Two alumni who shared the stage with the then Prince of Wales during their undergraduate years recall an unpretentious, accomplished man – a pilot, a cellist and above all a very good actor.
John Cox, who studied English, was a Fresher in 1967 and peer of the Prince; and John Parry, who studied Classics and English at Trinity, was in his second year.
50 years on, Dr Parry recalls the first time he knew of the Prince’s arrival. His Tutor, Dr Theo Redpath, invited him to a meeting and said, reassuringly, ‘You can call him Charles.’
Prince Charles studied Archaeology and Anthropology for a year and then History for two years. While Trinity has a long association with the British Royal Family, the Prince of Wales was unique in undertaking the same course of study as other undergraduates, graduating in 1970.
‘He was breaking new ground. I don’t think that any eminent Royal Prince had been to university in quite that way before, if ever,’ said John Cox.
The College, under the Master Lord Butler, was committed to making Prince Charles’ experience as normal a student life as possible. He joined the College orchestra, practising the cello in his rooms, played polo, including for the University, and learnt to fly.
He was a natural on the stage and enjoyed discussions about scripts and gags, according to Dr Parry and Mr Cox recall.
The Actor Prince
In 1967 Dr Parry produced the annual ‘Trinity Revue’, on behalf the Dryden Society, the College’s drama society. Among the students he invited to a script meeting in his room were the Prince of Wales and John Cox where it became clear they were to write as well as perform.
Together, the group of around ten students worked on sketches including ‘The Exam Simulator’, in which Prince Charles played an assertive invigilator, homing in on the candidate using a pair of binoculars; and ‘Going for a quick one’ which involved him wrestling with a set of bagpipes, a parody of ‘Going for a Song’, the popular forerunner of the Antiques Roadshow.
‘We had great fun. In some ways we had more fun preparing material and exchanging ideas than actually performing it where we had suddenly become more aware of the public pressures [with the Prince being involved],’ said Mr Cox.
‘He was not one to hog the limelight. I think he enjoyed the ensemble work; he enjoyed the reciprocity of ideas and the engagement.’
The Prince of Wales took part in two Revues – Revulution [sic] in 1969 and Quietly Flows the Don in 1970.
The 1969 Revue, performed in the Trinity Theatre now the College Bar, hit the headlines, not only because of the involvement of the Prince, but also because of the objections of the ‘Lord’s Day Observance Society’, angry about an extra performance scheduled for a Sunday. The performance was postponed.
The Prince’s love of the ‘Goon Show’, a British radio comedy programme, originally produced and broadcast by the BBC Home Service from 1951 to 1960, is widely known.
His famed appearance in the 1970 Revue sitting in a dustbin was inspired in part by Goon Spike Milligan’s sketch ‘Jump into a dustbin and dance’, says Dr Parry, and also by the Prince’s experience being woken early by a refuse collector singing loudly as he went to down Trinity Lane each week.
Newspapers in the UK and beyond published images of the Prince of Wales in a dustbin wearing ‘a Dylan hat which he was very proud of,’ says Dr Parry.
Tickets for the sell-out performances cost 50 new pence and were bought and sold on a ‘black market’ according to his peers. Dr Parry remembers a Porter contacting him and saying: ‘We’ve had a phone call from Japan. They want to fly over an airplane full of tourists. Have you got enough tickets?’
The Prince’s father, the late Duke of Edinburgh contributed ideas to a script and attended a performance. ‘He [the Prince] apologised afterwards for the sound of his father laughing… we said actually it was wonderful,’ Mr Cox said.
At a dinner for the actors, Mr Cox recalled that the Prince came in his monogrammed slippers = ‘pleasing mixture of comfort and formality.’
‘A talent for farce’
Dr Parry also cast the Prince as the padre in Joe Orton’s play Erpingham Camp, originally written for television in 1966 and set in a holiday camp where the campers rebel over the strictures of the manager.
The performance was well reviewed. Student-turned theatre critic Valerie Grosvenor Myer wrote of a ‘pleasantly poised portrayal’ by the Prince in The Guardian:
‘His voice is not strong, but it is very clear, and is face is mobile: his look of shrinking pain when one of the characters used a four-letter word was extremely funny. And there was a certain piquancy in the future supreme head of the Church of England taking part in a ritual where this institution is shown as pretty effete … it’s not every festival which offers the spectacle of the heir to the throne getting a custard pie full in his face.’
Looking back, Dr Parry said the Prince’s acting skills had stood him in good stead.
‘When we see him [nowadays] especially on walkabouts he’s often telling a joke and that gets people relaxed. Because I think actually he’s very shy and it’s a lot easier [when you] get people laughing …’
Despite the sanctuary and relative freedom of Trinity, he was still ‘a prince in training,’ undertaking public engagements, including representing the Queen, and attending functions worldwide.
When Prince Charles had to miss a Revue rehearsal because of a state banquet for US President Richard Nixon, he returned to College with a Land Rover full of dressing-up costumes from Buckingham Palace.
‘A chance to mess about’
In many ways the College was a refuge for the Prince away from the public gaze. His involvement in the Revue gave him ‘a chance to mess about’, said Dr Parry.
Mr Cox recalls the Prince asking him to a Footlights Smoker – a one-night show by Cambridge’s famous thespians. ‘I think he enjoyed the opportunity to meet other people who weren’t being sycophantic or ingratiating. He did not seem to fit with the “hooray Henrys” of the time,’ he said.
‘It was pretty clear that he relished doing something that he wanted to do, and that he could do so without too many constraints.’
Dr Parry taught at the Perse School and Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, and in KV College, Southport and returned to Cambridge to teach at Long Road Sixth Form College before his retirement.
Mr Cox taught English in schools in Shropshire, Suffolk and London. At Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury, he was Head of English and later Assistant Headteacher and directed over 50 dramatic and musical productions. He retired in 2010.
Based on interviews with Dr Parry and Mr Cox in Spring 2022 by Professor Adrian Poole and Dr Paula Wolffe.