen Heston Blumenthal on television and had met him at an engagement at the Royal Society of Arts and he was keen to try his food,' explains Brigadier Sir Miles Hunt-Davis, the Duke's private secretary.

'Blumenthal is at the cutting edge of what he does -- it was a jolly good lunch, by the way -- and Prince Philip likes people at the cutting edge of things. He is always on the lookout for fresh ideas. In this office, our job is not so much organising his life as trying to keep up.' The Palace has been trying to keep up ever since the Duke of Edinburgh moved in here with the Queen and their young family in 1952.

An institution stuck in the Edwardian age was suddenly confronted by a young ideas man who has been innovating ever since, ushering in everything from eco-technology to a footman training scheme to that sinister new-fangled device, the television camera.

There has been plenty of opposition along the way. But today, it is the Duke who has the last laugh as he breaks a 191-year-old royal record to become the longest-serving royal consort in history. It is a hell of a milestone.

But do not for one minute expect to hear anyone mention the ' R' word. The Duke of Edinburgh does not ' do' retirement any more than the Queen.

AT THE age of 87 (he will be 88 in two months), he remains an active champion of more than 800 charities and organisations when he is not at the side of the Queen. 'From day one, his top priority has always been: "What's the Queen doing?",' says one of the royal team. 'When they are in public together, his first thought is always to see where the Queen is heading. Then he fills the gaps from behind.' The Duke continues to undertake around 350 engagements every year.

His contemporaries may all have retired and even his eldest son has qualified for his senior citizen's bus pass. But the Duke just carries on performing one of the most conspicuous and yet ill-defined roles in British public life -- consort to the Sovereign.

It is a position which has always been one step back from the front of the procession. It carries no constitutional status. …