Almost 40 years ago Prince Charles and Princess Diana were about to embark on their first overseas trip, a gruelling 40 days of heat and dust criss-crossing Australia and New Zealand at the height of the southern hemisphere summer.
Charles was 34 and the Princess just 21 for a tour that was to see not just the birth of ‘Di-mania’ but also the beginnings of the mistrust and resentment that were, within a decade, to overwhelm the marriage.
Four decades on and William and Kate next week will leave for their first official visit abroad in their new status as Prince and Princess of Wales. At 40, both are older, wiser and more mature than the Prince’s parents and their three days in the U.S. city of Boston should be a breeze.
After all, eight years ago they had a knock-out trip to New York and three years earlier — when the afterglow of their 2011 wedding was still burning brightly — they dazzled their way through Los Angeles and Hollywood. But in the years since, everything has changed and so much rides on this visit that is vital to the long-term wellbeing of the monarchy.
Almost 40 years ago Prince Charles and Princess Diana were about to embark on their first overseas trip. Four decades on and William and Kate next week will leave for their first official visit abroad in their new status as Prince and Princess of Wales
The reason, of course, is because of the polarising presence of the exiled Duke and Duchess of Sussex, whose ‘truth bombs’ from California have done serious damage to the reputation and good name of the House of Windsor.
The ordeal has seen brother pitched against brother and has put the royals at their highest state of anxiety since the dark days of the various marriage crises of the 1990s.
Ordinarily, it is difficult to have an unsuccessful royal visit to the U.S., a generous country that prides itself on its hospitality.
But by extraordinary coincidence Americans are rolling out the red carpet on their East Coast for both William and Harry within days of one another.
It is not the only remarkable parallel: for both royal couples are being hosted by different branches of the same political family — the Kennedy clan.
While William and his wife will be hoping to unleash the wow factor despite engagements that are a little on the dry side, Harry and Meghan will be milking their attendance as ‘honourees’ at a glitzy money and celebrity-driven awards ceremony.
No wonder these twin visits are being likened by a curious American audience to a duel and a battle of philanthropic do-gooding. What makes them even more fascinating is that both couples will be channelling Diana. On December 6 in New York City, where his mother was so often feted, Prince Harry and Meghan will receive a human rights award.
There are uncanny echoes from the past. Just before Christmas 1995, a few weeks after her Panorama TV interview, Diana’s humanitarian work was celebrated at a Manhattan gala attended by substantial figures such as the pre-White House Donald Trump, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the statesman Henry Kissinger and Gulf War general Colin Powell.
There the similarities between mother and son end. For the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are, controversially, to be given a Ripple of Hope Award. This is not for work to do with Aids, leprosy or the sick and the downtrodden, as Diana’s was — but for calling out ‘structural racism’ within the monarchy.
Eight years ago they had a knock-out trip to New York and three years earlier they dazzled their way through Los Angeles and Hollywood. But in the years since, everything has changed and so much rides on this visit that is vital to the long-term wellbeing of the monarchy. The reason, of course, is because of the polarising presence of the exiled Duke and Duchess of Sussex
And how did they do that exactly? It was their claim during last year’s Oprah Winfrey interview that an unnamed member of the Royal Family made a remark they construed as racist — wondering what their son Archie would look like when he was born. The late Queen famously responded with her unvarnished observation to the claim that ‘recollections may vary’.
A wiser figure than Harry would not just have politely swerved this distinctly unedifying honour but have seen through it as a provocative and contrived gesture.
Little is known of the guests at this stage but ticket packages to the top table with the promise of rubbing shoulders with the Duke and Duchess are priced at up to $1 million (£830,000).
As for VIPs, the event is being hosted by the actor Alec Baldwin, no stranger to controversy himself after accidentally shooting and killing a co-worker on a film set.
A few days earlier and 200 miles to the north-east, William and Kate will be attending the second Earthshot Prize Awards in Boston.
Their engagements will also cover vulnerable young people and a project related to the Princess’s special interest in the early years of childhood. These are just the kind of issues that were important to Diana.
In recent years, as their own relationship has crumbled, the brothers have both sought to cloak themselves in their mother’s legacy.
Harry has frequently invoked the Princess’s name with regard to the frustrations he and Meghan faced, and drawn comparisons between their own unhappiness with royal life and Diana’s. (Although it is worth pointing out that, unlike Harry, Diana, for all her difficulties, did not abandon her country and continued to serve the monarchy.)
Earlier this year, when asked by a TV interviewer if he felt his ‘mum’s presence’, he replied: ‘For me it is constant. It has been over the last two years. More so than ever before.’ He went on to say: ‘It is almost as though she’s done her bit with my brother and now she’s very much, like, helping me. Got him set up and now she’s helping me set up.’
Harry also used much of his Oprah interview to make frequent claims about Diana. On that occasion, he spoke of his belief that she would have been angry at the way he and Meghan had been treated. At one stage he boldly stated of their departure from royal life: ‘I think she saw it coming.’
It may, of course, have been mere coincidence, but exactly a week after that broadcast, William publicised the hand-drawn cards his children, George, Charlotte and Louis, had made for Mothering Sunday for Diana.
Harry has frequently invoked the Princess’s name with regard to the frustrations he and Meghan faced, and drawn comparisons between their own unhappiness with royal life and Diana’s
Inside were expressions of love and loss for the grandmother they never knew. But the cards communicated a wider message — Diana was the mother of two sons. Now, the Prince is venturing onto his brother’s territory, a potential challenger to Harry’s authority as the most popular royal in America.
It will be the first royal visit across the Pond since the Oprah interview, when Meghan claimed Kate had made her cry and Harry said of his brother: ‘The relationship is “space” at the moment. Time heals all things, hopefully.’
Within royal circles it is being viewed as the most important overseas excursion for years and is designed to put the Windsors on the front foot.
The trip is focused around William’s Earthshot Prize, the ten-year-long initiative that awards £1 million annually to those who offer pioneering remedies aimed at saving the planet.
The awards are being held in the city most closely identified with the Kennedy family and will see William teaming up with the assassinated president’s grandson Jack Schlossberg, 29.
The Prince will also meet Boston’s mayor Michelle Wu, the 37-year old daughter of Taiwanese immigrants and the first Asian-American woman to serve on Boston City Council.
The couple’s trip is certainly businesslike and worthy. The question is whether it will deliver the kind of positive headlines that makes for good PR. Many of the details are under wraps but there is talk of a visit to a university campus and to a basketball game, two opportunities for the Prince and Princess to mix with young people.
William’s greatest asset, of course, is the glamorous Kate, who radiates something of the star-wattage that made Diana such a sensation in the U.S. He and his wife are said to be ‘excited’ about being on American soil after an absence of eight years.
It is also their first trip abroad since the death of the Queen and that is expected to play strongly in their favour.
‘They appreciate there will be a lot of interest and they do welcome it,’ says a friend. ‘It is obviously a big moment for them as they adjust to their new roles and titles.
‘William, especially, knows how much America adored his mother and that she was the last Princess of Wales to visit its shores.’
Crucial to its success is whether the trip manages to overcome the ‘grievance narrative’ of the Harry and Meghan saga. Their Netflix show, said by Meghan to be a ‘historical documentary’ in which they will ‘share’ their ‘love story’, will be streamed next month.
Then, in January, comes Harry’s ‘intimate and heartfelt’ memoir Spare which, say publishers, will be ‘raw, unflinching honesty’.
But there are growing signs that America’s love affair with the couple may be tiring. Their decision to attend the Ripple of Hope Award Gala, which will bring them into contact with another offshoot of the Kennedy tribe, has been ridiculed.
The award, which has recognised figures including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Obama, is said to be in recognition of the Sussexes’ ‘moral courage’.
This triggered widespread mockery. One critic on social media accused the couple of ‘gratuitous attention-seeking’ and ‘constantly monitoring their celebrity media index, since it’s the only thing that keeps them relevant’.
Another scoffed: ‘Harry and Meghan are all about attention and greed.’ And challenging the assumptions about the couple’s U.S. support, the writer said: ‘Americans did not side with the Sussexes, let’s be clear about that.’
Posing for pictures — as they almost certainly will — with members of a family who for years have supported Irish unity and attacked Britain’s policy in Ulster will at best look naive and at worst embarrassing.
As for the award, an online observer noted : ‘There is nothing heroic about those two. Instead, the word “cowards” comes to mind, because instead of facing the challenges Meghan faced when she was living in England, she convinced Harry to abandon his family and his country, because things did not go her way.’
Another wrote: ‘The Prince and Princess of Wales are coming in connection with an award for which they are sponsors/patrons, while the Sussex duo are getting an award that almost no one seems to think they deserve. No comparison.’
All the same, there is a view that Kate and William’s low-key visit lacks glitz.
Former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, who dined with Diana in New York not long before her death, says: ‘Interest in William and Kate is low boil. I would like to have seen them hit more cities than Boston where sizzle factor is quiescent, to say the least.’
One figure who knows all about royal tours, Diana’s former private secretary Patrick Jephson, is positive as to the reaction the new Prince and Princess of Wales will generate.
But he warns that there are risks if King Charles’s sons are perceived as acting out their differences on a transatlantic stage, adding: ‘Remember Abraham Lincoln’s warning: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” ’
For the monarchy the twin tours represent the sternest of tests. If William and Kate are received positively, then it scarcely matters about the California blowhards Harry and Meghan. Fail and the Windsors’ reputation in America could be fatally undermined.