Africa, Media

On meeting Prince Charles

On meeting Prince Charles

HL Mencken, looking back on his life, wrote that journalism “is really the life of kings.” Which may not entirely be true, although sometimes in the job you do get to meet one (a king, that is, or perhaps a future king). In the middle of April, on a project entirely unrelated to the royal wedding, KEVIN BLOOM got to interview Prince Charles at his private residence in Scotland. Here’s how it happened.

Many things can be said about Charles Philip Arthur George, HRH The Prince of Wales, although there are two that stand above the rest: the first is that he’s arguably the most famous man in the world, the second is that he’s arguably the most media savvy. These are controversial statements to make, of course, and they may even be meaningless statements, but they bear scrutiny nonetheless – without them, it’s very difficult to understand the future king. So, is Prince Charles the world’s most famous man? If fame is an equation that multiplies the number of people who know your name by the number of years they’ve known it, he’s got to be up there. From the day he was born in November 1948, the first child of the then Princess Elizabeth (who by the same equation might today be the most famous woman in the world), the eyes of much of the planet have been on him. His baptism in the music room of Buckingham Palace, his education at Hill House School, Gordonstoun and Cambridge, his training as a jet pilot for the RAF and helicopter pilot for the Royal Navy, his early romances, his marriage to Lady Diana Spencer, the breakdown of the marriage and Lady Di’s death, his hundreds of charities, his abiding concerns for architecture and the natural environment, his second marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles – all of these and more have brought the face of The Prince of Wales into homes on six continents for over sixty years.

Which brings up the second statement. Charles himself once said into the camera: “That’s called a microphone. It’s a big sausage that picks up everything you say – and you’re starting early.” The subtle implication was that his relationship with the media had, up until that point, been less than smooth. As a young man he appeared on the cover of Time as the world’s most eligible bachelor, but after the royal wedding in 1981, which had an estimated television audience of 750 million, it was pretty much downhill. Referred to as “Chazza” and parodied on shows like Spitting Image, he got a real rollicking from the British press when Diana (has the media ever loved anyone more?) began using her talents to her advantage. Charles was portrayed as the villain, the stuffy and cold provocateur in the breakdown of the marriage, while Di was the beautiful and innocent victim. Camilla didn’t get off scot-free herself, and yet by the time the long-unloved lovers married, in 2005, things had started to thaw. Today, Charles and the media seem to have reached a truce. His years of bitter experience have taught him the true nature of the beast, and if “media savvy” is measured by the depth of one’s knowledge – as opposed to the ability to use the media for one’s own ends, in which case Donald Trump and Lady Gaga spring to mind – Charles is firmly in the running for top spot.

Interviewing the man, then, is kind of a big deal. For me it happened by accident. I was a distant fourth on a list of possible presenters for South African director Anthony Makin’s forthcoming documentary on the life and death of David Rattray, and when John Simpson, Rian Malan and Jonny Steinberg couldn’t make it, I got the nod. Prince Charles, a close friend of Rattray, was always central to Makin’s conception of the film – the catch was getting access. He gave the okay, we think, because of his respect for his friend and his sadness at the murder, as well as a genuine desire to see the Rattray legacy preserved. The fact that the interview would be held in Birkhall, the prince’s private residence on the Balmoral Estate and the former home of the Queen Mother, said a lot. We would be the second crew ever to film there.

The interview was set for 11am on Thursday, 14 April; we arrived in Ballater, the Scottish town on the border of the estate, on the afternoon of the day before. Many of the stores in Ballater have Royal Warrants bestowed on them, and many of the townspeople are protective of “their prince” – a permanent paparazzi-watch seems to be on the go, with locals assuming the right, should you be lugging around a big lens, to ask you your business. It’s a quaint tradition, and given the heat that the town attracts (paparazzi, according to one resident, are regularly spotted hiding in trees), it’s understandable. Apparently, Charles walks through the town often, which explains the police and security Range Rovers plying the High Street; he also likes to fish on the River Dee, the watercourse that meanders around the town, a bucolic picture of a fisherman’s Eden if ever there was.

Balmoral Castle, the queen’s holiday home, lies 14 kilometres to the west of Ballater, Birkhall is two kilometres south-west. One of the conditions of filming there was that we would not be allowed to take any shots of the building or the grounds; the word “private” appended to “residence” means exactly that. Still, the Internet being what it is, two pages of images of the house can be accessed on Google: it’s a three-storey mansion with a turret and whitewashed walls set in immaculate gardens. At 10am on the appointed day we rolled up to said mansion’s guardhouse, where a tall Bobby, with an air of having seen it all before, barked in the interrogative: “Right, what’s your story, then?” Makin answered to the copper’s satisfaction, we parked at the back entrance, and were met by Eva Omaghomi, the prince’s assistant press secretary. While I helped Brian Green, the cameraman, haul out the equipment, Omaghomi took Makin for a walk around the front – on his return, he told us matter-of-fact that he’d just met Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. They’d had a nice chat.

“Surreal” is probably the most apt description for an experience like this. The interview was set to take place in a walled gazebo-like structure at the top of the garden, where a bust of Charles’s mum sits on a table by the window. Green honed in on it instantly, and with Omaghomi’s permission began rearranging the furniture so that it would appear over Charles’s shoulder in the main shot. After both cameras were in place, the microphones tested, and the lights set up, we were asked to wait in the garden for the prince’s arrival. “He likes to meet everyone beforehand and exchange a few words,” Omaghomi explained. Oh yes, and the way to greet him, we were told, is with a shallow bow and an initial “your royal highness”. After that, “sir” suffices.

And then there he was. HRH The Prince of Wales, KG KT GCB OM AK QSO CD SOM GCL PC AdC(P) FRS. The Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron Renfrew, Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, and heir apparent to the extended realm over which Queen Elizabeth II reigns. The very man, walking towards us with a wide smile. “I’m so sorry you had to come out all this way for an interview,” he said. My brain was thinking “no problem,” but my mouth was a bit more discreet. “It’s a very beautiful part of the world, your royal highness,” it offered. “Have you been to Scotland before?” he asked. I said that I had, to the western Highlands, and that the east was just as lovely. Things had started swimmingly.

Naturally, in such interviews, if anything can go technically wrong, it does. Charles and I took our places, the cameras started rolling, I was about to ask the opening question… and the lights tripped. Dead. Green, a consummate professional (he’s worked everywhere from Sierra Leone and Vukovar to the deck of an operational aircraft carrier, and is known as one of South Africa’s best hard news and documentary cameramen), said to carry on, that the natural light was good enough. We carried on; I asked the prince about his first meeting with David Rattray. He answered superbly, totally fluent with just the right amount of emotion. I asked for an anecdote that best described their friendship, and he provided an incisive one. But as he was answering the question about his and Rattray’s shared interest in the writer Sir Laurens van der Post, Green had to interject – Charles’s tweed jacket was rubbing up against the mike. “Better to stop the show in a situation like that than let it run to the end,” Green said in the car after the interview. Still, it couldn’t have been easy. To change the position of the mike, he had to dig around in Charles’s collar. The heir to the throne, to his credit, laughed at the quip delivered to diffuse the tension: “I don’t want to get too close to your throat, sir.”

In all, we spent 45 minutes with the prince, 15 minutes more than promised. He spoke at length about Rattray’s visits to Birkhall, about how the South African orator and battlefield historian got on famously with the Queen Mother. He offered a compelling account of his visit to Fugitive’s Drift with Harry. He was forthcoming about his feelings on the news of the murder (clearly, he was devastated) and about his hopes for the David Rattray Foundation. He was, in an overused phrase, a brilliant interview.

But is this all too fawning? Too respectful of an institution that has its genesis in global plunder? Too blatantly royalist? Maybe. Except in Charles’s case, it’s hard to ignore the good that’s come from his position as a high-ranking member of the British monarchy. His own charities – he’s personally founded 18 – raise over £100 million annually, and he’s the patron of a further 400. His strong views on architecture and urban planning have protected countless historic buildings and stressed the need for human scale in modern development. His early adoption of environmentally sensitive practices, which stretches back to the 1980s and once earned him endless ridicule (for instance, as the butt of a joke on a skit TV show called “The mating habits of the North Sea clam”), has lately been proven ahead of the curve – in 2008, his speech to the European Parliament on the need for leadership in the war against climate change brought down the house.

“All the time I feel I must justify my existence,” Charles said during one of the more intimate interviews he’s given over the years. Whether he has is for posterity to decide, although he’s sure taken a commendable crack at it. And perhaps the most unheralded of his achievements has been his abiding empathy for the common man; his ability to make you feel, should you happen to meet him, that he genuinely cares about your perspective. For someone who once wondered aloud whether two thirds of the world was covered in red carpet, that’s above and beyond the call. DM

Read more: Official website of The Prince of Wales. 

Photo: Kevin Bloom, Prince Charles and Anthony Makin at Birkhall, 14 April 2011.


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