There is something familiar about this BBC documentary marking the seventieth birthday of Prince Charles, something I couldn’t place until I was a good half an hour into it. It wasn’t that I had seen this program or any other celebration of the Prince of Wales’s life before but that this has the makings of a nature documentary. There’s Charles, heir to the British throne – grand, majestic, at one with his surroundings – and there we are, prying from afar, watching as he ambles through his gardens and pokes at things with a stick. What strangeness.
My American bewilderment with the royal family renews itself every time I see one of these documentaries, which is often. The more I think about this institution, the more I think a nature film is an apt comparison. Train the eye on the subject, pick apart its every move, marvel at the beauty and savageness on display. Also enlist a sober narrator, which in this case is stage actor and star of tomorrow Paapa Essiedu, a distinguished substitute for David Attenborough in my opinion.
Essiedu calms and guides you through the celebration. The documentary has hypnotic quality that is gentle on subject and audience alike. It’s also unflinching in its positive portrayal of Prince Charles, a move that’s pretty on brand for a family that’s just recovered from its 1990s existential crisis. In a clearly defined thesis, the film highlights three areas of the prince’s life. All are related to his advocacy work, in case you need a reminder that the Windsors do in fact contribute a tangible good. We see the prince’s longstanding environmental activism, his commitment to heritage preservation, and his engagement with young people.
The filmmakers make a good case, highlighting Prince Charles’s tireless work ethic. Not only does he have more duties as his mother scales back her overseas travel, he also keeps up a regimented daily schedule, which is more than I can say for myself. Praise comes from many quarters, including beneficiaries of the Prince’s Trust, a youth charity he established in 1976. He is very much a man of the people in these moments. Despite looking like a founding father of GQ’s best dressed list, he converses easily with young people sharing stories about overcoming poverty and lack of self-esteem. He has a similar touch with those he meets abroad. On a trip to Dominica to aid storm victims, he holds hands, listens carefully, and pledges assistance. He may be reserved, but he does comes across as sincere. Another instance of relatable, approachable Charles occurs during a trip to the Pacific island of Vanuatu. Like your grandparent on a cruise stop, he scrambles to find the right change while buying souvenirs for his grandkids at a crafts market. In the end, he has a man to get the money, but hey, it’s the thought that counts, right?
The most effective campaigners for the Prince are his family, and the documentary features interviews from both of his sons and his wife. Unfortunately for me, there’s no Meghan, but as this seems to have been filmed post-wedding, there are some behind-the-scenes glances of the married couple at an engagement. Harry and Camilla also give a few recollections of the day, so I’m sated. The Charles they share with the world is one who is funny and kind. His sons are especially proud of their father’s pioneering environmental advocacy, which rather impressed me. Some of these efforts are relatable, like his fanatical need to conserve energy and pick up litter, but then he talks about getting a more efficient engine fitted into his Aston Martin and we are reminded that he’s a prince. He’s a prince who’s channeled his privilege and experience into something actually productive though, according to this documentary, so we’ll leave it as it is, a celebration of the man’s seventieth birthday.
Dir: John Bridcut
Writer: John Bridcut
Cast: Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Harry, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Paapa Essiedu
Time: 60 min
Country: United Kingdom