Sophie’s choice

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THE HOUSE OF WINDSOR HAS BEEN SUFFERING THE slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for months now. So much so, that in the shadows, last year’s scapegoats have been quietly getting on with a change of life and style, unnoticed and unremarked on by a media obsessed with chasing other hares. Just in case you’ve forgotten, last year’s scapegoats were the Earl and Countess of Wessex. Sophie was the target of the infamous tabloid “sting”, while Edward’s TV production company – and the Queen’s youngest son did not endear himself to big brother Charles when a TV camera team stalked his nephew, Prince William, through St Andrews after the rest of the world’s media had left – went into a tailspin that has ended with its virtual disappearance.

The young couple were on the receiving end of much criticism for their ventures into the commercial world – within the Royal Family itself from Prince Charles and the Princess Royal. With hindsight, perhaps they deserve praise for being pioneers prepared to take on the “why don’t they get a proper job?” critics. The fact that they were treading in the minefields of PR and TV production, allied to their total unsuitability as pioneers, ensured that it would all end in tears. The grind of Royal duty lay before Edward and Sophie.

But the manner in which they have taken to the “grind” has been ignored, while they went off around the world, representing the Queen in Africa and Hong Kong . . . and carrying it off with more than a dash of style.

One cloud still hovered over the Wessexes. In December 2001, Sophie suffered an ectopic pregnancy, a potentially fatal condition where the embryo grows outside the womb. The problem was only detected when she began to experience pain and collapsed, being rushed by helicopter from the couple’s home, Bagshot Park, to the King Edward VII Hospital in London. During the operation to save her life she required five pints of blood. She had suffered severe bleeding and a ruptured fallopian tube, effectively halving her chances of achieving a natural pregnancy.

But Sophie’s determination to have Edward’s child was not extinguished. It has been revealed that she has undergone two unsuccessful rounds of IVF treatment and is about to embark on a third attempt.

It will be carried out under the supervision of Marcus Setchell, the royal gynaecologist and a specialist in infertility. The unsuccessful treatments were undertaken last year. Mr Setchell will have explained to the Countess that, even in the most expert hands, the chances of achieving an IVF pregnancy are no more than one-in-four. For and older patient – and Sophie was 38 in January – the chances of success are lower still.

Parenthood might help Prince Edward to shed the showbiz “bug”, with which he was smitten early in life when he joined Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful production company and, controversially, produced “It’s A Royal Knockout”. With cable and satellite TV about to burst on the British market, starting an independent production company was far from being a crazy idea and Ardent did make a number of respectable documentaries. These were mostly on royal subjects – “Edward on Edward” about his great-uncle Edward VII, “Windsor Restored” about the restoration of Windsor Castle after the fire. They moved into non-royal territory with “Forbidden Pleasures”, a programme about sex and the disabled that was shown to some acclaim on Channel 4.

But, increasingly, Edward was drowned by claims that he was trading on his royal connections and the announcement of “Royalty A to Z”, a series about the Royal Family for the US cable company E! Entertainment was to prove the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was the series Ardent was working on when his camera team stalked Prince William after the rest of the world’s media had agreed to leave him alone. Prince Charles was reported to be “incandescent”. It also provided him with more than enough evidence that his opposition to allow his little brother to walk the tightrope of being a royal and having “a proper job” had been well-founded.

Edward agreed to stand down as Ardent’s managing director, although he stayed on as a director of the company. But his ambition to make it one of the leading independent TV production companies “by 2000” was way behind schedule.

Now, it seems, the company has no new commissions and exists in name only. At the end of 2002, the company was forced to put its offices at Edward’s 56-room Bagshot Park mansion up for rent in an attempt to save £250,000 a year in running costs. Malcolm Cockren, Ardent’s chairman, said it was being wound down and would continue to exist only to profit from royalties earned by earlier productions

It has been an expensive lesson. Ardent was in the red at one stage by nearly £2 Million and a “bail-out” of £250,000 by the Queen was not enough to save it. It did declare a profit of £30,000 in 2001, but only because the Prince waived Ardent’s annual £500,000 rent for its offices in Bagshot Park’s stables. Experts estimate that Edward has lost at least £200,000 of his own money, plus the £700,000 from outside investors when the company was started in 1993.

It’s very clear that the Wessexes are keen to have children, despite the difficulties that have emerged since Sophie’s ectopic pregnancy. Many feel that it was only their children that helped both the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York when their marriages began to crumble. The Wessexes’ friends agree with that, but stress that the marriage itself is anything but under stress. Sophie, in particular, has adapted to her increased duties flying the royal flag with enthusiasm and her own special style.

That’s obvious from her “photo opportunities”, be they with world statesmen such as South Africa’s ex-President Nelson Mandela, children in an Essex nursery school, or cheering up children in hospital All it will take to make her new life complete is a child of her own.