Prince, now 50, waits in wings Royals: Charles has spent his life learning how to rule. But will he ever get the chance?

November 13, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- At an age when many successful professionals are entrenched in positions of power, Britain's Prince Charles, who marks his 50th birthday tomorrow, is still preparing for the job he was born to fill.

The man who would be king remains "the man in waiting," as the BBC called him, a prince forced to grow up in the limelight in an ever-changing country.

The two essential facts of his life are these: His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, remains the sovereign, while he remains the heir. Elizabeth, 72, shows no sign of abdicating in favor of her son. Far from it. If she were to stay on the throne for the rest of her life and live as long as her mother -- Britain's beloved Queen Mum, now 98 -- then Charles would be at least 75 before he has a chance to take the throne.

So, he waits. And Britain watches.

From great hope of a centuries-old monarchy to failed husband ridiculed in a tabloid age, from dashing military man to potty landowner, Charles' public persona has changed with the decades and events of his life.

And yet, in the zig-zag course of public popularity, Charles' fortunes appear to be on the upswing as he moves from the shadow cast by the life and death of his ex-wife, Princess Diana, killed Aug. 31, 1997, in a Paris car accident with her companion, Dodi Fayed.

The gentleman farmer who preached organic values long before they became fashionable may not have been so daft after all. The amateur architect who railed against modern buildings that threatened to blot the land like carbuncles seems like a prophet in an era of strip malls and boxy neighborhoods. And the wealthy heir who could have easily jumped on the Eurotrash merry-go-round instead presides over a Prince's Trust charity that has helped create thousands of jobs for disadvantaged youths.

"There's an awful lot of fuss over this birthday," says Hugo Vickers, a royal historian. "On the whole, Charles has had a better year than he has had for a long time. People are quite interested in him now as there is no Diana about.

"He does carry a lot of the burdens of the world on his shoulders," Vickers adds. "That's his character. He really is quite thin-skinned."

It's not as if one runs for king, but the birthday has turned into a campaign of sorts, as Charles seeks public favor.

Public awareness

Despite reams of stories, a few books and a couple of television documentaries timed for the birthday, the most revealing program of all was a 40-minute documentary produced by the British Broadcasting Corp. titled "Charles at 50." The filmmakers received background briefings from Charles and his aides, as well as on-camera interviews with some of his closest friends.

What emerged was a portrait of Charles, who, in the words of one of those interviewed, is "an 18th century country gentleman born 100 years too late." He is seen sipping tea with senior citizens, tramping around his lush estate at Highgrove, and chatting with the Spice Girls, as he tries to bring a more informal approach to the rules-laden monarchy.

And the documentary tackled the "Camilla problem," Charles' affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, who it is said is a "non-negotiable part of his life."

According to the program, Charles and Camilla "spend on average two nights a week together." A royal aide has also been assigned the task of easing her into the public, which could take years. The couple recently attended a high-society wedding at a London synagogue, arriving and departing separately, mindful that their relationship remains controversial.

But winning over the public may actually prove easier than winning over his mother.

The program quoted Buckingham Palace sources who said the queen "has not and will not meet with Camilla," and is against the couple marrying. The queen won't even attend Charles' official birthday party tomorrow, which is being given by Camilla. Instead, she'll give a celebration of her own today at Buckingham Palace.

Even more pointedly, Buckingham Palace sources indicated that Charles was not yet ready for the role of monarch.

But, apparently, Charles is in no rush to become king, according to his close friend and former teacher, Eric Anderson, who told the BBC: "I don't think he'll mind very much if he stays on as Prince of Wales for a long time."

The whole notion of the House of Windsor using the media to parry the abdication and succession issues would have been unthinkable five years ago, let alone 50.

A different time

Charles was born Nov. 14, 1948. According to his great-grandmother, Queen Mary, the infant Charles most resembled Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, his great-great-great grandmother.

The country Charles was born into was far different from today's Britain. His grandfather, King George VI, still ruled an empire, although it was already coming apart in the years after Britain nearly went bust while winning World War II. Charles would grow to oversee the loss of Britain's last major imperial possession, Hong Kong.

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