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The Prince's easy wit was still shipshape that afternoon when his red helicopter dropped out of a gray sky into the grimy valley town of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. He had come to dedicate the $11 million Prince Charles Hospital, a 362-bed facility that some valley residents fear will shut down local hospitals. "Not to worry," said Charles, striding up to a sign-carrying demonstrator. "We have to put this hospital somewhere." Plowing along a line of well-wishers, he joked with a mother of six children ("You're going to heavily populate the pediatrics ward"), then moved inside to greet ranks of giggling student nurses and other hospital workers before popping into a ward to visit patients. Exclaimed one, as he moved on: "What a wonderful bedside manner!"
Outside again, the Prince ducked into the pilot's seat of his chopper, hovered long enough for an expansive wave to the crowds below and then aimed for Cardiff Castle, where the Royal Regiment of Wales waited for him to open a museum.
When Charles' mother was crowned Elizabeth II in 1953, here were many even among her own cheering subjects who felt that they were seeing the last of those great coronation pageants, that a tide of egalitarianism was swiftly making obsolete the very concept of monarchy. Now, except among a minority of zealous anti-royalists in Britain, that feeling has almost disappeared. Elizabeth's own gentle, wise and dutiful reign and the growing popularity of her Crown Prince son almost ensure that the foes of monarchy will not have their way. Even if he has to wait at the footstool of the throne for decades, Charles will almost certainly one day become King. Reflects Marge Davies, a cleaning woman in Oxford: "Charlie would really be good for the country. We need someone like him."
So does the royal family. The public dalliance of Princess Margaret, 47, with Roderick ("Roddy") Llewellyn, 30, a sometime landscape gardener and would-be pop singer, has been a deep embarrassment. The Queen's headstrong sister permanently embittered, friends feel, by the royal orders that ended her romance with R.A.F. Group Captain Peter Townsend in 1955 raised a furor two years ago with her official sep aration from her husband Lord Snowdon. Last month criticism flared again after a flood of publicity about Margaret and Roddy at their favorite retreat, the Caribbean island of Mustique. The royal family was due for a salary increase on Parliament's "civil list," and critics, both royalist and republican, asked sharply whether Margaret was pulling her princessly weight. Since then Margaret has been unusually visible on the royal circuit.
Princess Anne, 27, Charles' sister, has also piqued the public lately, although on much less serious grounds. A petulant young woman, she stunned a photographer not long ago by spitting out four-letter vulgarities precisely timed to the clicks of his motorized camera. She alienated some of her Gloucestershire neighbors by sacking a milkman who refused to deliver milk for her six-month-old son more than three times a week. Anne has since tried to mend fences by appearing at a village fete, but she is not the sort who is likely to be beloved.