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  • From 1977, a tale of a prince and a wink

    Posted On April 18, 2021

    By Karan Thapar

    At the time I wondered if the wink was deliberate. Later, I began to question whether I’d imagined or even made it up. But when it supposedly happened it was hard to miss. It also made me feel insufferably special!


    It was June or maybe July of 1977, I was graduating from Cambridge and Prince Phillip was the new chancellor of the university. This was the first graduation ceremony he presided over. I was kitted out in full subfusc and mortarboard with the tassels dangling at a becomingly rakish angle. Of course his gown was more elaborate and colourful.


    However, I’d been ready for a while. Along with a few chums from Pembroke, we’d already had ourselves photographed in full graduate regalia. That picture, with its cheesy smile, hangs in my study.


    That morning there was quite a crowd outside Senate House. The Duke was the obvious draw but so too was the line up to receive honourary PhDs. The two I remember were Queen Margarethe of Denmark and General Gowon of Nigeria. She was tall, stately and striking. At 37 she was a very pretty queen indeed. Beside her Gowon cut a foolish and sorry figure. He looked far too pleased with himself. He seemed to bounce rather than walk with a silly smile plastered across his face. “Butcher of Biafra” someone in the crowd shouted as he processed past. Gowon pretended not to hear.


    Pembroke was amongst the first five colleges who’s would-be graduates were asked to enter Senate House to receive their degrees. The Duke was sitting on a high backed gilded chair at the far end of an aisle each of had to walk down one at a time. It was a short but carefully choreographed ceremony. Each of us was required to kneel in front of the chancellor and place our  hands in his. He was supposed to speak in Latin but I noticed that a proctor, who tried to look inconspicuous by the Duke’s side, took that task upon himself.


    When it was my turn I got my gown entangled between my knees as I descended to rest on them. Consequently my hands plunged into the Prince’s. He stared at me forbiddingly as I mouthed a silent apology. My face was the colour of a ripe tomato.


    Meanwile the proctor droned on in incomprehensible Latin. It didn’t last very long. A few minutes, if that. When it was over I scrambled to my feet, mercifully without any further mistake. And that’s  when it happened.


    As he released my hands the Duke winked. It was very quick, no doubt, but clear and obvious nonetheless. And he kept a straight face. There wasn’t even a hint of a smile. Yet one of his eyes had unmistakably shut and re-opened whilst the other continued to look fixedly ahead.


    I spent the rest of the day talking about it. The Prince was the first member of any Royal family I had met and at 21 that seemed to count for a lot. But what I couldn’t get over was the wink. I kept asking if he had winked at everyone else? Or did he have a problem with one of his eyes? Was it, in fact, a squint? Whatever the explanation, I felt special. Almost chosen.


    Around thirteen years later I was part of ‘The Walden Interview’ team at London Weekend Television when Brian Walden, the host, interviewed the Prince’s daughter Anne. For security reasons her car drove  into the basement. I was one of the people waiting to receive her as she’s stepped out of the Rolls.


    When she learnt I was a Cambridge graduate she asked if I was there after her father became chancellor. I needed no further prompting. My story spilt out and I told her about the wink.


    “Typical of him”,  she snorted. That’s the closest she comes to a genial smile. “If you’d stumbled as you got up he’d have roared with laughter!”

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