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How to Persuade a Prince

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Thirty years ago, long before HRH Prince Charles’s interest in organic gardening and farming became widely accepted, Sharon Carleton travelled to the UK for a profile about his brilliant (and eccentric) horticultural adviser, Miriam Rothschild (later Dame Miriam). In the process, she scored a rare interview with the Prince himself. Continuing our ABC 90th Anniversary series, Sharon recalls the program she made for Radio National’s internationally renowned The Science Show.

By Sharon Carleton / 3 August 2022

It took a Governor-General, a renowned greenie and the international reputation of RN’s The Science Show to land a rare interview with HRH Prince Charles.

It was 1993.

Robyn Williams or I – we credit each other but can’t really remember – came up with the idea of doing a SS special on Miriam Rothschild.

Dame Miriam, who died in 2005 aged 96, was part of the historical banking family of Rothschilds but she was on the mad scientist side, not the money one. Her uncle Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild, drove a carriage pulled by four zebras around Piccadilly to prove the animals could be tamed. She got on well with him.

Miriam was, at the time of our interview, an 85-year-old, self-taught natural scientist; she was feisty, brilliant and had planted the wild flowers at Prince Charles’s Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire.

As an entomologist she knew about butterflies and pheromones, poison and sheepdogs, marijuana and farming, Clark Gable and the flowers of Israel. Her butterfly passion was the beautiful orange-and-black Monarch Butterfly which is now two steps from extinction. It wasn’t then. Plus there was the local angle: Miriam had smuggled fleas “on my person” to Australia to support her contention that the frightful myxomatosis was spread by these insects. It is.

In the 1980s both Prince Charles and Miriam Rothschild were ferocious campaigners on respecting our environment and using it sustainably. They also wanted to reintroduce wildflowers to Britain. Since World War II a staggering 95% of Britain’s herb-rich grasslands had been wiped out and with that came the obliteration of insects, animals and plants. Today, it’s almost 98% destroyed.

Prince Charles had bought an 18th century country manor house about 90 minutes’ drive from London. It was where he and the late Diana, the Princess of Wales, spent their weekends.

Highgrove House, surrounded by a wildflower meadow. And Prince Charles and Princess Diana, with young sons William and Harry, at Highgrove.

Miriam advised Prince Charles on his organic approach to horticulture at Highgrove and how to grow wildflowers there, not an easy task.

It was a great idea for a Science Show program, and Miriam agreed to take part, so did David Attenborough, if only to say what a terrific campaigner she was. But how to get HRH to talk to us?

Obviously, I picked up the phone to the Buckingham Palace press office. They were unequivocal: “His Royal Highness does not give interviews.”

My late husband, Richard Carleton, was never one to take no for an answer, even on my behalf. He suggested I contact then Governor-General, Bill Hayden, and ask him to support my approach to the Palace. In the same vein, my ever-supportive boss, Robyn Williams, suggested contacting his friend, Dr Jonathon Porritt, a leading light in the UK’s conservation movement. And a personal friend of Prince Charles.  

With these two letters of support and The Science Show’s international reputation for quality programs, I wrote to Prince Charles and put my case. Again.

Three months later, I received a letter from St James’s Palace: “His Royal Highness consents …”

I rushed to see Robyn. With Miriam, Attenborough and HRH, I simply had to go to London to do the interviews in person.

As thrilled for me as he was, Robyn almost literally took out the Science Show’s petty cash tin and shook his head. Nothing left, sorry. Luckily Richard had a few hundred thousand frequent flyer points from all his travel with 60 Minutes. I used those. Thank you, Mr Packer.

The Equerry to HRH, Commander Robert Fraser, was my contact at St James’s, the Prince’s London office at the time. He was a charming naval lawyer who gave the crew and me our first lesson in the etiquette of interviewing royalty. “You can give a quick bow or curtsy, then address him as ‘Your Royal Highness’ the first time and ‘Sir’ afterwards.”   

They must have decided I was trustworthy because Charles and Diana’s life together was in a mess. It was a tabloid-heaven of a time with leaked royal telephone tapes, accusations of affairs, and finally the couple’s “amicable separation”.

The ABC had organised for a photographer and a sound recordist to come with me. It wasn’t one of those interviews where I could mess up the recording and ask to do it again.

We arrived early and set up the gear. The Prince’s office was large and formal with lots of memorabilia from official occasions. Prince Charles arrived and Commander Fraser presented us to him. There was no time for formality. He shook our hands warmly and said he was a little surprised I’d come all the way from Australia for this.  

I asked him if he minded if we got the hard part done first, the photographs? He warned me that my reputation would be ruined, being photographed with him. I said I rather hoped it would.

We all relaxed. When the photographer was messing around with the lights, I asked Prince Charles how he felt about moves in Australia towards a republic. He was surprisingly open and explicit about his opinions. Unfortunately, there is a rule with these interviews that when talking seriously in private all conversations are off-the-record, no matter how long ago. Suffice to say the Prince was extremely well informed on the matter. I doubt that’s changed.

HRH was concerned about our deteriorating environment, the need to care for wild flora and fauna, and how to farm sustainably. Yes, he does get his hands dirty doing his own gardening (although his head gardener did tell me he wasn’t that keen on weeding). “That’s why I have an extraordinarily good Australian physiotherapist helping to put my back right,” HRH explained.

“There is something very special,” he said, “about wildflowers. What most people don’t realise is how difficult they are to introduce in an area where they weren’t before.”

After the interview at St James’s Palace, Prince Charles asked if I’d like to have a look around Highgrove. Let’s just say, I managed to find time.

The head gardener, David Magson, showed me around the grounds of this huge country mansion. In front was a field of rare black Hebridean sheep, the Prince’s polo ponies grazed in the surrounding meadows. Next to the house was a garden planted with wildflowers and as many ancient varieties of apples as the Prince could lay his hands on.

It really is his private love affair with the land: there’s a scented garden, a cottage garden and a profusion of colours, shapes, smells and insects buzzing happily. It’s where he has had his successes and his failures turning the farm organic and freeing the land of chemicals.  

“I feel very strongly about trying to make my own tiny contribution to trying to find ways of restoring some of these habitats.  Once you start destroying or cutting down ancient woodlands, you cannot just recreate them. It takes hundreds of years and this is what I think is so depressing about the attitude of people who say ‘You know, it doesn’t really matter, you can recreate these things’. You cannot.  It is a major operation.

“I want to try and leave something better behind than I found. We need to make sure that we look after the countryside and our environment in a way that doesn’t prejudice our grandchildren’s chances. This is really what lies behind what is now described as sustainable development.”

That was 30 years ago.  

As Time magazine put it:

The royal radical has been promoting environmental ideas for most of his adult life.  Some of his notions, which once sounded a bit daft, were simply ahead of their time.  Now, finally, the world seems to be catching up with him.

And yes, there’s that ‘talking to plants’ comment he made at Highgrove in the late 1980s. The Prince was being droll: “My sense of humour will get me into trouble one day,” he confided to aides.  

However, two decades later, South Korean scientists proved that plants really do respond to sound.

Today the Prince of Wales still manages the gardens and Highgrove estate organically and sustainably, and Miriam’s garden is now the official Wildflower Meadow and is a haven for wildlife and natural beauty. It all started with a 32-species seed mix which Miriam sold him “at vast expense” he assured me, grinning appreciatively.  

Wildflower meadows at Highgrove.

As I listened again to the interview with HRH sharing his fears for the environment, for the declining flora and fauna, I wondered what he must be feeling now with the latest State of the Environment report showing Australia has suffered yet more catastrophic losses of wildlife and habitat. It is a bleak and damning report.

Never mind the debate on the republic, perhaps it’s time we listened to this man and I tried for another interview.

Sharon Carleton’s A Portrait of Dame Miriam Rothschild can be heard here. A transcript is also available on the same site.

Sharon Carleton joined the ABC in Perth as a cadet radio and TV reporter in the mid-1970s and went on to work for News, ‘This Day Tonight’ and ‘The 7:30 Report’ in Sydney. She has compered ‘Statewide’ in WA and ‘Nationwide’ in Canberra, and continues her affiliation with the ABC today as a regular freelance contributor to ‘The Science Show’. 

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