LONDON — As he semi-officially leaves childhood, the young man destined to occupy the British throne is getting a closer look from his subjects.
For some royalists, Prince William, elder son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, is the best hope for rescuing a monarchy that is fading in popularity like a tired frock.
Amid such rising expectations, the handsome, shy royal heir seems determined to have a private life for as long as possible. An understandable desire, given the way in which his mother died.
But the arrival of the prince's 18th birthday tomorrow is likely to be the paparazzi's equivalent of a dinner bell sounding - and to mark the beginning of renewed tensions between the British media and its monarchy.
Last week, Prince Charles tried to head off the media rush, approving the release of posed photographs of William at Eton College, the private secondary school where the nation's upper classes have been educated for generations. The pictures showed the teenage prince playing soccer, sitting at a computer, cooking chicken paella in the school kitchen, and wearing a waistcoat patterned on the red, white, and blue of the British flag and designed by a Savile Row tailor - one of the country's most exclusive.
In another first, William gave an interview, telling the British Press Association that he would like the media to leave him alone, saying he felt "uncomfortable" under its scrutiny. "I don't like being exploited," he said, "but as I get older, it's hard to prevent."
He has a point. Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the royal family face a contradiction in their approach to the problem of how much publicity William should receive.
Boost for the monarchy?
They have good reason for hoping that William will become the public's darling, and thus boost the appeal of the monarchy. But they also hope he can avoid the kind of media attention that plagued his mother, Diana, as paparazzi pursued her literally to her death in a 1997 car crash.
The latest statistics suggest the young prince faces an uphill battle if he is to put the British monarchy on a more secure footing than it currently enjoys.
An opinion poll published June 12 showed that support for the royal family has fallen to its lowest level in modern times, with only 44 percent of the public believing that Britain would be worse off without the monarchy. This compares with 70 percent eight years ago. Another poll published June 18 suggested that close to half of the population would prefer Charles - first in line for the throne - to renounce his place in favor of second-place William.
Much of Prince Charles's lack of popularity appears related to his longtime relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, whom Diana publicly blamed for the breakup of their marriage. Two weeks ago, Mrs. Parker-Bowles, who is also divorced, was officially received by the queen for the first time. The British Press Association also reports she will attend a charity dinner that Charles is hosting this evening.
Last weekend, London's Sunday Times reported that Charles was exploring the idea of marrying Parker-Bowles in Scotland. The Church of Scotland is willing to remarry divorced couples, while the Church of England, which Charles would head as king, officially opposes remarrying divorced people.
Harold Brookes-Baker, editor of Burke's Peerage and an expert on the British monarchy, pinpoints the dilemma the royal family faces in its attempts to persuade the media to soft-pedal coverage of Prince William. "The young prince as a human being with his life ahead of him certainly deserves a measure of privacy," he says. "But the nature of monarchy is such that it depends on public sympathy and support." He adds, "After all, it is largely through the media that sympathy and support are attained."
Ahead of Prince William's birthday, Lord Wakeham, chairman of the watchdog Press Complaints Commission, wrote to editors, asking them to show restraint and discretion in future coverage of the prince.
'World's most eligible bachelor'
But royal watcher and TV critic Kathryn Flett says William will be "extremely lucky" to escape the "star treatment" that marked his mother's last years. Ms. Flett says that although the latest royal pictures are "intended to show how ordinary William is," they "do the very opposite." She notes that William's favorite sport is water polo, which "hardly makes him ordinary." And, she says, he is "already the world's most eligible bachelor."
After leaving Eton, William intends to take a year off before heading north to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study art history at the University of St. Andrew's - an institution that has earned a reputation as a party school.
The planned "gap year" is awakening the interest of the media, particularly tabloid newspapers such as the mass-circulation Sun, which seldom misses an opportunity to chronicle the real or imagined romantic exploits of the rich and famous.
Even the more sober Guardian newspaper last week offered readers a two-page spread on "ladies in waiting" - 10 young women that the paper considered romantically suitable for the prince. They ranged from the aristocratic Isabella Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, granddaughter of Earl Curzon, to Sarah Gore, Vice President Al Gore's 21-year-old daughter.
The paper noted that Prince Charles and Mr. Gore, as possible fathers-in-law, are both "environmentally minded" and would "get on like fossil fuels on fire."
Unless Prince William can find a way of disappearing from the media's radar screens, or contriving to be utterly boring, the chances are that Lord Wakeham's privacy plea will strain the self-restraint of editors to the breaking point, and probably beyond.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society