The day I kept the Duke of Edinburgh waiting in Norfolk

Jim Wilson, the Duke of Edinburgh and presenter Christine Webber

Jim Wilson, the Duke of Edinburgh and presenter Christine Webber at Anglia House on the occasion of the 5,000th edition of About Anglia - Credit: Submitted

On the weekend of Prince Philip’s funeral, Jim Wilson OBE recalls the day he left him waiting at the Royal Norfolk Showground

I don’t know whether it was him or me who got his instructions muddled, but given the late Duke of Edinburgh’s reputation for punctilious timekeeping it led to considerable embarrassment for me.

Back in the 1980s I was editor and producer of Anglia TV’s nightly news/magazine programme About Anglia, which in its early days made its presenter Dick Joice a household favourite across the region. 

By 1985 we were coming up to a milestone, the programme’s 5,000th edition. Lord Buxton, a close friend of the Duke’s, fellow enthusiast for the natural world, and pioneer for conservation with his groundbreaking Survival programmes, had suggested Prince Philip might agree to be About Anglia’s special guest to mark the occasion.

At home one Sunday morning I received a phone call from Aubrey Buxton telling me that, in an-hour-and-a-half, the Duke would be attending a briefing for competitors of a three-day carriage driving competition to be held at Wramplingham Hall near Wymondham. Could I go there, meet the Duke and make arrangements for him to attend the Anglia studios the following afternoon?

I arrived at the hall as the competitors were assembling to find Prince Philip was due but had not yet arrived. I sat myself at the back of the room intending to catch him and introduce myself when the briefing was over. We waited.....and we waited. The minutes ticked by. Finally the event organisers decided they couldn’t keep everyone waiting any longer and started the briefing. 

The prince was highly respected in the sport. 

He was credited with having brought it to the UK and had recently won a bronze medal at the World Championships. After another 20 minutes Prince Philip strode in with his retinue loudly apologising to his fellow competitors and explaining that he had been waiting at the Royal Norfolk Showground “to meet someone from Anglia Television who never turned up!”

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What was I to do now? The Duke had a reputation – underserved I think – of being irascible – not suffering fools gladly. I had to sit through the rest of the briefing contemplating facing him for the first time in what I suspected would be far from a forgiving frame of mind. 

When the meeting ended I went up to him, introduced myself, apologised profusely, explained I had definitely been told to meet him at Wramplingham and awaited what I thought would be an angry outburst. None came.

He wasn’t pleased, but given the situation he recognised the embarrassment, put me at ease, and treated me with a kindness I certainly was not expecting. 

The next day he drove himself from Sandringham to Anglia House and was hugely co-operative in the pre-programme discussion and in his interview with Christine Webber in the studio – greeting her as follows:  “Hello, you look much too young to be presenting the 5,000th edition.”

Fast forward some 15 years to 2002 and I was chairman of Norfolk Police Authority with the privilege of hosting the Queen and Prince Philip alongside the then chief constable Ken Williams, at the opening of Norfolk’s new police headquarters, Jubilee House, at Wymondham.

As we walked with the royal party into the building at Falconer’s Chase the prince looked up to the mezzanine floor above the reception area, spotted the wooden planking forming the barrier round the balcony, pointed upwards and came out with the comment: “I see you haven’t even removed all the packing cases yet.” Neither the architect or the builders were in earshot.

The newspapers referred to his one-liners as ‘gaffes’. They were not. It was his way of breaking the ice, relaxing you , putting you at ease. The opening that day was held on a particularly auspicious occasion for them to be together – the eve of Accession Day at the start of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Year.

Since then she has celebrated her Diamond Jubilee with Prince Phillip at her side. The duke was a remarkable man devoted to Sandringham where he continued carriage driving until 2010 when his carriage hit a tree stump overturned and he was flung out. 

He was fortunate to escape with nothing worse than bruising, but the Queen felt that at the age of 88 he had had enough of dangerous sports, it was time for him to hang up his reins.