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Edward Windsor: Truly a Prince Among Producers

Television: The youngest son of Queen Elizabeth II is gaining acclaim for his non-royal work, particularly on this side of the Atlantic.

September 26, 1998|SUSAN KARLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The press conference schedule simply said Edward Windsor. No title. No mention of a royal lineage. Just a name, as he wants to be known in the television business. But this wasn't your average executive.

Around banquet tables of English tea and finger sandwiches, surrounded by draping velvet banners and classical music, nearly 200 American media reporters anxiously awaited a close encounter with a real live member of British royalty at a Pasadena hotel.

Since forming Ardent Productions in late 1993, Prince Edward has juggled dual lives of a working royal (he attends more than 65 official engagements a year) and working TV producer.

After a slow start, his company hit it big in 1996 with "Edward on Edward," a documentary that aired on PBS and profiled his great uncle King Edward VIII, who abdicated the British throne in 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. That was followed by a 1996 New York Festivals Award for the Learning Channel's "Castle Ghosts of England," a visit to the 1997 National Assn. of Television Program Executives convention and meeting with top TV executives in Los Angeles in February.

Edward's biggest splash came in July, when he held court at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena. Soft-spoken and reserved, Edward affably fielded questions from a fascinated press corps, who kept stumbling over how to address him, then mixed with them at a champagne cocktail party afterward. He was there to promote the American telecast of "Crown and Country," a documentary series he hosts chronicling the royal family's effect on English history and the legends of its famous historical sites.

"Crown and Country" premieres Sunday on PBS with a two-hour program, followed by six episodes in subsequent weeks. In addition, three more Ardent projects will grace American airwaves this season. On Nov. 1, the Learning Channel will feature "Tales From the Tower," true stories about the Tower of London's dungeon; in December, A&E will air "The Cater Street Hangman," a two-hour 19th century murder mystery; and in May, PBS will broadcast a second "Crown and Country" series. In addition, Edward has a worldwide distribution deal with CBS Enterprises, CBS' syndication arm.

All of this may give Edward, youngest child of Queen Elizabeth II, the last laugh against the British media, which have consistently dismissed his professional aspirations as royal folly. For all its curiosity about British royalty, America has more readily embraced the 34-year-old prince as a producer than his home turf.

"In my country, we just have hang-ups about titles," Edward told reporters at the press tour. "I don't think you have so much in your country. So, if I come to this country and talk to people about producing programs, people will just accept that that's what I'm there to talk about. In Britain, if you've got a title, then you obviously don't have any brains, so there's no point talking about anything else."

Indeed, his lineage has been a double-edged sword, earning his company both attention and scrutiny. The British press has criticized Ardent for focusing too heavily on royal themes and speculating that Edward's title afforded the company special access. But in Hollywood, where nepotism and niche marketing are time-honored strategies, executives couldn't care less. And if Edward isn't above capitalizing on his name, he also doesn't mind rolling up his sleeves to do some scut work.

"When I heard I was going to work with him, I thought, 'He's executive producer, he's the talent, he's the writer, and he's a prince. Any one of those things could be a problem. How truly horrible is this experience going to be?' " said Jody Sheff, the series producer for "Crown and Country" and senior producer at PBS' New York affiliate, WNET.

"But what I found was someone who really cares deeply about his work, tries to make it as good as it can be, is tremendously accessible and is an incredibly nice person. It's been really fun to work with him."

Mary Ellen Iwata, the Learning Channel's director of development and special projects, remembers showing up for a rainy dawn shoot in London for "Castle Ghosts" to find Edward standing in the breakfast line with the crew. "As an executive producer, he didn't have to show up at all," she says. "But he stayed for the entire shoot."

Edward got into producing in 1987 with "It's a Royal Knockout," a controversial BBC game show made to raise money for charity. He went on to work as a production assistant with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group theater company before helping found a now-defunct company called Theatre Division in 1990 and Ardent in 1993. Ardent shows aired in Britain and Australia before tapping the U.S. market.

"I've always enjoyed producing," he said. "And producing, in my mind, is the process of coming up with an idea and building a team to make that idea into reality--whether it's connected to fund-raising events, theater and now television.

"Being thrust in front of the camera was certainly not on my agenda initially," he added, grinning. "But I keep getting my arm twisted to do it."

This year, Edward anticipates his firm will draw revenues of $3.7 million. Eben Foggitt, an Ardent co-founder who is now a freelance executive producer, had predicted that the company would turn a profit by next summer, something he said would have already occurred had Ardent not deficit-financed some of its productions in exchange for overseas rights.

"We never anticipated making a profit initially," he said. "The losses we've incurred have all been according to plan."

But Edward, who regards himself a journalist, seems to measure success more in creative than in financial terms.

"People have come back and asked us to do more [programs]," he said. "That's the greatest compliment you can get. And I feel that now, Ardent is being taken seriously as a production company."

* "Crown and Country" premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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