IF THE FAMILY DRAMA SET AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE ONCE SEEMED A turgid soap, it has taken a surprising turn since the Queen's least favorite year finally ended. In the past few weeks, the Windsor saga has read like a spy story—complete with bugging, conspiracy theories and enough mysteries to satisfy anyone addicted to cheap thrillers.

The headline grabber was the Jan. 12 worldwide publication of a transcript detailing a racy phone chat between Prince Charles and his "confidante," Camilla Parker Bowles. (Charles: "I fill up your tank!" Camilla: "Yes, you do!") But there were subplots aplenty. Well-placed observers convincingly argued that the 1989 recording must have been made by the national security agency MI5—the elite service whose duties include state security—and speculated about other tapes rumored to exist. (The arsenal is said to include a December 1992 quarrel between Charles and Diana and 27 other calls between the Prince and Parker Bowles.)

Charles's taped cooings swiftly elbowed wars and hunger off London's front pages. Australia's New Idea, a women's magazine, disappeared within hours after hilling The stands in Sydney with the first account of the transcript. Fax machines went into overdrive, and within minutes, well-connected Brits were chortling over the love talk. (By one account, eight Members of Parliament were seen struggling to read a single transcript at the same time.) While the tabloid Sun titillated readers with the gist of the conversation on Jan. 13, those hungry for full disclosure had to wait until Jan. 17, when two mass-market newspapers reprinted the complete transcript.

Pronounced authentic by voice and tape experts, the six-minute conversation reportedly look place on Sunday evening, Dec. 18, 1989. Charles, then 41, is believed to have spoken from a mobile phone at Eaton Lodge in Cheshire—home of his friend Anne, Duchess of Westminster. Camilla, a year his senior, was at the family's manor house in Wiltshire with son Tom, now 18, and daughter Laura, 14. Her husband, army Brig. Andrew Parker Bowles, now 53, was at their pied-à-terre in London.

As revealing (and occasionally puerile) as it was, the conversation was met with a certain degree of tolerance. Insiders noted that, unlike the Dec. 31, 1989, chat between Diana and James Gilbey, it was suffused with romantic fervor (see box, page 48). The most quoted moment, however, was rather ribald: Charles's humor took a fairly crude turn when, describing his desire to be close to Camilla, he jested about being reincarnated as a tampon. But the plotting of possible trysting sites and scheming about how the next call might be made inspired more public sympathy than hooting. "I was moved by the obvious expression of deep love," said Lady Colin Campbell, author of a 1992 bio of Diana. "It's very nice that after 20 years their relationship can be this good."

If the transcript took the edge off his image as a stodgy eccentric, Charles was hardly elated. Said to have known of the tape's existence for months, he held a summit with close friends on the weekend of Jan. 16. "The Prince is very, very concerned about what is happening and the implications for the future," a friend told the British paper Today.

For her part, Camilla seemed in shock. Contacted by the Sun on Jan. 12, she asked to be read extracts. "I can't believe it....I must speak to my husband—he is on his way home," she said. Since then she has remained in seclusion, though her father, Maj. Bruce Shand, told Today, "It is a terrible time for our family."

Veteran royal watchers offered a flurry of hypotheses to account for the remarkable clarity of the recording. The fact that Charles's conversation, Diana's call and an alleged ship-to-shore talk between Prince Andrew and Fergie had been taped within days of one another pointed, they said, to the possibility of deliberate surveillance by Britain's security services. Commented ex-spook James Rusbridger: "Evidence suggested that [they] were recorded using high-tech equipment and then enhanced and edited by experts before being rebroadcast in the region of known radio hams." Retired bank manager Cyril Reenan, who taped Di, admitted that he too had become suspicious; he noted that he had recorded the mobile phone call on Jan. 4,1990—four days after it allegedly was made.

Few experts seemed surprised that MI5 and GCHQ—the Government Communications Headquarters—might intercept such conversations. According to an insider who spoke to the Sunday Mirror, "No one will own up to it, but monitoring of the royals has been going on for years. Anything that threatens the monarchy, whether it is from an outside source like the IRA or from the inner sanctum...is a menace to the royal family.' " Just who arranged the leak is still a matter of conjecture: The GCHQ has a staff of 12,000, and some insiders suggest that a renegade acting alone could he responsible.

The Waleses have seemed for some time to he mindful of the snooping. In Jone, Charles allegedly had a private firm search their Kensington Palace quarters for listening devices; after Christmas, Diana reportedly did the same.

Although the Princess' friends suggest that "Camilla-gate" could help Diana should the Waleses divorce, Diana too seems tarnished: Last June, in response to an inquiry by Press Complaints Commission chairman Lord McGregor, she assured the Queen's private secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes, that she had not cooperated with Andrew Morton's poor-Di bio. After castigating the press for invading the royals' privacy, McGregor was contacted by a newspaper executive who offered proof that Di had aided reporters all along. Di's machinations were revealed last week in a letter leaked to The Guardian, publicly embarrassing Fellowes and marking her as a liar.

While it was difficult to tell which of the Waleses had taken the harder hit, some believe Diana may find it more difficult to recoup. Accustomed to making her case through the press, she undoubtedly will find herself regarded with mistrust. "She's no longer part of the royal firm, and it's a no-win situation." says one insider.

For his part, Charles may be resigned to ending his misery by stepping aside in favor of Prince William. According to one report, Princess Anne could become regent (a proxy monarch) should the Queen die before William turns 18. "It is my understanding," an insider told Today on Jan. 18, "that Charles has signaled his willingness to abdicate his right of succession." The question, of course, is whether he will find happiness afterward—and what will become of the woman he loves.

MICHELLE GREEN
HELEN GIBSON and MARGARET WRIGHT in London

  • Contributors:
  • Helen Gibson,
  • Margaret Wright.