He’s a future monarch and head of the Commonwealth, a husband, a son, a brother, a father, and a grandfather. But as Prince Charles turns 70, the inevitable question arises. What do the years ahead look like for this man whose sole job, in the words of his son Prince Harry, is to “sit quietly and wait?”
In the recent BBC documentary, “Prince, Son and Heir: Charles at 70,” we get an insider’s glimpse into the world of the Prince of Wales and his extensive work. Those who know him best also chime in on the man behind the title, revealing tidbits such as his love of reading Harry Potter to his grandkids in different voices.
For a man who is regularly criticised for being too serious, stodgy, or grand, it’s refreshing to get a more personal look at the Prince. His wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, shared that she wished more people could see the lighter side. And if the programme accomplishes one thing, it’s certainly that.
Even during the brief interactions he has on public walkabouts, you can see his keen interest in each person, the witty banter, jokes, and self-deprecating remarks.
“It’s the things he does behind the scenes that people don’t know about. I don’t think people realise quite how kind he is,” Camilla said.
He has his shortcomings, certainly; Prince William is not shy in expressing that he wishes his father would slow down and be around more for his grandchildren, and Camilla shares that her husband is “pretty impatient” and “wants things done by yesterday.”
But as Prince Charles reaches this milestone birthday, it’s hard not to be impressed by his incredible work ethic and passion for changing the world. At an age when most people are retiring, he is, in many ways, just getting started.
His organisation The Prince’s Trust has helped more than 900,000 young people across the UK to find employment, education, and training, and his dedication to helping young people find their purpose shows no signs of slowing down.
“He’s the most charitable Prince of Wales there probably ever has been,” Prince William said. “And he’s made the next generation care more and be more involved in charity.”
The Prince of Wales’s enthusiasm for environmental issues – especially climate change – is heavily discussed during the programme, and this knowledge is evident when you see him speaking on the topic.
In the 1970s, The Prince of Wales was ahead of his time, giving speeches on the perils of plastic containers and their impact on the environment. After watching a video of their father’s speech, Princes William and Harry recounted the story of how their dad would take them litter picking in Norfolk on school holidays, and they found it to be “perfectly normal” at the time, not realising it wasn’t something everyone went about doing.
“I used to get taken the mickey out of at school for just picking up rubbish,” Prince Harry said. He noted it wasn’t something he consciously did, but because he was “programmed to do it because my father did it.”
They also shared how they both go around the house switching off lights thanks to their father’s influence. (“I’ve got serious OCD on light switches,” William said.)
In his travels around the globe, Prince Charles takes a keen interest in the local environment, such as on a recent trip to the Great Barrier Reef. His frustration is clear when speaking about climate change and how it has impacted the reef, and his sons agree that it’s difficult to see how much their father cares when at times, people don’t want to listen.
It’s evident that Prince Charles gains a great amount of satisfaction from hands-on projects where the results can be seen firsthand in local communities. But he has made his share of controversial decisions on his quest to make a difference.
One of the projects the documentary highlights is Dumfries House, the 18th-century Scottish property the Duke of Rothesay (as he’s known in Scotland) has worked to save. In 2007 he bought the house for £45 million in order to preserve it and its priceless collection of Chippendale furniture for the nation.
Initially, the idea was met with scepticism and called a reckless gamble, especially because Charles took a £20 million loan from The Prince’s Trust. But no one can argue about the success of the project today. In his enthusiasm for preserving the past, the Prince of Wales also has helped to create jobs and revitalise the economy of the once-struggling region surrounding Dumfries House.
Thanks to the Prince’s efforts, Dumfries House is the second-largest employer in the area, and the profits have saved the local town hall from demolition and enabled the town swimming pool to be rebuilt. Training programmes in fields such as hospitality, traditional crafts and skills, and woodland management are on-site, allowing otherwise jobless young people to become educated in a trade.
His Royal Highness remains hands-on in all aspects of the house and estate, regularly visiting and even strolling around the gardens and chatting with visitors.
Through his myriad work commitments, anyone can see Prince Charles wants to make a difference, and he’s not shy about voicing his opinions.
But some have said he’s too meddling, too outspoken, that he doesn’t know his place. As Prince of Wales, it’s easy enough to brush this off, roll up his sleeves, and keep going. But what does this mean for Charles, the king?
“The idea, somehow, that I’m going to go on in exactly the same way if I have to succeed, is complete nonsense. Because the two situations are completely different,” he said. “I’m not that stupid. I do realise that it is a separate exercise being sovereign.”
The wording of his response – or more specifically the phrase “if I have to succeed” – is interesting in itself. It’s surely a tricky business, waiting for a responsibility that means a great deal to you, yet hoping that day never comes at the same time. And surely putting the tremendous amount of work he’s done over the years behind him will be difficult.
In the documentary, the Duchess of Cornwall said the idea of his succession doesn’t weigh on her husband’s shoulders at all, and he doesn’t talk about it very much, but it’s “just something that is going to happen.”
Whether this “something” happens in a year, or five years, or – in the case The Queen happens to outlive her son – never, remains to be seen. In the meantime, his family shared their wishes for Prince Charles, and the theme seemed to be they want him to scale back on work. Prince William expressed his concern for his father’s health and wanting him to be around more, and Harry’s wish was simple: “Please have dinner earlier.”
His wife’s advice was for Charles to pace himself. “But I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.”
For a man who is often still at his desk at midnight, and according to Prince Harry, falls asleep working “to the point of where he’ll wake up with a piece of paper stuck to his face,” The Prince of Wales does not seem like slowing down is in his vocabulary.
And perhaps one thing this milestone birthday has driven home is that he must do the work now … before he has new and different challenges to face.