ON A JUNE 29 FLIGHT BOUND FOR the Scottish island of Islay, Prince Charles did something that he often does to break the tedium of air travel: As his BAe 146 approached the airport, the prince, a qualified pilot, took the controls of the jet (which is part of the Queen's own fleet). Touching down with a tail-wind, he landed too fast and the brakes locked. With three tires shredded, Charles finally stopped the plane at right angles to the runway, just 60 feet from a 14-foot drop into a stream.

No one was hurt in the incident, but the mishap was the first sign that the heir to the throne was in for a long day. That evening he would send Fleet Street into a frenzy by admitting to adultery in a televised documentary that 12.7 million people would see. Timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of his investiture as Prince of Wales, the 2½ hour Independent Television special (which will be broadcast on the A&E cable network Aug. 24) had been intended by his handlers as part of a "charm offensive" to win support for the diffident Charles. Long overshadowed by the media-savvy Princess Diana, he had hoped that the documentary would portray him as a hardworking, but very human, prince. Instead it allowed viewers a glimpse of a complex man plagued by self-doubt—an introspective altruist who often dislikes his job but who does his best to find meaning in a role that, to outsiders, often seems absurd.

As reckless as it may have seemed, however, some sources close lo the Palace suggest that Charles's confession may have been prompted by a startling secret agenda: By their account, he is determined to make an honest woman of his longtime mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles (the mother of two whose voice was heard on the notorious 1989 "Camillagate" tape). They suggest that Charles and Camilla plan to obtain divorces next year and begin appearing together openly—preparing the public for an eventual marriage. Never mind, they say, that his great-uncle David, once King Edward VIII, had to abdicate before marrying the divorcée he loved; Charles allegedly hopes that by the time he becomes king, the Church of England will allow him to either wed a divorced woman or step down as head of the church.

Even if Charles abandons that blue-sky scenario, it seems clear that midway through what the Palace hoped would be the Year of Charles—a year in which he would repair an image tarnished by his disastrous marriage—the prince is fighting an uphill battle for the hearts of his countrymen. While he earned high marks for his solo performance on a 17-day January-February trip to New Zealand and Australia, where he displayed admirable sangfroid when a protester brandished a starter's pistol at him, he lost ground with a May speech in which he attacked political correctness. And his trip to Russia, also in January, was overshadowed by a bungled public relations offensive: After his friends told the tabloids that Princess Diana had lavished $240,000 on personal expenses in a single year, her camp revealed that, in the same period, he spent $650,000 for must-haves, including manicures and polo ponies.

No wonder, then, that Charles wanted to correct the record. Portrayed by the press as a distant father, he cavorted for the ITV crew at Balmoral with sons William and Harry. Seen by the British public as a cold fish, he allowed himself to look mournful at a memorial service for Ruth, Lady Fermoy (Diana's grandmother). And depicted by Di's camp as a magisterial twit with no rapport with the sort of underdogs she adores, he pressed the flesh and made charming small talk with his prospective subjects while the camera crew trailed along.

Still, the headlines from ITV's Charles, the Private Man, the Public Role, hardly seemed to help his cause. When host Jonathan Dimbleby (a New Age devotee approved by Charles) asked the prince whether he had tried to be faithful to the most glamorous woman in Britain, he answered, "Yes," then added, "until it became clear that the marriage had irretrievably broken down." (Dimbleby did not press him, and Charles gave no specifics about when he deemed it dead.)

Although the 45-year-old prince claimed that there was "no truth in so much of this speculation" about Camilla (whose understanding husband, Andrew, is an enthusiastic ladies' man), he allowed that she "is a great friend...and will be for a very long time," adding, "When marriages break down...it is your friends who are the most important and encouraging. Otherwise you would go stark raving mad."

Aside from admitting that he had broken his marriage vows, Charles gave the impression that he was temperamentally unsuited to inherit his mother's job. Describing himself as "a private person" who "isn't very good at being a performing monkey," he complained about the intrusions of the media and the pain of having to follow a schedule set out months in advance. "I can't describe the horror of it," he said. And he confessed that he would prefer to be seen as a "defender of faith" rather than the Defender of the Faith—supporting the notion that he hopes that by the time he is king, the monarch will no longer head the Church of England.

The documentary seemed to put a damper on the deliberately low-key-anniversary festivities on July 1 at Caernarvon Castle in Wales. About 1,500 people (1,000 civic leaders and 500 bystanders outside) were on hand for the garden party at the medieval castle. Apparently angry that Charles spends little time in Wales (which he has visited just twice this year), half the members of the town council boycotted the event.

A few boos could be heard among the cheers when the prince's Rolls-Royce arrived at the castle at 3:15 p.m. (One protester, who wore fake ears that mimicked Charles, was arrested.) His self-effacing speech hit the right notes, but his rusty Welsh was badly received: "Pitiful, pitiful," clucked a worker listening from atop the ramparts.

While Charles was in Wales, the British press was still reeling over his televised confession. Royals, of course, are no strangers to adultery, but seldom do they admit to it in public. The Daily Mail headlined its story, "Charles: When I Was Unfaithful," while the Sun declared, "Di Told You So" (a reference to her contention that his cheating destroyed the marriage). But supporters of Charles, including Mary Parker (a cousin by marriage to Camilla's husband), applauded his candor. "He had to come clean if he was going to do the program at all, and he handled it well," Parker told the Evening Standard.

Several Palace watchers concerned themselves with the thorny question of just when Charles believed his marriage had broken down. "When exactly was this?" asked Anthony Holden in the Daily Mail. "In the early, mid-or late 1980s? Or in fact as everyone believes, before it began?" A pro-Charles biographer, Daily Express columnist Ross Benson, put the best face on it by saying the rift had occurred in 1987 "when Charles went into spiritual retreat at Balmoral." (Dimbleby later said that Charles claimed off-camera that the break had, indeed, occurred around then.)

Above all, many wondered why the prince talked about his extramarital exploits at all. (By one account, his staff coached him on the question about adultery, and Camilla approved his response.) As a source close to the documentary explained it to the Daily Mail, "Prince Charles's office seems to believe that by [exposing] his whole life he will have cleared the air to such an extent that all the criticism and damaging speculation will end."

For their part, Buckingham Palace courtiers were said to be distressed about Charles's confession and his self-pitying tone; the Queen's private secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes, was "fit to be tied," according to one report. In the short term at least, Charles's prospective subjects seemed more sanguine: In a poll conducted by the Daily Express on June 30, 83 percent said that he had not damaged his reputation by making the documentary. But while some regular blokes may have thought Charles did the right thing, seasoned royal watchers predicted that he would live to regret his appeal for public sympathy. "I was particularly surprised by how much he got across about how much he hates his job, which is not very helpful," says Holden.

These days, Charles is—if not a happy man—one whose life moves as smoothly as a well-tuned Bentley. At St. James's Palace his day begins at 7:30 a.m., when his valet brings him a cup of weak tea. Before a breakfast of cereal and orange juice, Charles works out using the Canadian Air Force fitness program. His bath is drawn, and one inch of toothpaste is squeezed onto his brush while the day's first ensemble is laid out in his dressing room.

About 9:30 a.m., Charles walks to his office and goes through the day's correspondence before heading off for his first engagement. When his afternoons are free, he often drives to Windsor to ride or inspect his polo ponies. (Even after several nasty falls—including one that left him with a scar on his cheek—Charles still plays in exhibition matches.)

In the evenings, Charles often has quiet dinners with friends, including cousin Sarah Armstrong-Jones, 30 (a fellow watercolorist). When he returns to the Palace, he often disappears into a soundproof room, where he listens to opera at full volume. His weekends are spent at Highgrove, his Gloucestershire country house, where William and Harry visit on school breaks. (Their schedule is arranged by Charles's staffer Tiggy Legge-Bourke, who divides the children's holiday time between both parents.)

Despite an attempt by his friends to convince the press that their relationship had ended, the prince reportedly never stopped seeing Camilla. "The relationship continues," says Lady Colin Campbell, author of Diana in Private: The Princess Nobody Knows. "Very discreetly, but it continues." The two often spoke on the phone when Charles was in Australia; when they meet, it is at houses lent by discreet friends.

In any case, Charles and his wife have reached a kind of détente. Despite her attempts to upstage him in public (see box, page 31), their private relationship is slightly more civil than it once was. On June 11, when they met at Ludgrove for their sons' sports day, Di greeted him with a well-documented peck on the cheek.

While some have speculated that the Camilla scandal will inspire the Queen to pass over him and make William her heir, Charles himself has no doubt that he will be the next monarch. "The public debate about his suitability is totally irrelevant," says royal author Brian Hoey. "It doesn't make any difference whether he is going to be a good king, a bad king, an evil king or a majestic king. If he survives his mother, he will be king."

Campbell, at least, believes that despite his public relations snafus the prince can win over his future-subjects. "Charles believes that in the long term he will prevail," she says. "He was very popular before he married Diana, but she usurped his popularity. Ultimately he can be popular again, in the way the Queen is popular."

Observers like Hoey, however, are less optimistic. It will be a long time, he says, before the British people are able to regard the prince as a leader. "They don't dislike Charles, but they see him as something of an irrelevance," he adds. "He's a compassionate person, but he doesn't know what direction he's going in. Most people see him as a lost soul."

MICHELLE GREEN
TERRY SMITH and MARGARET WRIGHT in London and LYNDA WRIGHT in Caernarvon

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith,
  • Margaret Wright,
  • Lynda Wright.