The Private Prince

By Dimbeleby, Jonathan | Newsweek, March 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Private Prince


Dimbeleby, Jonathan, Newsweek


I HAD MY FIRST CONVERSATION with the Prince of Wales in the early summer of 1992. We met at Highgrove, his country house in Gloucestershire, to discuss whether he would cooperate in a television documentary to coincide with the 25th anniversary of his investiture. He was diffident and charming but failed to disguise a profound suspicion of anyone in the media. I felt no less cautious. I had worked in radio and television for more than 20 years, reporting from the world's trouble spots, making controversial documentaries and "grilling" political leaders. I had no intention of squandering any reputation by participating in a cozy stitch-up designed by the establishment to boost the image of the heir to the throne. I was mildly a royalist but I was not, nor am I, a zealot for the cause.

As it was, it became clear over subsequent meetings that the prince was prepared to give me irresistible access. Certainly enough to make a two-hour documentary and, subsequently, to write a 250,000-word biography. For more than two years I watched him in close-up at home and at work. I traveled with him on the royal yacht, the royal train and the royal flight, accompanying him to numerous functions in Britain and on official visits to the United States, Mexico, Poland and the gulf states. I sat in on private meetings with presidents and prime ministers; with luminaries from commerce and industry; with actors, musicians, and artists; with the sick and the old; with the young and the unemployed.

Unprecedentedly, he authorized past and present members of his staff as well as his lifelong friends to talk openly to me. His grandmother the Queen Mother and his father, Prince Philip, spoke freely about his childhood and upbringing. Even more remarkably I had unfettered access both to his voluminous diaries and his vast correspondence (he writes upwards of a thousand letters a year).

Thus, at a time when the heir to the throne was under savage scrutiny by the British tabloid press (whose prurient distortions and concoctions were inexplicably treated by the rest of the world's media as if they were tablets from Mount Sinai), I had a unique vantage point from which to judge the real character behind the diffident exterior I had first encountered at Highgrove.

The prince was born in 1948 in an age when the monarchy was politely questioned by a handful of republicans, gently mocked by the chattering classes (who did not forbear, however, to accept the baubles bestowed on them in the sovereign's name), patronized by the old aristocracy (who were born with the baubles and were prone to regard the Windsors as foreign parvenus) but revered by the postwar British public and treated with deference by the popular press.

In contrast with his younger sister, Princess Anne, Prince Charles was a shy and timid child. Although the queen bathed him and read him bedtime stories, her duties as sovereign and her long visits overseas meant that the prince spent most of his childhood with his nanny and his governess--which, incidentally, was not at all uncommon among the British "upper classes" of those days. The prince was diligent but lacked the intellectual curiosity that was, in adulthood, to provoke much controversy.

In the same British tradition he was sent away to a boarding school when he was 9. When he was 13 he went on to Gordonstoun, the Scottish school that had a well-earned reputation for spartan, if not philistine, values. His letters from school record the loneliness of the young teenager-homesick, ill at ease with his peers and (though he never complained to his teachers) mercilessly teased and bullied by his fellow pupils. "I simply dread going to bed as I get hit all night long," he wrote in one such letter. In another: "It's absolute bell here and I wish I could come home." That he was introverted and that his ears protruded were probably enough in itself, that he was the future King of England made him an irresistible target. …

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