Mary Riddell is columnist with The Observer and an interviewer for the Daily Mail.
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The first time I encountered Mark Bolland, he was the one asking the
questions. We met in one of those Jane Austen parlours favoured by the
Prince of Wales, and Bolland was sizing up my suitability to interview his
master. Now it's my turn to be inquisitor in a very different setting. There is
no chintz today, or rosebud china teacups, or Duchy Original shortbread
biscuits. The glass and chrome interior of the apartment Bolland shares with
his partner, Guy Black, is a temple of contemporary elegance prowled by two
blue-blooded cats and overseen by a bust of Lenin (who shares a birthday,
though not a political ideology, with the pro-Tory Bolland). Two years have
passed since he left St James's Palace, and his post as deputy private secretary,
to run his own successful PR and marketing business. And still, now as then,
the long shadow of the future king seems to hang over our meeting.
Before we start, we stand on Bolland's wide terrace, looking out over St Paul's Cathedral and the surrounding sea of high-rise buildings that struck Charles as so carbuncular. Bolland, programmed to promote someone else's edicts, says it took him months to realise that he actually liked modern architecture and the skyline spread out in front of what he calls “our News of the World balcony”. He means that the teak decking was paid for by the weekly column he now writes under the secondary byline of Blackadder. That nickname, devised by William and Harry, is one of Bolland's politer aliases. Some detractors, irked by his smoothness, called him “Lipgloss”, while the courtiers who make up what he calls “the Old Farts' Brigade” whispered of a ruthless and manipulative man.
But that was then. Bolland no longer shimmers round palaces in the manner of an upmarket Jeeves. The agreement that he would advise the Prince on a consultancy basis expired some time ago, in what sounds like a certain degree of acrimony on both sides. With a stable of individual and corporate clients signed up to Mark Boland Associates, he has no need or overwhelming desire to dwell on the past. Three things still make him a touchstone in royal matters. The first is the alchemy he once performed for Charles, raising his popularity rating from 20 per cent after Diana's death to 75 per cent, and rendering the prospect of a remarriage palatable to the British public. The second is the extraordinary influence ascribed to him. According to The Daily Telegraph, Bolland was “the real power behind the future King of England”.
The third and most compelling testament is that everything has gone rather awry since Bolland left. The Burrell trial collapse and a cash-for-gifts scandal both rocked St James's Palace. A note purportedly from Diana surfaced, claiming her former husband wanted her killed in a car accident so that he could marry again, and aides had to deny as “ludicrous” an allegation linking Charles with his aide, Michael Fawcett. One expects a touch of schadenfreude at what he sees as no improvement of the Prince's image under the aegis of his new private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, but Bolland's charge is more substantial.
It was utterly ridiculousHe believes that the Fawcett story, a deeply damaging legal farce in which the Prince was forced to deny an un-aired allegation, was virtually thrust into the public domain by courtiers who could not abide the cordial links Bolland established with a Press Complaints Commission then run by Guy Black. “If you start throwing lawyers at some newspapers, they think you have something to hide. The story had been around for two or three years, and we (St James's Palace) had all said it was utterly ridiculous and that we would make any paper who published it look incredibly stupid. I think there was a reaction against what was seen to be too cosy a relationship between the Palace and the press's self-regulatory mechanism; ie, me and Guy. They thought that was the wrong way of doing things, and bringing the lawyers in was the right way. They got overly aggressive... and that's why it all came out into the public domain.”
It is not the only time during in our interview that Bolland, now 38, will accuse his successors of serving the Prince badly or foolishly. Nor does Charles himself come in for undue veneration. Bolland, who described him as “weak” in his only previous interview, says now that Charles had his chance of marrying Camilla and missed it. Though none of his remarks is delivered with a sliver of malice, it must sometimes seem to his critics at the Palace that Bolland in exile is even worse than Bolland in situ. Did he not, for example, stoke the post-Fawcett furore by asserting that Peat had asked him whether Charles was bi-sexual?
“What I was saying was that it had all got out of hand, because too many people around the Palace were asking that question. Clearly it is a preposterous question to ask. I think I helped end the story, because it actually died the next day.” This answer strikes even Bolland as disingenuous. “I'm sure other people wouldn't share that interpretation. Had I been a bit naughty? Well, probably. In hindsight, it maybe wasn't the smartest thing to have done because it put me into the middle of it all. I should actually have stayed out.”
If Mark Bolland is not a natural Trappist, he is not an avid self-publicist either. For a PR genius, he was rather coy about being interviewed. It took a preliminary lunch, several aborted dates and a twitchy e-mail wondering what I was going to ask before we finally met. The nerves, I think, are genuine. Unlike some powerful spin doctors, Bolland has never deployed Stalinist control freakery, always tolerating disobliging views of Charles (and latterly adding to them himself ). He is, as all but his most dogged enemies agree, amusing, generous, unsnobbish and good company. But his greatest gift to his old employer was the staggering informality he brought to Highgrove. It was Bolland who arranged for the heir to the throne to appear on television, talking to Ant and Dec, a feat hardly less audacious than fixing for the Queen Mother to swim with dolphins.
Though Bolland is as engaging as ever, he does seem a fraction less insouciant. In his days with the Prince, he enjoyed a kir royale at The Caprice for lunch. Now it is water, and, more often than not, an airline snack as he shuttles between Geneva, Spain and New York. His home life has changed too. Black gave up the job he inherited from Bolland as head of the PCC to become press secretary to Michael Howard, with the round-the-clock availability the job entails. “Guy had six years of all this royal interference in our lives, and the constant phone calls. It's only now that he's doing the job he is that I have any sensitivity at all about what he must have put up with.”
Bolland moved to St James's Palace in 1996 and left in 2002. His agreement to consult for Charles expired just over a year ago. The beginning of the end, according to him, was his absence on business as a periodic royal “scandal” threatened to break. “That went down very badly with him (Charles) and made him think: ‘Well, is Mark really there for me any more?' One had a sense that he felt a great unhappiness. I did have a peculiarly clear understanding of him at a particular moment in his life, simply because I knew Camilla so well, and I had grown to understand him through her eyes. Sometimes you end up knowing too much about people and their characters, and you lose a sense of detachment. I was starting to be used by him directly, and by him through her, as a way of second-guessing other people who worked for him.
“While I was there, people coped with that. When I was merely a consultant, I think it irritated them. It wasn't fair on them, and it was proving very distracting for me.” Presumably, Peat – who must have loathed Bolland's influence – urged the Prince to sever the tie? “I don't know if Michael ever did put it quite like that,” Bolland says with silky tact. “As human beings, we got on perfectly well. But Michael didn't want any vacuums in his operation. I think he developed a concern that I was there in the background. That was not helpful to him, and he wouldn't put up with it.”
But, in Bolland's account, the final rift came because he felt that Peat had mishandled a rumour in a way that was damaging to Prince Harry. The episode began with a rumour that a Murdoch tabloid was trying to get a lock of the Prince's hair, in order to run a DNA test. “Michael told me that a distinguished lawyer had told him about the story. Michael told the police and talked to lots of people before talking to the newspaper. He didn't involve me because my friendship with Rebekah (Wade, now The Sun editor) was seen as something wicked, and Michael wanted to handle it himself. Michael's view was, and is, very much: ‘I'm in charge. I'm going to do it my way. If people don't like that, too bad, because I'm the boss.'”
Rebekah was very cross“I disagreed with how he handled it. The trouble with telling the police is that news leaks out. Rebekah made it plain she was very cross. She was adamant the story wasn't true. It was even written that it was all a great scheme of mine to embarrass Michael. I had other things to do, and I wasn't motivated in that way. But it was the final straw. I was put in a very difficult position with the Prince in terms of having to defend Michael, because he (Charles) was not happy with the way the matter had been dealt with. I told Michael: ‘This isn't going to work. It's too much aggravation for you, and for me'.” His contract paid up, Bolland maintained his links with Camilla for nine months, until the Burrell trial collapsed. “She was coming under pressure from people at the Palace, and perhaps the Prince as well, not to see me and get conflicting advice.” Then, furious at the damage caused by the Burrell fall-out, Bolland publicly alluded to Charles's weakness. “I probably got more emotional than I should. That's when I said to Camilla: ‘Love you dearly. Let's have lunch or dinner a couple of times a year, but I can't be at the end of a phone any more'.”
The final severance was last October. Bolland has not seen the Prince or Camilla since. Still, he broods over his old master's business, less as a critic than as a defender. He revealed that he had been asked whether Charles was bi-sexual in order, he says, to dispel a notion he knew to be absurd. “It really was preposterous. He's a man who pays a lot of attention to his appearance, but a lot of straight men are like that. I always remember him leaving a Versace show and talking to his bodyguard about the models, and Naomi Campbell in particular. It was very much a boys' conversation. I said I felt excluded, and he said, ‘But Mark, there was plenty for you too look at as well.' He's very liberal, and there isn't an ounce of homophobia in him, but there's no way he's got any tendencies in that direction.”
Does he think Charles will ever marry Camilla? “One of the things he always worried about was being pushed into it. Every now and then, newspapers would run a poll about whether the Prince should get married, and a couple of newspaper editors said we should start a campaign to say he should. He would always say, ‘Just please do everything you can to stop them doing that. I don't want to be pushed into a corner. I will know if the time's right and that it's the right thing to do'.”
Bolland's view is that Charles missed his chance to announce a marriage. “I think there was a window within the year or so after the Queen Mother died...when all the indicators of opinion were in the right place. I don't think it is like that now. He's more cloaked in controversy than he was then. Personally, I thought that was the time. That was another reason why it was right for me to go. One of my jobs was to help create a climate of opinion where those options were open to him. That job had come to an end. It was clear that the situation with him and her wasn't going to evolve any further, and that we would be trying to manage a holding operation in terms of public opinion.”
There may be a time when the omens for a marriage again seem propitious, Bolland says, but he does not sound very convincing. I wonder what the man who rehabilitated Camilla from reviled mistress to consort-inwaiting thinks she wants. “Camilla's a lovely woman – kind and patient. She has no desire to be famous, or popular. What she doesn't want is to be hated. The period when she was demonised and traduced by newspapers was very upsetting for her, and it upset him [Charles] enormously too, because he felt responsible for it. I don't think she'll be anxious about being more in the background than she was. I don't necessarily think there's a deliberate campaign to marginalise her.”
Bolland does, however, offer a damning analysis of the Peat operation. “They are now in a much more reactive role, taking punches aimed in their direction, whereas we did try to see what was coming and how we'd deal with it before it happened. Now it's a more traditional approach of head in the sand and all will be well if they don't say anything.” In particular he mourns the dearth of impetus in promoting the Prince's good causes. “There was a very aggressive, well-resourced operation to tell people more about his charitable works... That doesn't seem to happen with the same energy or creativity now.”
Charles, he believes, will end up as king. “There is no alternative, no other outcome. If he lives longer than his mother, he will be king, and so he should. But all that's happened to him in the last year or so must have demoralised him enormously, and he's got somehow to pick it all up again.”
Scornful of Palace angstWhen not spinning for “Sir” or “Your Royal Highness”, as he always formally addressed his boss, Bolland fought cleverly and successfully to protect the reputations and privacy of the Prince's sons. Even so, he is scornful of the recent Palace angst over the picture of William and a girlfriend, Kate Middleton. “William is no fool. He's pretty smart, and he's always known the deal. At university, he's protected, but what happens outside university, given that he's now an adult, is entirely dependent on his own behaviour. If he does things that cause the press legitimately to be interested in what he's doing, then he can't expect the press not to write about it. If The Sun gets a picture of him and Kate Middleton, they will run it. I think William understands that. That's why the fuss the Palace made about it looked slightly artificial. It wasn't a real fuss.”
These days, Bolland enjoys being a royal outsider. But, for a while, he missed the theatre of it all. “The magnificence never moved me particularly, but it was fun. Driving round London with the Prince of Wales and five motorcycle outriders is quite jolly. I agree with a friend who used to work in Downing Street that the outriders and helicopters are the coolest thing of all. But I've been there, done that, and I wasn't brought up to be easily impressed.”
Mark William Bolland was born in 1966 in Toronto, the son of Arthur Bolland, a bricklayer, and his wife, Joan. His father, who had been brought up in poverty, emigrated from Middlesbrough to North America to secure a better life for his family. The couple's first child, Tracy, born in California, died of a hole in the heart when she was six. Mark was born exactly one year after his sister's death. Around that time, his father gave up bricklaying, took a course as a salesman and got a job selling industrial cleaning chemicals. When Mark was eight, his parents took him and their third child, Diana, back to Yorkshire, where Arthur set up the thriving business that made him one of Middlesbrough's more affluent citizens.
Educated at a local comprehensive, Bolland went on to get a 2:1 in chemistry at York University. After working in public affairs in Toronto and in marketing for IBM, he met Lord McGregor, then chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority. When he was made chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Bolland went with him, taking over as director in 1991 and staying on with McGregor's successor, Lord Wakeham. It was Wakeham's suggestion that the Prince of Wales should hire the brilliant Bolland to advise him. That left a vacancy at the PCC. “You will have to get Guy to do it,” Wakeham said, and Bolland's partner, Guy Black, duly stepped in.
If the handover sounds incestuous, then the links between the press's regulator-in-chief and the leading royal spin doctor should have proved fissile in the eyes of the media. At times, they did. The friendship between the Black-Bollands and Sun editor Wade was regarded particularly dimly by the broadsheet press. But Bolland and Black, both clever and professional, managed to avoid any serious suggestion of conflict of interest. Black, who saw off a serious assault on self-regulation, left several months ago to become Michael Howard's press secretary. And now Bolland must be tactful once again.
When I suggest that Howard must be every bit as autocratic and demanding as the Prince used to be, he says: “Well, it's fabulous because Guy's doing something he was really built to do. He has the blood of the Conservative Party in his veins. I travel on the same political bus as Guy, but he's much more political. It [his job] is difficult, exhausting and demanding, but he loves it. It's wonderful to see him so happy with work. I was very impressed with one of the first things Michael Howard did when Guy accepted the job last December. He and Sandra took Guy and me out to dinner at a restaurant in Mayfair, which was a very warm and friendly thing to do.”
Although Charles and Camilla would, in the past, extend similar invitations, no such charming overtures were forthcoming from Bolland's more hostile superiors at the Palace. He thinks it “quite likely” that his working-class roots offended them far more than his homosexuality, but he was always schooled to be combative. “My mother's still alive, and if I'm depressed I talk about things to her. She will put her foot down and tell me I wasn't brought up to be quite so wet. She's no class warrior, my mother, but she'd be the first person to say: ‘How dare any of those people look down their noses at my son?'”
Is Mark Bolland grand? A bit. It is raining when we finish the interview and he insists, very kindly, that his chauffeur must drive me home. The car is an upmarket BMW. No outriders, obviously, but still a symbol of corporate success. In some company bosses, the offer might signify showing off. From him, it just seems like a nice gesture. He has talked a lot about royal life, but only because I asked him. Bolland does not need the reflected cachet of the Prince, though one senses a touch of wistfulness for lost flamboyance.
Maybe it will return. It seems not wholly fanciful to consider Guy Black as a future Tory leader and Bolland as his consort. Bolland would not entertain such speculation, refusing even to speculate on whether Black might one day stand for Parliament. As for the Palace days, they are receding fast. “It's the kind of job that takes a while to decompress from, because it's so intense and takes up so much of your life and emotional energy. I wish them all well. I wish him [Charles] well. I wish Camilla well. I think she and I will always be friends, even though we don't communicate. But their life has to move on, and so does mine.”
I suspect there may still be days when Mark Bolland mourns the spice of intrigue. Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales seems beleaguered, marginalised, less in touch. Whether or not it occurs to him, Charles feels the loss of Bolland more acutely than his old aide misses him.