Eight months before her death, Princess Diana sat down to watch a television programme that had been billed as the biggest ever live debate on the future of the monarchy.
In reality, the show was a shambolic, ill-tempered and deeply unpleasant affair which even its contributors condemned as no better than a cockfight.
But Diana, in her Kensington Palace apartment that evening in early January 1997, was mesmerised. As were her two companions, sitting either side of her on the striped sofa — Prince William and Prince Harry.
As three of the nation’s best-loved royals, they had more at stake, of course, than perhaps anyone else who had tuned in.
The programme reached its raucous zenith when the audience, some 3,000 strong, were asked whether Camilla Parker Bowles could ever be Queen, and to respond by holding up cue cards — blue for Yes, red for No.
The vote resulted in a blizzard of red cards and a resounding No, but in Diana’s sitting room the moment was broken by the then 12-year-old Prince Harry.
Eight months before her death, Princess Diana sat down to watch a television programme that had been billed as the biggest ever live debate on the future of the monarchy. The programme reached its raucous zenith when the audience, some 3,000 strong, were asked whether Camilla Parker Bowles (pictured with Diana in 1980) could ever be Queen, and to respond by holding up cue cards — blue for Yes, red for No. The vote resulted in a blizzard of red cards and a resounding No, but in Diana’s sitting room the moment was broken by the then 12-year-old Prince Harry. ‘Who’s Camilla?’ he asked in a small voice
The danger for Harry is that this absence of any warmth towards the woman whom he once averred was not a ‘wicked stepmother’ could be seen as a snub
‘Who’s Camilla?’ he asked in a small voice. As a knowing William smothered his laughter, Diana told her younger son that it was something he had to ask his father about.
This week, 25 years after that ITV debate — denounced by the late, great broadcaster Sir Robin Day as ‘the most contemptible programme I have ever watched on a serious subject’ — the single most contentious issue it raised, the future of Camilla, has been all but settled.
In an announcement to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, Her Majesty spoke of her ‘sincere wish’ that when the time comes, the Duchess of Cornwall will be known as Queen Consort, not Princess Consort, as announced on her marriage to the Prince of Wales.
But while a poll with the first test of public opinion showed enthusiastic support for the idea of Queen Camilla, the reaction of the two princes, who had no vote that long-ago night, has been sharply different.
William was said to be ‘supportive’ of the move and ‘respectful’ of the logic behind his grandmother’s decision.
From Harry, there was, initially, not a public word. Then, when he did break his silence four days later from California, there was no mention of his stepmother, or the proposed change to her status.
Instead, he paid a lavish tribute to Diana, praising her work on Aids and HIV and explaining that he felt an ‘obligation’ to continue his late mother’s efforts to remove the stigma surrounding the virus.
Pointedly, he said: ‘I could never fill her shoes.’ He might just as well have added: ‘And nor could anyone else.’
During an interview to mark his 21st birthday in September 2005, Harry said he and William ‘loved her to bits’. He went on: ‘She’s a wonderful woman and she’s made our father very, very happy, which is the most important thing.’ Above: Prince Charles with Camilla, William and Harry after their marriage
The danger for Harry is that this absence of any warmth towards the woman whom he once averred was not a ‘wicked stepmother’ could be seen as a snub.
So was it calculated? And if so, why, when it was Camilla who was among the very first members of the Royal Family to offer the hand of friendship to Meghan?
The answer is complex, rooted in William and Harry’s lives in the years immediately after Diana’s death.
They were at first unwilling or unable to defend their mother’s reputation and she was in danger of being airbrushed from history.
The transition from having two loving parents to just one affected the boys in different ways. But in their attitude towards Camilla there was a more unified view.
Eight years after that nervous question, ‘Who’s Camilla?’, Harry was in no doubt. During an interview to mark his 21st birthday in September 2005, he said he and William ‘loved her to bits’.
He went on: ‘She’s a wonderful woman and she’s made our father very, very happy, which is the most important thing.’
In an announcement to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, Her Majesty spoke of her ‘sincere wish’ that when the time comes, the Duchess of Cornwall will be known as Queen Consort, not Princess Consort, as announced on her marriage to the Prince of Wales
The first test of public opinion since the change to the coronation vows was announced reveals overwhelming support
Warming to his theme, he added: ‘Look at the position she’s come into. Don’t always feel sorry for me and William, feel sorry for her. We are grateful for her . . . we’re very happy to have her around.’
Should there have been any lingering doubts about the brothers’ feelings for the duchess, who had married their father five months earlier, Harry emphasised: ‘To be honest, she’s always been very close to me and William. But no, she’s not the wicked stepmother, I’ll say that right now.’
More than 16 years later, it is hard to relate those kind and fulsome words to the peevish absence of any acknowledgement of the proposed change to Camilla’s royal rank, which will mean so much to his father’s future happiness.
It is entirely possible that Harry was taken aback by his grandmother’s announcement. Sources close to William indicated that he was not part of the decision-making process, so it is, therefore, extremely unlikely Harry was.
The story of the relationship between the brothers and the woman who never wanted to be their stepmother was always awkward and frequently tense. Often it was the case of one step forward and two steps back.
When William met the then Mrs Parker Bowles formally for the first time, the encounter went well. But when it was subsequently leaked, the teenage prince reacted angrily, believing he was being used to try to salvage his father’s damaged public image.
Raising the issue of another woman with a son whose mother is still alive is difficult enough. How much more difficult when the mother, much loved and desperately missed, has been dead for less than a year.
As Prince William’s 16th birthday approached in June 1998, the Prince of Wales knew that the time to confront the matter had arrived.
Some sons would have sulked, others would have lapsed into a difficult silence. So how did William react?
‘Whatever makes you happy, Papa,’ he told his father. In that measured response there was an echo of how he had reacted when Diana told him she was losing her HRH title on divorcing Charles.
On that occasion he told her: ‘It doesn’t matter — you’re still Mummy.’
Both parents knew their elder son was unusually mature and thoughtful for his age. So when he offered his father that simple response, it was partly because he had been primed by his mother and partly because he was curious to meet Mrs Parker Bowles.
It was also not lost on him that during his last holiday with Diana in the South of France, he had met Dodi Fayed, who died in the Paris crash that killed her.
So when Charles suggested a meeting with Camilla, William was keen. Ironically, it was Mrs Parker Bowles who was the nervous one, later reaching for a drink.
They met at Charles’s apartment in St James’s Palace, chatting for half an hour. William was friendly and Camilla sensitive.
Camilla, 74, was visiting the Nourish Hub kitchen in Notting Hill, west London, when she said she felt ‘honoured’ to have won the Queen’s backing as future Queen Consort. Pictured, Camilla leaving the Nourish Hub kitchen
The story of the relationship between the brothers and the woman who never wanted to be their stepmother was always awkward and frequently tense. Often it was the case of one step forward and two steps back. Above: Harry with Camilla and the Queen at the 2008 marriage of Peter Phillips to Autumn Kelly
A few days later, they met again, this time for lunch, and they also had tea a couple of times. As the weeks passed, when she was staying over in London, she and William would occasionally have breakfast together.
The meetings were pleasant enough. William didn’t find the woman his mother had famously called ‘The Rottweiler’ as poisonous as he’d expected, but there was no real warmth, and it was not until 2001 that he was seen in public with her.
In those early days, Camilla tended to make herself scarce when the boys came home from boarding school for the weekend and in the holidays.
The next step, naturally enough, was for Harry to be introduced. With the benefit of hindsight, it was probably too soon. Harry was only 13, and a young 13 at that.
Palace courtiers wanted the meeting to take place before the first anniversary of Diana’s death and ahead of Prince Charles’s 50th birthday — one of the key royal events of the year. Insiders say it was an uncomfortable encounter.
‘Harry wanted his mum and was missing her terribly,’ an aide at the time recalls. ‘He just didn’t want to be there.’
The thinking behind this was to do with that landmark birthday.
Although Camilla was not included in the official events planned by the Queen, she would be at Highgrove for a more intimate close-friends-and-family-only celebration.
The arrival of Meghan in Harry’s life had helped repair the relationship between the prince and the duchess. The American actress, Camilla said, was ‘a very, very nice girl’
In fact, she was organising it and wanted both boys’ help in planning a comedy skit involving some of Britain’s best-known actors.
But there was another element to this strategy. If it was known that Camilla had already met the teenage princes, then attending the Highgrove party they were also scheduled to be at would surely scarcely raise a question?
In other words, if Camilla was acceptable to Diana’s sons, then why on earth should the country object to her presence in the Prince of Wales’s life?
Public affection was conditional on how Camilla was perceived to be behaving as a stepmother. The answer was clear when 17-year-old Harry had a highly visible scrape with drink and drugs.
She was not involved at all — at least publicly. Behind the scenes it was a different story.
Camilla’s own son, Tom, from her marriage to Army officer Andrew Parker Bowles, had had his own drugs-related crisis, intensified publicly because he was Charles’s stepson.
It meant she could offer wisdom both to the Prince of Wales and to the wayward Harry.
By the time of Charles and Mrs Parker Bowles’s wedding in April 2005, family unity seemed complete. The smiles of the wedding party were unforced and easy.
Here were Charles and Camilla flanked by Princes William and Harry and the Duchess of Cornwall’s children, Tom and Laura, and all seemed well.
The rhythm of domestic lives entwined continued. Harry and William attended Laura Parker Bowles’s wedding and were supporters at the funeral of Camilla’s father, Major Bruce Shand.
These, though, were the years when memories of Diana were being pushed to the margins.
Even a row over whether or not Camilla should attend a memorial service to mark the tenth anniversary of the princess’s death — she didn’t — failed to interrupt the duchess’s smooth transition from the ‘third person’ in Diana’s marriage to valued stepmother.
But slowly things began to change. William’s marriage to Kate Middleton in 2011 was the start of the loosening of ties between the boys and their father and his wife.
After Prince George was born, Charles complained about how little he saw his first grandson.
Harry, meanwhile, was admitting that he had bottled up years of grief over his mother’s death. He absorbed everything he could read and watch about Diana and her life — even the wildly inaccurate TV series The Crown. And what he found, he didn’t much like.
In 2017, to mark the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death, the brothers collaborated on TV documentaries.
As part of their research, they invited some of their late mother’s friends to Kensington Palace. For some, it was the first time they had talked to Diana’s boys about her.
And then, as they unveiled their plans for a statue, Princess Diana suddenly was everywhere.
There are concerns about Harry’s recollections of Camilla’s arrival into royal life and whether he will claim her affair with Charles had damaged him from a young age
In public, both boys spoke movingly about their late mother, but of their father there was barely a mention. As for Camilla, there was precious little public affection.
One of Diana’s circle, who met the boys as part of their ‘fact-finding’ about their mother in 2017, recalled: ‘They were cool about Camilla — they didn’t seem to be close, especially Harry, who made his feelings pretty clear.’
As boys, Camilla had made them laugh, but as adults their attitudes had changed to one of almost icy indifference, where they saw her only as the woman who had married their papa.
‘It didn’t help that Camilla couldn’t bear it when the subject of the Diana statue was raised,’ recalls one figure close to the Prince of Wales.
To start with, the arrival of Meghan in Harry’s life had helped repair the relationship between the prince and the duchess. The American actress, Camilla said, was ‘a very, very nice girl’.
But the legacy of the Sussexes’ Oprah Winfrey interview, in which Harry claimed his father had cut him off financially and, more damagingly, that he and his wife had been the victims of racist comments about the colour of their son Archie’s skin, has changed everything.
Since those gushing comments on his 21st birthday, Harry has rarely spoken about Camilla. The fear now is that his soon-to-be published memoir, which is bound to be protective of his mother, could be highly critical of the duchess.
There are concerns about Harry’s recollections of Camilla’s arrival into royal life and whether he will claim her affair with Charles had damaged him from a young age.
In a podcast last year, Harry made another passive-aggressive dig at his father, saying: ‘He treated me the way he was treated.’
As for William, Kate has been the conciliatory factor. For years, the relationship with his father was not good and Camilla was appalled by his tantrums. ‘The boy’s got a temper,’ she told one friend.
But the rift with Harry has brought Charles and William closer and reshaped William’s thinking about Camilla. However, whether he will publicly support her should hurtful claims be made against her by Harry is uncertain.
Unlike Harry all those years ago, William didn’t need to ask Diana about Camilla.
Above all, he respects his grandmother, the Queen, and her judgment. If it is right for her that Camilla should be queen, then it will be right for him.