Once we’d landed safely on the runway at Lahore airport, Prince William walked to the back of the plane and joked with the media, “I was flying”. We all burst out laughing, but the relief was palpable. Minutes earlier, we had seen dramatic lightning flashes through the windows and hailstones as big as golf balls pounding the grey wings of the RAF Voyager.
At one point the plane lurched and suddenly dropped more than 100 feet, lifting some members of the media from their seats as they desperately clung on to equipment to stop it flying around the cabin. One could only imagine what was going through the minds of William and the Duchess of Cambridge, out of sight at the front of the plane.
After two aborted attempts to land in Islamabad we’d returned to Lahore. I’ve travelled the world as a correspondent covering the royal family for 30 years, but that roller-coaster ride in the sky over Pakistan on 17 October 2019 was the most nervous I’ve ever felt in a plane.
It was certainly a talking point during the rest of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s official visit to Pakistan at the invitation of Prime Minister Imran Khan. On the third day of their trip, the royal couple travelled by helicopter to the north of the country in the Chitral District of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province to see a melting glacier. That flight, thankfully, was not so dramatic, though the sight of the diminished glacier certainly was.
As Kate remarked: “Everyone’s asking all of us to protect the environment and what comes first is actually just to care about it in the first place. And you’re not necessarily going to care about it if you don’t know about it. That’s why we thought it was so important to come here.”
Documentary-maker Nick Kent and his team from Oxford Films also joined us at the glacier. For Nick, it was just one leg of a two-year filming journey accompanying the duke, and on occasion the duchess as well, as he travelled at home and abroad observing the environmental damage being caused to the planet and championing the efforts of those trying to heal it.
The result is a personal and highly revealing film in which William not only puts himself centre stage in the climate-change debate, but also underlines where the motivation for his involvement comes from. As a father, William explains, he now sees things differently. “I feel it is my duty, and our collective responsibility to leave our planet in a stronger position for our children.
“My grandfather, my father, have been in environmental work for many years. My grandfather’s well ahead of his time. My father, ahead of his time. And I really want to make sure that, in 20 years, George doesn’t turn round and say, ‘are you ahead of your time?’ Because if he does, we’re too late.”
It’s no surprise to me that William is once again using television, a platform where his natural warmth comes through, to share his life’s mission statement – which is to help save the natural world. It is this road map that drives him. Doing so will help him step from the shadow of his late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, his environmental champion father, the Prince of Wales, as well as the slightly contrived double act he shared with his brother Harry, before he married Kate.
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At 38, William may well be the man who appears to have everything; a loving wife, three healthy children, personal wealth, two amazing homes in London and the country, and global respect and recognition. William accepts he’s a lucky man, but we see him at a crossroads, too. He seems a man in a hurry. His earlier television films on mental health showed part of that progression.
But, in my view, it’s his role as a champion of the natural world and his determination to use his fame and influence to be a bridge between the passionate young and sceptical old that drives him and may, in time, define him and his reign. Look at what he says in the film about generational change, in particular the slight impatience he shows with those who won’t commit to taking action.
“That generational gap has to be bridged, so that the older political leaders understand that the younger generation mean business. They want their futures protected. I owe it to them to help their voices be heard,” he says. It’s powerful stuff; a real statement of intent.
When he was growing up, William always loved nature and he went on to read Geography at St Andrew’s University, where he met Kate. His father, Prince Charles, who made his first major speech on the environment in February 1970, always impressed upon him the importance of nature and also its fragility. His grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh, is a pioneer, too – in 1961 he became the first President of World Wildlife Fund UK.
It is William’s love for his own children, and empathy with the younger generation, that empowers him to seek change. Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis are seen in the film, playing in woodland. “Fatherhood has given me a new sense of purpose,” says William. “Now I have got George, Charlotte and Louis in my life… your outlook does change.”
Despite observing some of the damage we’ve inflicted on the natural world, William’s positive attitude radiates through the film. He embraces hope as well as a sense of urgency. From inner-city Liverpool to the Scottish coast, it’s young people who are leading the way and effecting crucial change. William acknowledges the work of 17-year-old Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg in galvanising the younger generation to action, but he has also been inspired by children making a difference in their own homes.
“I’ve been very lucky that through the lockdown I’ve been here, surrounded by wildlife,” he says, while filming on the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk, where he has a country home, Anmer Hall. “And I can’t talk about coronavirus without mentioning about how many people sadly lost their lives and how terrible and sad that all is. But I think if there’s any ray of light, it’s that it allows us to take stock and to refocus our priorities,” he says.
“I’ve been really heartened by what I’ve been hearing from other people and how they’ve started to appreciate nature and experience it – and see all the things that they never thought they would.
“We’ve seen organisations mobilising themselves like never before. The research collaboration, the sharing of expertise, money found to support people. If we can provide the same motivation with the environment we will have truly turned a corner. Investment, green fashion. We need to build back greener. Young people won’t stand for saying it’s not possible.”
During filming, William met Sir David Attenborough, who he previously interviewed at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year. This time it was at the official naming ceremony of the British Antarctic Research vessel that bears Sir David’s name. “The world is facing great problems,” says Sir David, “and the most aware of that are the young people of today who will inherit this world.”
William is filmed paying a surprise visit to an initiative in Liverpool where primary school children, led by schoolboy Elliott Fitzpatrick, now 11, have planted up a wildflower meadow in a neglected part of the city. Elliott’s big idea has become the phenomenon of Backyard Nature, a campaign with 10,000 “guardians” that helps connect schoolchildren and their families with wildlife and nature in their area.
William also travels to Tanzania, where he’s shocked to be shown an ivory store where 43,000 tusks with a street value of £50 million have been impounded. On his return to London, he invites world leaders to an international conference to combat the illegal wildlife trade. “If we can’t fix that,” says William, “how can we ever hope to tackle climate change?”
It is a powerful point and shows that we can all do our bit, stressing the most important place to start is in our own homes and our community. In Anglesey, where he and Kate lived as newlyweds when he was serving in the RAF, William sees local people tackling plastic pollution and helps them clean their beach. He then visits Scotland, where children have successfully campaigned to protect their coastal waters from industrial dredging, saving the local wildlife and the fishermen’s livelihoods in the process.
Back at Sandringham, William reflects on how the local coastline is in severe danger from rising sea levels. Extreme weather conditions, flooding and wildfires are becoming more frequent each year. Deforestation is also a massive problem, as William discovers when wildlife cameraman James Aldred climbs a 400-year-old oak tree at Wolferton Woods on Sandringham and reveals the air-cleaning properties of ancient woodland.
“Prince William is an optimist,” observes film-maker Nick Kent. “He has always believed it’s possible to give young people hope, and truly believes that things can get fixed.” It is that sense of hope, more than anything, that shines through the man who will one day be king.
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.
Prince William: A Planet For Us All airs on ITV at 9pm on Monday 5th October.