November 30, 1998 12:00 PM

If there is an etiquette manual that includes the proper salutation for a prince on his birthday, Robin Williams obviously hasn’t read it. “You’re 50—that’s 7 in corgi years!” Williams quipped to Prince Charles in a taped toast screened at the prince’s London birthday benefit on Oct. 28, 17 days before his actual birthday. “What do you get, a small country?”

Could be a sore point, Robin: The country probably won’t be this prince’s for years. Yet even though Britain’s crown still sits squarely on his hearty 72-year-old mother’s head, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales—Charles Philip Arthur George to his friends—managed to kick off his second half-century with a days-long celebration fit for a king.

In addition to Williams’s toast, which had Charles in stitches, the gala for 2,000 at London’s Lyceum Theatre featured a breathy rendition of “Happy Birthday” by ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. But the highlight of the event, which raised $412,000 for Charles’s Prince’s Trust charity, was a sketch in which the guest of honor played a celebrity-impersonating waiter serving actors Roger Moore and Stephen Fry. Two weeks later, on the eve of Charles’s birthday, the Queen threw an uncharacteristically swinging bash at Buckingham Palace, complete with circus acts, rock bands and rare words of praise for her eldest son. “Charles,” she declared as she raised her glass, “tonight’s party is a tribute to all you have achieved…. Everyone has benefited from the breadth of your interests, from your vision, compassion and leadership.” (Thanking her, the beaming birthday boy called her “Mummy.”)

Then, on Nov. 14, some 340 of the prince’s nearest and dearest (sons Prince William, 16, and Prince Harry, 14; Queen Sofia of Spain; Queen Sonja of Norway; and five other crowned heads of Europe among them) gathered at Highgrove, Charles’s Gloucestershire country home, to dance, dine on Welsh lamb, quaff pink champagne and hoot when William, after toasting his dad, urged him to “give us the full monty!” (Dad graciously declined.)

Charles’s longtime love Camilla Parker Bowles, 51, who helped plan the affair, cut a positively glamorous figure in a deep green velvet Antony Price gown with a plunging neckline, set off by an eye-popping turquoise-and-diamond necklace. She and the prince, who partied until 3 a.m. before apparently spending a rare night under the same roof as William and Harry, “looked radiant and joyous,” reports a fellow guest. Says talk show host Sir David Frost, a friend of the couple’s: “It was simply the happiest party I can remember.”

For the man who will be king, the revelry—along with national polls in which 63 percent of people surveyed thought he would make a good monarch—couldn’t have come at a better time. In the 14 months since Princess Diana’s death, the prince has grown closer to his sons and less formal with his public—thanks partly, no doubt, to his former wife’s example. “He’s more down-to-earth than the other royals,” 86-year-old Tom Ford commented after Charles toured a recreation center for the elderly in Sunderland this month. “He mixes with the ordinary chap.” Says British psychiatrist Dennis Friedman, author of Darling Georgie: The Enigma of King George V: “It’s as if he’s getting more user-friendly.”

In the process, he has managed to refocus media attention on long-term good works like the Prince’s Trust, which helps underprivileged young people find jobs. “Charles was eclipsed by Diana’s dazzle,” says Peter Archer, the royals correspondent for the British Press Association. “Now people are taking notice [of him again].”

Not all the attention, however, has been welcome. On Nov. 8 an ITV documentary reported that the prince would be “privately delighted” if his mother abdicated. The assertion, to which Charles issued a vehement denial, came on the heels of several newspaper pieces depicting his relations with the Queen as chronically strained. “She occasionally finds him wimpish, and his private life completely confounds her,” says Graham Turner, author of a three-part series on the prince, published in Britain’s respected Daily Telegraph. And while she recognizes, according to Peter Archer, “that Camilla is central to the emotional well-being of her son,” she isn’t pleased about it. “The Queen doesn’t think a great deal of Camilla—she’s the woman who led Charles astray,” Turner says. “She would worry about the implications for the monarchy [if they married].”

Her subjects, it seems, would worry too: In a poll taken this month, almost half the Britons surveyed said Charles and Camilla should marry, but nearly eight out of 10 believe she shouldn’t be his queen (a state of affairs achievable only through an act of Parliament). And if the prince needed further proof that Diana’s fans still resent her former nemesis, the outrage unleashed by journalist Penny Junor’s just-published biography, Charles: Victim or Villain?, provided it. So incensed were the tabloids (“Charles in vile attack on Diana,” exclaimed one headline) over Junor’s claims that Diana had made threats on Camilla’s life and committed adultery before Charles did that the prince took unprecedented action, issuing a statement jointly with Camilla on Oct. 25 denying that either had cooperated with the book. “If his friends talked to Junor as a way to increase public acceptance of Camilla,” says fashion entrepreneur Roberto Devorik, a close friend of Diana’s, “it rebounded badly.”

It also highlighted the fact that, at an age when most people can afford to shrug off the way others view them, the Prince of Wales must still submit his love life to the approval of his mother and the masses. Camilla—who met both William and Harry this past summer but has never been formally introduced to the Queen—was not invited to Charles’s birthday festivities at Buckingham Palace. And the Queen and Prince Philip pointedly stayed away from the Highgrove fete—as did all three of Charles’s siblings. (Edward and Andrew were conveniently abroad; Princess Anne just happened to be hosting a 21st-birthday party for her son Peter Phillips at Windsor Castle the same night.) “Charles wants recognition for Camilla,” says the British Press Association’s Peter Archer, “but he doesn’t want to put his mother in a position where they’ll meet until the time is right. It’s all bound up with sensitive judgments about what the British people are ready to accept.”

A lifetime of training, of course, has made him proficient at such judgments. From his early childhood at Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s eldest son learned that duty always came before pleasure. Cared for mostly by nannies, the young Charles endured long periods without his mother: On one now-infamous occasion, the Queen, returning after six months away on royal business, greeted her eagerly approaching 5-year-old with the words “No, not you, dear,” before turning her attention to a group of dignitaries waiting to shake her hand.

His school years reinforced the message. Shy and lonely at Cheam boarding school, where the other boys called him “Fatty,” the prince turned actively miserable during the five years he spent at Gordonstoun, Prince Philip’s take-no-prisoners alma mater in northeastern Scotland. Days at the academy, founded in 1934 with the stated aim of “releasing well-to-do boys from the prison of privilege,” began with a shirtless run and a cold shower, rain or shine. An academic “plodder,” as one of his nannies described him, and a slower study still on the ball fields, Charles was teased mercilessly for his big ears. In letters home, he described school as “a prison sentence.”

But home wasn’t much of an improvement. The outgoing Princess Anne, younger than Charles by two years, “was always her father’s daughter,” says royals author Brian Hoey. The Queen, by all accounts, favored Edward and Andrew. Only at Cambridge—where Charles studied anthropology and history, dabbled in acting and began to attract girls—did he start to come into his own. Camilla Shand, the vibrant young aristocrat he first encountered at the Guards Polo Club in Windsor during a postgrad stint in the Royal Navy, might have completed the process, but duty—and ambivalence—won out. Shipped to the Caribbean for an eight-month tour shortly after the pair met, 22-year-old Charles wrote in a letter to his beloved great-uncle “Dickie” Mountbatten that he supposed his “feeling of emptiness” without Camilla would pass. It didn’t. And by the time he came home, she had married cavalry captain Andrew Parker Bowles. The rest, of course, is modern history’s best-known fractured fairy tale.

The Parker Bowleses, who had two children, divorced in 1995. That same year, Camilla moved to Ray Mill house, not far from Highgrove. Though her relationship with Charles remains under wraps, the prince and his paramour have settled into a comfortable routine. They spend two or three evenings a week together, either at St. James’s Palace in London or at Highgrove, where they enjoy listening to classical music (Haydn and Mozart are favorites) and puttering in Charles’s extensive gardens (Camilla’s birthday gift to Charles, reports Britain’s Sun, was a wooden garden love seat inscribed with two linked C’s). Country girl Camilla “will wear the same clothes day after day in the garden and just leave them there,” says royals author Hoey. The prince loves her casual look, but he hasn’t adopted it. “He’s the only person I know who wears a collar and tie under a sweater,” says Hoey. “When he’s gardening he’ll wear gardening clothes, but the corduroys will have been beautifully pressed.”

There are other differences. Camilla smokes a pack and a half of cigarettes a day, while Charles, who constantly urges her to stop, is so health conscious that “when he’s at home he doesn’t eat anything that hasn’t been grown organically in his gardens,” says Hoey. Still, the couple share a love of horses, dogs and hunting, and, says author Jilly Cooper, a friend of Camilla’s, “a wonderful sense of humor,” which helps them withstand the pressures of living endlessly scrutinized lives. “Being able to laugh at herself,” Cooper says, “is what saves Camilla from the appalling [media] mauling she has had.”

Unlike Diana, she knows when not to laugh, too. “Charles is not a great intellectual, but he pretends to be,” says Hoey. “If he’s got guests for dinner, they are often told before they sit down what the main topic of conversation will be that night. He might say, ‘Tonight we’ll talk about deciduous trees,’ and they all start looking it up like mad. When he used to do this in front of Diana, she would interrupt and say, ‘For God’s sake, Charles, who really wants to talk about all that?’ ”

Little by little, their friends believe, Charles is easing Camilla toward an official place in his life. Since she met them earlier this year, she and Charles’s boys, says Peter Archer, “see each other quite often, and they all get on well.” (Friendships have also developed between William and Harry and Camilla’s children—Tom, 23, who works for a film publicist, and Laura, 19, a student.) At the opening of an exhibit featuring the watercolors of Charles and others at Hampton Court Palace two weeks ago, Camilla put in a surprise appearance, her first at one of the prince’s public events. “This evening is killing several birds with one stone,” Charles told his 180 guests, alluding, if awkwardly, to the presence of his paramour. Yet the couple, who haven’t been photographed in public together since the late 1980s, took care not to be seen talking together the entire evening.

Twenty years ago, on the occasion of his 30th birthday, Prince Charles told TIME, “[I haven’t] decided what mark I would like to make on history. I only hope it won’t be a messy mark.” Whether or not he will take his destiny in hand now is an open question. Never ashamed of voicing opinions in his public life, the prince has seen many of his fringy ideas (like organic farming) become mainstream. “People used to think he was a bit of a joke,” says his friend Lady Harrod, a preservationist. “But they listen to him now.” One day, says psychiatrist Dennis Friedman, “I think he’s going to have to say ‘I’m going to be king, and I intend to marry Camilla,’ whether it meets the requirements of the Church of England or not.”

For at least a moment on the night of Nov. 14, he may have been sending the message that he was equal to the task. As the chilly evening faded to dawn, Prince Charles and Camilla moved in synchrony on the Highgrove dance floor to a recording by the ’70s group Abba. The song, one of their favorites, was “Dancing Queen.”

Kim Hubbard

Simon Perry and Nina Biddle in London and Nancy Perry Graham in Los Angeles

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