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70 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth is still popular — unlike her heir, Charles

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The United Kingdom is celebrating Queen Elizabeth's seven decades on the throne. The Platinum Jubilee runs through Sunday, and it may be the most that Britons see of their monarch in months. That's because at 96 years old, she's been retreating from public life and leaving more of her duties to her heir, Prince Charles. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

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FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Today Prince Charles stepped in for his mother, inspecting the troops at the queen's official birthday parade known as Trooping the Color. It was part of a generational transition that has been in the works since at least last year. There's just one problem. While the queen remains hugely popular here, her son is not. Yesterday I walked around the lawns near Buckingham Palace gauging opinion. Anna Coughlan (ph) was sitting on a blanket, having a picnic with her mother and three young children.

How do you feel about the queen?

ANNA COUGHLAN: She's a treasure, isn't she?

LANGFITT: I'm curious. How do you feel about Prince Charles?

COUGHLAN: He's all right, yeah (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can be a bit weird.

COUGHLAN: He's not as charismatic as she is, you know, 'cause she led the country through so many huge things. Charles is nice, and I think he's got good attitude to sustainability and the environment, but he's sort of second fiddle to her, so - and he's super-old already.

LANGFITT: Indeed, Charles is already 73. Anna Coughlan's views are pretty representative. About 80% of Britons see the queen positively, according to polls, while only about one-third want Charles to become king. Many people remain unhappy with Charles because of how he handled his first marriage. Max Hastings is the former editor of Britain's The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard.

MAX HASTINGS: The legacy of the whole Diana catastrophe - it does go very deep. And the image that Diana passed onto the world about the Prince of Wales is not a very attractive image.

LANGFITT: What is that image?

HASTINGS: It was an image of a very selfish, quirky, weird man who couldn't understand for the life of him why he was expected to give up his long-term mistress just because he married a young girl.

LANGFITT: After Charles married Diana, he maintained an affair with his old flame, Camilla Parker Bowles, who was also married. Diana once put it, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded. The couple finally divorced in 1996. Prince Charles married Camilla in 2005. The prince does have many supporters. One is Sue Douse (ph). She pitched a tent yesterday near the palace to ensure a view of today's parade. Douse cites Charles' long environmental record. The prince has embraced sustainability, biodiversity and organic farming for decades.

SUE DOUSE: A lot of people have ridiculed him over the years. But, actually, when you look at some of the things with this environment, he was really right at the forefront of some of that. I think it's going to be a very hard act for him to follow the queen, and it would be very hard for anybody.

LANGFITT: Many royal analysts say Prince Charles should make the environment the signature issue of his reign. That could help keep the monarchy relevant and connect with younger generations who view the institution more skeptically. Last fall, the prince addressed the global climate change summit in Glasgow.

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PRINCE CHARLES MOUNTBATTEN-WINDSOR: The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how devastating a global cross-border threat can be. Climate change and biodiversity loss are no different. In fact, they pose an even greater existential threat to the extent that we have to put ourselves on what might be called a warlike footing.

LANGFITT: But when the prince has expressed some of his views to British officials, he's been accused of trying to influence government policy. In the 2000s, he sent private memos urging officials to, among other things, reverse spending cuts on homeopathic medicine. He also requested funding for his own Afghan charity. Some thought he violated a fundamental rule that the monarchy stays out of politics. Again, Max Hastings.

HASTINGS: There's nothing wrong with any private individual wanting to support homeopathic medicine, but it was obviously completely constitutionally wrong for the prince of Wales to use his influence in this way.

LANGFITT: Dominic Grieve served as attorney general and defends the prince.

DOMINIC GRIEVE: I think the letters he was writing were absolutely in the public interest. They were expressions of his view based on his knowledge. And it's important for ministers to have that. It wasn't telling ministers what to do.

LANGFITT: The prince's critics worry he could become what they call an activist king, which they say could undermine the monarchy at a time when it won't enjoy the goodwill and public support that it has under the queen. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Buckingham Palace. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.