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Alex Beam

Prince Charles: Always in waiting, never the king

Prince Charles waved to wellwishers in Vienna, Austria, last week. Chris Jackson/Pool/Getty Images

I’M A CHARLES MAN, always have been.

Meaning I’ve been a fan of Great Britain’s Prince Charles since time immemorial. Well, at least since I started seeing pictures of him on the gossip pages, in the 1960s. His life looked fun: jet-setting around with horsey young aristo-kittens; scissoring the occasional ribbon in front of the occasional hospital; and twiddling his thumbs while waiting to become King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, of the Other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, and Defender of the Faith.

Nice work if you can get it.

Not everything has worked out to Charles’s satisfaction. The Windsors are a hardy lot, and his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, seems like a relatively vigorous monarch at age 90. As I learned from Sally Bedell Smith’s just-published book, “Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life,” Elizabeth takes the vow she swore under a canopy inside Westminster Abbey in 1952 very seriously: She plans to serve as queen until her death.

That means yet more life-in-waiting for the 68-year-old Charles, who has been monarch-worthy for the past three decades.


Most Americans have made up their mind about Prince Charles, and Bedell Smith generally sticks to the accepted script. She dilates on the horrors of Charles’s faraway boarding school, Gordonstoun, which purportedly scarred him for life, yadda yadda yadda. Charles’s grandparents wanted him to attend the slightly more mellow Eton — Hugh Laurie’s alma mater — but Prince Philip opted for the frozen wastes of Gordonstoun, which is closer to the North Sea oil fields than to the cozy confines of London’s Clubland.

Americans likewise cherish the legend of The Great Betrayal, referring to Charles’s duplicitous relations with his sainted bride, Diana Spencer, who tragically died in an auto accident, barely a year after divorcing Charles, in 1996. Bedell Smith is refreshingly clear-eyed on the subject of Princess Diana, a “prime state-of the-art Sloane” Ranger, referring to the upper crust, husband-seeking clotheshorses who patronized the preppy purveyors around London’s Sloane Square.


Notwithstanding the fairytale miasma that suffused their courtship and wedding, Charles-Diana was a misalliance from the get-go. Charles was indeed carrying a torch for the then-married (to someone else, inconveniently) Camilla Parker-Bowles. For her part, Diana — quite understandably — found her husband’s obsessions with homeopathy and talking to plants eyeball-rolling, to say the least.

One can only be grateful that Diana didn’t live to see Geri Halliwell, a.k.a. Ginger Spice, serenading Charles at his 50th birthday party. Halliwell even composed her own poem, with the lines, “Charming Prince/You’re in your prime/That chair is yours/It’s about time.”

That was almost 20 years ago.

In my little world, Charles reigns supreme. I’m all for his backwards-looking rants against modern architecture (“ego-tecture”). At enormous expense, I’ve savored his organic Duchy Original biscuits, by-products of his interest in Rudolph Steiner’s “biodynamic” agricultural ideology.

I learned from Bedell Smith that Charles is nicknamed “Eeyore,” after the depressive donkey of “Winnie the Pooh” fame. OK, I get it. Bonnie Prince Charlie he’s not. But isn’t there a little bit of Eeyore in all of us?

If Charles is your cup of tea, your samovar is about to overflow. The second season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” best known for John Lithgow’s salivary, scenery-chewing portrayal of Winston Churchill, will focus on Prince Charles’s relations with his father, Prince Philip. And FX’s miniseries “The Feud” will devote its second season to Charles and Princess Diana.


For book publishers and TV programmers — here’s looking at you, “Downton Abbey”! — there will always be an England.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.