My Brush with King Charles

Prince Charles in Colonial Williamsburg near the College of William & Mary in May of 1981. (Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Prince Charles in Colonial Williamsburg near the College of William & Mary in May of 1981. (Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Prince Charles in Colonial Williamsburg near the College of William & Mary, May 1981. (Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Many years ago while visiting London, my wife Pam stepped off the curb and was almost run over by Prince Andrew’s car. Had she been underage perhaps Andrew would have stopped, but instead he just waved at her as he drove past. I too once had a brush with the royal family, and while it wasn’t life-threatening, it was life-altering. First, a few paragraphs to set the scene.

After working at various TV stations for ten years, I started a television production company in 1980 which allowed me to develop and distribute my own programs. The first couple of years, however, were lean ones, so I accepted freelance work from network broadcasters to keep the company afloat. CNN had just signed on the air and was always looking for news content, so I soon became a regular supplier of feature stories. Sometime during the last week of April 1981, I got a call from CNN to see if my crew could shoot video footage during Prince Charles’ upcoming visit to Colonial Williamsburg. Naturally, I said yes and began making plans to cover the big event.

Charles was to make a four-day swing through the east coast with stops in New York City, Washington, D.C., Norfolk (to inspect the USS Nimitz), and then on to Williamsburg, where he was scheduled to tour the Colonial Capitol and Governor’s Palace, and receive an honorary fellowship from the College of William and Mary. It may be hard to fathom now, but back then Charles was the world’s most eligible bachelor and a rock star of major proportions. Girls screamed at the Prince as he walked past Chandler Hall, where they displayed a hastily made banner that said “Hi Charlie!” It was as if the Beatles had come to town. They would have their hearts broken less than three months later, however, when Charles married Diana, but for that moment, he belonged to the screaming co-eds of William & Mary.

Unlike my other assignments for CNN in which I would write and narrate my own stories, on this day we were only responsible for shooting footage and assisting Kathleen Sullivan who would produce the package and appear on camera. Sullivan was the first female anchor hired by CNN, and one of the most stunningly beautiful women I had ever met. She was also a pretty good journalist, so I had no ego problems with playing a supporting role that day. Speaking of which, that day was Sunday, May 3. The weather was perfect for a royal visit, and for shooting video.

Back then the industry standard for recording video in the field was a 3/4 inch Sony U-matic cassette. Normally after shooting a story for CNN, we would hustle back to our offices in Petersburg to tape my voice-over and edit the package. There was no internet then, thus no way of emailing a video file. Instead, I had to take the finished tape to the airport and put it on the next flight to Atlanta. I always saved the raw tapes, and, for safety’s sake kept a dub (copy) of the completed package. Here’s where all this dull technical jargon begins to connect to what went wrong with my royal encounter.

For this assignment, neither I nor Kathleen would have to worry about putting tapes on a plane to Atlanta because she planned to drive to the CNN bureau in D.C. and have everything edited there. Since there would be no time to make dubs of everything in the field, I asked Kathleen to make sure she returned the raw tapes to me after the story was edited. She understood that our footage would have some historical importance, so she agreed to my request. Meanwhile, since Kathleen was acting as talent, it freed me up to take still photos of the occasion, so I strapped a 35mm camera around my neck and started snapping pictures as we followed Charles and Virginia Governor John Dalton around Colonial Williamsburg. Toward the end of the tour, the two men were about to enter the Colonial Capitol, and I had a chance at immortality.

Throughout the day, Charles had granted no interviews, nor posed for individual TV stations or networks, but I had an ace up my sleeve. I had worked with Gov. Dalton on a number of video assignments, and he was always obliging to me, so while all other photojournalists could only see the backs of the two men, I shouted out to Dalton, “Governor, turn him around for me”. Dalton complied, and now not only would I have some great video of Charles, but I would also be able to snap a potential Pulitzer Prize-winning photo destined for the cover of TIME magazine. I clicked off several shots, then Dalton and Charles turned back around and headed into the Capitol. My assignment had ended, and I was on cloud nine. I handed the video tapes over to Kathleen and reminded her to make sure no one at the D.C. bureau erased them before she could mail them back to me. She told me not to worry, and I trusted her because, after all, she was an anchorperson, and TV anchors are trustworthy.

Back at our office I realized that, during the day, I had tried to take about 50 photos on a roll of film that only had 24 exposures. In other words, I hadn’t kept track of how many times the shutter clicked, and so there were no photos of Prince Charles on that roll. So much for my Pulitzer Prize, but at least I would be able to relive that historic day once Kathleen mailed our raw tapes back to me. I called her the next day to make sure she had my correct address, and that’s when she told me the tapes had gotten lost and she didn’t know where they were. It was the last time I ever spoke to Kathleen Sullivan, and the last time I ever attempted to pose as a still photographer. 

Today my wife has a beautiful Wedgwood plate on display in our house, which has a personal inscription from The Duchess of York, whose husband had once tried to kill Pam. But nowhere in our house is a photo or video of England’s new king, who I once spent the day with. I feel badly about this entire incident, so perhaps Camilla will send me a plate to ease my pain. Long live the King, and to hell with Kathleen Sullivan.

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