How different it all was on that cold Thursday night outside The Ritz more than 20 years ago. It was Charles and Camilla’s coming out, a fleeting but scrupulously choreographed appearance before the world’s press.
Charles’s natural inclination had been to go public with Camilla at a royal event which, in his eyes, would have lent a certain dignity, but the Queen – yet to be won over by Mrs Parker Bowles – was having none of it.
And so here they were, this middle-aged man and woman, in a dark side street in Mayfair at just before midnight.
The couple had spent the evening at a 50th birthday party and as they stepped from the hotel on to the pavement – Charles sheepish, Camilla petrified – a blizzard of camera flashes froze them in time.
Later the British Epilepsy Association would urge broadcasters not to use the footage on TV, lest it trigger seizures.
How different it all was on that cold Thursday night outside The Ritz more than 20 years ago. It was Charles and Camilla’s coming out, a fleeting but scrupulously choreographed appearance before the world’s press
This appearance in 1999 was the apex of the finely tuned strategy to win the British people round to the idea of the ‘non-negotiable’ woman in Prince Charles’s life.
Everyone knew about Camilla at this juncture of course, but she had always remained out of sight – and for good reason.
Princess Diana was universally adored and cast a long shadow. For many, when Charles confessed to adultery, Camilla was public enemy No 1, irredeemably the other woman.
Now the couple were dipping their toes into uncharted water and while it wasn’t exactly warm, neither was it icy. Still, there was a long road ahead.
She was public enemy No 1… but began to find a place in Britain’s heart
In truth, Campaign Camilla – the name given to the operation to endear her to the public – had begun 18 months earlier. In June 1997 invitations started appearing: come and join Camilla Parker Bowles for a party in aid of her charity, the National Osteoporosis Society.
Newspaper editors and a sprinkling of celebrities and publishers were sure to attend. The idea was to present Camilla in a new, softer light. But then Diana died, and the party was abandoned.
The campaign was led by Mark Bolland, the controversial PR executive hired by Prince Charles in 1996 as an assistant private secretary.
From then on, he took every opportunity to show Charles as a loving father and concerned single parent, while trying to win public acceptance for Mrs Parker Bowles.
Nine months after the crash in Paris that claimed Diana’s life, Camilla met Prince William at St James’s Palace.
Charles’s natural inclination had been to go public with Camilla at a royal event which, in his eyes, would have lent a certain dignity, but the Queen – yet to be won over by Mrs Parker Bowles – was having none of it. Pictured: A bracelet Charles gave Camilla bearing the letters G and F for their pet names Gladys and Fred
At first, it was said to be a chance meeting, but this was untrue. In fact, William requested the meeting so he could ask her personally to help him organise a surprise early 50th birthday party for his father.
After the Ritz appearance, the campaign gained fresh momentum. Suddenly Camilla was everywhere. She and Charles were together on the yacht of a Greek businessman with four close friends.
Then came the series of parties to mark the Prince’s half century, the highlight of which was the one Camilla arranged for 300 guests at Charles’s Gloucestershire home, Highgrove.
By this time it was being quietly leaked that she was spending more and more nights with Charles both at Highgrove and at St James’s Palace.
Nothing, though, could alter the perception that the relationship between the Queen and Camilla was as frosty as ever.
Warm and witty, with an infectious laugh, she connects effortlessly
Yet behind the scenes, Mr Bolland was working tirelessly and still had a few tricks up his sleeve. Charles and Camilla had taken an official trip to Scotland, staying at the Queen’s Edinburgh residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
The key moment came in 2000 when the Queen met Camilla at Highgrove during a party thrown to mark the 60th birthday of former King Constantine of Greece.
It was their first ‘public’ meeting and, chiefly due to the efforts of Mr Bolland, could scarcely have been more high-profile.
Sometimes, though, his ploys – mischievously spreading stories detrimental to senior royals to make Camilla look good in comparison – backfired.
After the Ritz appearance, the campaign gained fresh momentum. Suddenly Camilla was everywhere. She and Charles were together on the yacht of a Greek businessman with four close friends
But, as the years passed, Camilla learned to go her own way and quietly, steadily, it paid off and she began to find a place in Britain’s heart.
If there were any lingering doubts about her acceptance by the court of public opinion, they were dispelled by the Queen’s ringing endorsement yesterday.
These days Camilla is admired for her charity work, taking on issues such as rape and sexual abuse, domestic violence, literacy and medical issues including juvenile diabetes and muscular dystrophy.
Detractors have accused her of laziness, but even if she does not pack in as many engagements as some royals, she connects effortlessly with the public.
Warm and witty with an infectiously throaty laugh, she does so without sacrificing dignity or upstaging her husband.
Which is why, it seems, that the Queen is confident that she’ll make the perfect consort when her husband ascends the throne.