Di's Brother: New Man on the Beat

updated 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Steve Friedman, executive producer and pugnacious eminence behind the Today show, NBC's morning money machine, sensed someone lurking over his desk. Looking up, he was startled to recognize the lanky frame and wavy-haired good looks of a young man who'd promised to "stop by one day." Usually blasé about celebrities, Friedman rose enthusiastically to give this visitor a big hello. After all, Charles Edward Maurice, Viscount Althorp, 23, was Princess Diana's younger brother, and, of more immediate concern to Friedman, he was a raw but promising TV talent who might perhaps be recruited for Today's perennial ratings war with Good Morning America. The two men first met in London last summer, when Friedman engaged his lordship to provide insider color on the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. The experience was mutually agreeable: "He's a natural TV performer," says Friedman—and his contacts weren't bad either. With that background last October's surprise visit quickly took a serious turn, and before the day was out the viscount was on his way to signing a $70,000, 12-to 15-pieces-a-year deal as Today's titled retainer and "contributing correspondent."

As the show's viewers are learning, the new guy is not entirely what one might have expected. To be sure he shares his famous sister's disarming trait of ducking his chin and peering coyly out from under his eyelashes. And, naturally, both sister and brother speak in the same perfect but accentless tones of the BBC. Yet there is this obvious—and perhaps telling—difference: Where she is fashion's favorite, the one who dusted off the wide-brim hat and gave us back polka dots and bows, he is...well, scruffy. Off-camera one recent day, the 6'2" Althorp wears a blue-and-white-striped shirt and a tatty green sweater above baggy gray trousers, which, when he sits, expose several inches of hairy leg and a pair of droopy argyle socks. "Charles. Just call me Charles," he says, brushing away all titles and formalities. "It's much easier."

It's also more fitting since somehow Althorp does not at all resemble our cartoon of British nobility—that of an arrogant and conceited young twit looking down a thin nose at the rest of the world. Nor does he, at this juncture at least, resemble the wild, nonstop partygoer conjured up by the London tabloids and dubbed "Champagne Charlie." One might even be tempted to agree with Friedman: "He's really a regular guy. You'd think he was just like the rest of us bums."

He's not, of course—and therein lies his attraction to Friedman. "I hired him because he's a natural. Although if he weren't a viscount," admits the producer, "I don't know if he'd be as impressive. He knows people and can get into places we can't. We expect big things of him."

In Charles's first segment, he neatly linked a piece on the House of Lords with the official seating of Prince Andrew as Duke of York. "That was just a happy coincidence," says Charles. "I was going to do the piece anyway, but I let out a wild whoop of delight when I read about Andrew." For the most part, the viscount fared rather well, showing poise and quick wit in his maiden effort (although, in reading from the TelePrompTer, the word "participate" gave him a rough syllable or two. A major plus was his ability to recognize, if not quite bat back, the badinage of Jane Pauley, who suggested that he opened the doors of the House of Lords as if he "owned them."

Althorp's ease before the camera first showed in his high exposure debut at the Andy-and-Sarah nuptials. He chatted up a television audience of 10 million as though he were a friend sharing a sofa with them. "They're getting bored and waiting for a drink," he observed at one point of members of the royal entourage who were impatiently tapping their toes. Charles also told tales out of school with just the right amount of wickedness. He revealed, for example, that Sarah's father, Major Ronald Ferguson, had once proposed to Mrs. Frances Shand-Kydd, Charles and Diana's mother. "She said, 'No,' " the viscount noted with a grin. (The major later vigorously denied the whole episode.) Charles also gossiped on about how the major was not terribly fond of his Australian son-in-law: "He's got an undistinguished farm somewhere in Australia." What's more, the son-in-law's naughty jokes at the wedding eve party "did not go down well" either.

The viscount has had some naughty scrapes of his own, which have been gleefully reported in the tabloid press. During Althorp's late teens, Fleet Street followed his glittery trail from nightclub to nightclub, delighting in the antics of his crowd, including a brawl at a London restaurant. The image has proved hard to shuck. "The press tried to make me into a moronic younger brother with nothing better to do than waste time and money on trivial entertainment," Di's sibling complains. Two years ago he caught a man burgling Harrods department store. After courageously tackling the thief and appearing at his trial, Althorp told the press he agreed with the court's decision to convict. "The next day a headline read, 'Dashed good show. I'm glad the blighter got what he deserved.' That was totally made up," he says. "They invented a lie in a language that I don't think anyone speaks anymore."

Like most of the small pool of eligible aristocrats, Charles has been seen with several lovely women, his taste running to petite blondes. Currently he has a steady girlfriend, but he refuses to talk about her. "I don't think it's fair, really," he says. "When I have done it in the past, people go and pester the family."

There is a sense in which Charles's new job will be to "pester" his own friends and family. His NBC contract calls for him to cover European culture, arts, institutions and personalities. "Basically," says Friedman, "he'll be covering the royalty of Europe. We'll start with him talking to his pals." The heir to the 200-year-old title of Earl Spencer, three estates totaling 13,500 acres, priceless collections of porcelain and silver and 800 paintings (among them, Gainsboroughs and Reynoldses), Charles is not in dire need of money. Yet he does not wish to languish on his ancestors' laurels and is, admittedly, "ambitious" for a career in television. There are, however, unethical lengths to which he insists he will not go to get a story. "I made it quite clear," he says, "that in my first year I would not cover any topics where I felt they were using me as an inside operator. The only time I would feel comfortable about asking any member of the royal family, say, for an interview would be if I thought it would add greatly to a story." What about Princess Diana? "There's no problem there. It's the sort of thing that we don't actually need to talk about, really. She knows very well that I've got no intention of cashing in on her position."

Friedman agrees. There are no plans to overly exploit Di's kinsman, or even to promote him to the NBC Knightly News. It's enough for Friedman that when the viscount does a piece on the House of Lords, he is able to say to Jane Pauley, "When my father dies, I'll be in the House of Lords myself." Yet, says the executive producer, who clearly retains hope for a royal windfall, "if he called his sister and asked her to do an interview, we wouldn't turn it down."

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