interviewanthony holden
Holden is the author of two books on Prince Charles



q:  Can you describe how Prince Charles came across to his contemporaries, people like yourself?

holden:  Well I'm a very similar age to Charles. I'm a year older than him. I was at university at the same time as him. I think in the sixties, like all the Royals, he really had very little impact on my life at all and he seemed, if anything a lot older in his attitudes. I've always said, since I got to know him and wrote about him, that he's the generation he least appeals to is his own and I think in many ways he was born middle-aged and that's become apparent in recent years.

q:  What did you find out when you were writing your first book about him, about the first 'launch' of Prince Charles, the one that happened in the run-up to the Investiture? What was the point, what was the thinking behind that?


a:  Well the Investitute in 1969 came at a time, people have forgotten that the popularity of the Monarchy dipped in the Wilson swinging sixties, and it was quite a conscious act on the part of the Government and the Royal Family. David Checkits was then Charles' Private Secretary. He was a public relations man. It was a very conscious launch upon the world of a twenty-one year old Prince who had been sent off to Aberystwyth as a token gesture at the Welsh and I think it was at the time pretty successful.

And one of the spin-offs was this film Royal Family, which opened the Pandora's box of curiosity, but that at the time was a huge hit. That was shown the night before the Investiture. I think Charles himself didn't enjoy the ceremony very much. You can't help coming across looking rather gauche and it was, of course, a ceremony invented by Lloyd George of 1911 for similarly false reasons.

q:  When you first got to know Prince Charles as a journalist moving on, what was his relationship with the press in those distant days?

a:  I first got to know Charles in the late seventies when I wrote an article and then a book about him and I think at the time he came across as quite appealing, it was probably the height of his popularity. He was the polo-playing, macho, parachuting prince then, an image to the tabloids, an image he didn't entirely feel comfortable with but it didn't do him any harm and, of course, he was the bachelor prince, the world's most eligible bachelor.

His relations with the press, although always rather stiff and aloof, were probably as good then as they ever were, but of course you forget this was pre-Diana, it was pre-the kind of road show there is these days. I went on a long trip through South America with him where I was the only journalist there - a couple of photographers but no other writers.

q:  So, how much did he need the press?

a:  This was an era when press coverage of the Royals, if there was any because the so-called quality papers were pretty indifferent, was completely supportive if not sycophantic, so Charles had nothing to complain about beyond occasional distortions about girlfriends and that constant pressure. He did once say the time to worry is when they stop writing about you but again I think that was pretty token of the coverage was very respectful, he rather resented the intrusions on his private life, but that was about it.

q:  Do you think that the institution as a whole needs the press or does the press need the Institution to sell newspapers?

a:  I think the relation between the monarchy and the press is very much a two-way street. Throughout the seventies and particularly through the eighties with their succession of weddings and births, the tabloids particularly were immensely sycophantic and the Royals had a terrifically good ride, which did them a lot of good and it was all in terms of the family monarchy so, when the family monarchy collapsed and imploded, it was inevitable that this would have a backlash and of course like any public figures they complain about press coverage while manipulating it behind the scenes, while overtly using the press, particularly television. They've all made their own programs themselves.

q:  Now, did you ever reflect upon the fact that the conscious PR drive, if you want to call it that, began with Prince Charles and yet he has suffered from it?

a:  Well though there have been several attempts to launch and relaunch Charles and they're still going on as we speak, they've all been by amateurs. I mean Buckingham Palace has never hired a professional public relations outfit let alone a Madison Avenue type and they would throw up their hands in horror at the very idea. What it means is that some of Charles' press secretaries have been better than others as some of the Queen's press secretaries have been better than others. They tend to be civil servants, often diplomats drawn from the Foreign Office, who may be very pleasant, intelligent people, but once they get inside the Palace they're riveted to the status quo and they lose track of public opinion in the real world.

q:  When Prince Charles started speaking out as a much older man about architecture, what did you make of his, in some cases ad hominen attacks on architects and their works?

a:  Charles was very intent to use his years as Prince of Wales to make his mark while he still had freedom of maneuver that he wouldn't have as King. The first subject he really went for was architecture. It made an impact. I personally felt that his ad hominen attacks on British architects were not the sort of thing a Prince of Wales should be doing because, apart from anything else, they put various people out of business.

The architect, Peter Arens who is the monstrous carbuncle architect, not merely did his design which had won a public competition never get built but his practice suffered financially for some years. So I was among the first to publicly attack the Prince for this, criticize it. He didn't like that. He prefers dishing it out to taking it, but in the end he saw I think that this was true and his recent outbursts have been less personal.

q:  What is the danger for him in his position of speaking out in this way?

a:  The danger of speaking out in this way is that he'll get entangled in politics as he did for instance over inner-city urban areas and unemployment especially among disadvantaged youth in the Thatcher years, when Thatcher came under pressure from right wing backbenchers, to shut up the Prince of Wales and there was a deal done between them where he did actually shut up in the end. It's a problem for him because he's got - like Edward VII had - nearly all his lifetime to wait until he becomes Monarch. What is he going to do with it? So he wants to do something positive but he always courts those dangers.

q:  When Prince Charles got married, what were the public hopes at least, and how was the public encouraged to perceive this wedding?

a:  Well the wedding in the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury was a fairy tale and there was a huge public impress, investment of goodwill, affection and indeed money in this Institution. It was a huge success at the time. It began to go wrong in the concertina of time all too quickly. It was about five or six years later that the rumors began, which now turn out to be true and I think it was no wonder it backfired to the extent it did because of this huge investment with which it had started.

q:  Can you give me chapter and verse on two episodes if you can recall them if not I can remind you from the book which illustrated the rivalry which quickly developed vis a vis the media between the Prince of Wales and his wife?

a:  Just tell me. You're thinking of the skirt in Australia?

q:  Yes, that was quite late on.

a:  Yes, what's the other one?

a:  I remember a moment in Australia in the bicentennial year, 1988, when the Prince went back to his old school, Geelong Grammar School in Melbourne, and slightly to his horror his old music teacher produced a cello. He hadn't played the cello for a long time but was forced to play the cello in front of all us, the world's assembled press, and right in the middle of it the Princess - then as we now know pretty unhappy - walked right through this scene to the piano and started playing Rachmaninov quite well on the piano. Of course, completely upstaged him and this to me was the centerpiece of a period where Charles had got rather resentful that people had become much more interested in her than in him and he got in the habit of whenever they arrived anywhere there was a sea that was divided into two. He would take one side, she would take the other. The side that he went to audibly groaned with disappointment and he would say, try to make light of it and say 'I'm sorry, I can't split her in two' but it got to him that and it didn't help the marriage at all.

q:  When you updated your biography on Prince Charles in 1988 what was his reaction to your account of his marriage and other elements of the book?

a:  I'd written this biography of Charles on his thirtieth birthday, which had sort of remained the standard work, and inevitably I was asked to do it again in '88 on his fortieth birthday. I decided he'd changed so much that a whole new book was required - got married, had children, the marriage was in trouble - and that book actually I can say so was the first to say that the marriage was in trouble and that among other things - criticism of one or two of his public stances - the Prince didn't like at all and my book was being serialized in the Sunday Times over five weeks. He chose to give an interview to the Observer via his spokesman, Tom Shabir, the Director of The Prince's Trust, which called this book among other things fiction from beginning to end thoroughly trashed it which meant it sold out the next day. It was delightful but, of course, it was pretty insulting to my professional reputation.

q:  What was the reaction of the newspaper that serialized the book to this attack?

.

a:  Andrew Neil was then the Editor of the Sunday Times who ran the book for five weeks. Among other things they picked out a detail that Charles had been offered the Governorship of Hong Kong in its dying days by Thatcher in return for shutting up about the inner cities. He quite rightly in my view led the paper on this story. It was denied as I knew it would be and I told him it would be by Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, although I know it was new, true at the time, and I think Andrew would agree it was fair to say I didn't get as much support from him at the time as Andrew Morton did four years later, not least because I didn't have my sources absolutely with written affidavits like Morton did to be fair. Again in the long of history most of what I said turned out to be true and Andrew's since expressed regret to me about that.

q:  What effect did this interview in which someone close to the Prince talked about your book had on you and what you did about it?

a:  While the 1980 book was being serialized in the Sunday Times, Charles attacked it through the Observer. A close associate of his gave an interview in which the book was described as quotes 'fiction from being to end'. I suffered trial by tabloid for a couple of weeks, lots of insults in the press, in the columns - this man should be put in the tower and so on.

That was par for the course but I also found that commissions were being canceled and in fact I considered this directly libelous - I write biographies for a living as well as being a journalist - for a non fiction book to be called fiction from beginning to end. So I went to see one of Britain's leading libel lawyers and slapped down all these cuttings on his desk and I said 'I want to sue the Prince of Wales for defamation.' He went white and his knuckles gripped the desk. He looked at this stuff for half an hour at the end 'Well Mr. Holden you've got a prima facia case against the Prince of Wales but I'd strongly advise you not to take this course.' I said 'Why?' He said 'No jury in the land is going to take your side against the Prince of Wales.' I said 'I, I thought that would be the case but it's been a pleasure meeting you.' And that's a story I always tell when people say they can't answer back. They can answer back.

q:  After the Prince and Princess of Wales separated, I think you had received an account from a friend the hostility that was growing up between the two camps as they were at this time. Can you describe what you were told about a meeting that Melvyn Bragg went to with Prince Charles' team?

a:  In 1992/3 I was writing a pretty hostile book called The Tarnished Crown and there were lots of talk about backstabbing, mutual recrimination between the Prince and the Princess's camps which, of course, was constantly denied. I got a phone call one night from Melvyn Bragg, who's a close friend of mine. He'd been to a party at St James Palace supposedly about the planning of a visit to Prague where the Prince is interested in historic buildings and Melvyn was, the reason he called me was that he was shocked by what had happened, which was that the whole party, first of all the Prince hadn't turned up and secondly his staff had spent the whole evening just trashing Diana and predicting that her forthcoming trip to Nepal was going to be a disaster, things like that, trying to put a negative spin with movers and shakers in the room. Melvyn didn't like this and thought it should become public. I used it in the book. It got vehemently denied and Melvyn, to his eternal credit, mounted the barricades and actually confirmed that what I'd said was true.

q:  Why do you think the Princess retired in the same year, 1993, from public life? Has she ever told you what was her thinking behind this?

a:  The Princess's so-called 'time and space speech' at the end of '93 about a year after the formal separation, looking back on it it's called her retirement from public life but we've seen in fact it's nothing of the kind. What it was at the time was literally a plea for, to get the pressure off for a while, to give her space to breathe. She was very unhappy. She was feeling pretty claustrophobic. I think her friends were worried that the bulimia might come back, about some psychological slide, and she was given breathing space to some extent by the media as much as she ever has been but, of course, she didn't mean that she was going to retire from public life and only when the Queen removed her HRH some years later did she actually drop a hundred charities and just kept five.

q:  Can you describe what you, the evening you spent in the Newsnight studio when Diana did her Panorama program, what you were doing and what your reaction was as the interview unfolded?

a:  The night of Diana's famous Panorama I was actually one of the hapless people on Newsnight immediately afterwards. I think it had record ratings because half the nation switched straight over. What was funny if you were there is that we were all immensely sophisticated people who knew exactly what she was going to say and we're chatting away, nice to see you. Margaret Jay on my left, Nicky Soames, who I've known for years, and as the thing unfolded before us of course she went considerably further than even people like me who thought they knew what to expect had been expecting and we all stopped and sat and watched this thing slack jawed for half an hour before discussing it off the top of our heads. The famous night that Soames accused her of being in the advanced stages of paranoia. I mean how much have they been destroyed and how much have they destroyed themselves is what I'm getting at really?

As somebody who's been writing about this subject for getting on twenty years now, it's astonishing how the climate has changed in the last five years. Not merely can people like me write things that would never have been printed before but I think an enormously dramatic change has taken place in public opinion, possibly for the wrong reasons. Republicans don't want the Monarchy to fall because of the failings of its transient, hereditary occupants. They've got sounder constitutional reasons than that but the collapse of the family Monarchy, the misbehavior of some of the younger ones. You do now have one in three people, as shown by the famous Carlton Monarchy debate poll, saying they want to get rid of the Monarchy. That was unthinkable even three, four years ago. The Republican movement in my personal opinion hasn't actually capitalized on this as effectively as it could have done. We could have a political movement going if it had been properly organized but the Monarchy's done itself enormous damage possibly beyond the point of long-term recovery.

q:  Looking back over our lifetimes and how the Monarchy put forward their raison d'être if you like which was, I think as you say, was partly based on their sort of family unit, what has been the significance of the revelations about the failure of the marriages? a:  Since the time of Victoria really and certainly since 1911 when they changed the name to the House of Windsor, in a secular age when they have no political function the Monarchy has done a very clever PR trick of becoming a family Monarchy. When the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were growing up, that was at it's height and the War cemented that with photographs of the Royal Family having breakfast together and so on, by pinning their reputation so firmly on that particular issue. When it collapsed in the seventies and eighties, you had Princess Margaret's divorce was bad enough from their point of view but then you get three out of three - Anne, Charles and Andrew - all those marriages breaking up, including unprecedentedly the heir to the throne, this was the collapse of the family monarchy in the eyes of bedrock. Diehard monarchists lost their faith and, if they don't stand for that, what do they stand for? That's their problem.

q:  Where should the blame be apportioned? Has the relationship between the press and the monarchy simply, the fact it's unraveling, simply exposed the contradictions or services if you like of the Institution itself?

a:  I don't accept at all the quite popular argument that the press is responsible for the monarchy's recent troubles. The monarchy's responsible for the monarchy's recent troubles. To blame the press is the old thing of blaming the messenger for the message. The monarchy had a terrifically good run from the press which built up enormous support for it in the eighties and the scale of the rebound was the scale of the sycophancy then. It's not the point.

q:  From your intellectual position, what sort of observations have people made to you perhaps as a Republican about the fact that over the years a lot of films have been made, largely shall we say by the BBC, about the Royal Family, films that have been very well made and have served very well at moments in their lives really?

a:  There's been a series of grandstand BBC films from Royal Family in '69 through to ER a couple of years ago, which were hugely successful, publicly financed, really party political broadcasts made at the expense of the tax payer. You couldn't do that now I don't think. The climate's changed to the point where public opinion wouldn't swallow it and there's a heroic man up in Arbroath who's refused to pay his TV license because the BBC quote 'broadcast too much royal propaganda.' When the magistrate says 'That's not a good enough reason my man.' He said 'Excuse me, could I ask you? Have you taken an oath of allegiance to the Monarch?' Of course the magistrate has, so the Arbroath man says 'You're not qualified to try my case impartially. I'm going to take this to the Court of Human, Human Rights in Europe' which is what he's done.




home .  join the discussion .  pictures .  bbc interview .  interviews .  readings
morton book controversy .  press & the royal family .  links .  press reaction .  tapes & transcripts

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation


pbs online
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Prison StateApril 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS