The day the Duke of Edinburgh showed his kindness at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre - Andrew Vine

PRINCE Philip strode into a rehearsal room at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, fixed me with a piercing look, and asked with more than a trace of sarcasm: “Anything we can do for you?”

Prince Philip. Photo by Leon Neal - WPA Pool /Getty Images.
Prince Philip. Photo by Leon Neal - WPA Pool /Getty Images.

It was about 30 years ago, and he was in Yorkshire for a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme bash that had packed the Crucible’s auditorium with excited young people who were in an uproar of cheering and applause.

Unusually – and to the delight of all at The Yorkshire Post, because we hadn’t expected him to say yes – he’d agreed to a short interview about the scheme that meant so much to him.

He was on fine, brisk form, an eyebrow raised quizzically as he weighed me up. The sarcasm was, I realised, his way of testing the mettle of whoever he was talking to.

I replied: “Yes, sir, there is. Can you tell me why all those kids are making such a racket?”

It worked. He laughed. After that, everything went swimmingly.

There was not a trace of the famed irascibility, or the glower he reserved for the television interviewers of his later years who plainly got on his nerves by adopting a fawning tone as they inquired solicitously and with supreme pointlessness how it felt to be in his 90s.

Philip was charm itself, affable, engaging and effortlessly witty. Here was a man to whom laughter came easily, and aged about 70, still possessed of an almost boyish enthusiasm for the scheme he was taking about.

When you meet somebody who has an exceptionally sharp mind, their intelligence strikes you immediately. He was like that.

Over the course of about 20 minutes, he exhibited a penetrating insight into the emotions of the young people on his awards scheme. It helped some make sense of, and bring direction to, chaotic and unhappy home lives. He spoke too of how it helped others decide the careers they wanted to pursue.

This was no routine afternoon for him, just another date in a Royal diary second only to the Queen’s in the number of its annual engagements. Plainly, it was close to his heart.

When our time was up, he shook my hand, smiled as he said he hoped I’d got something useful from it, and was off to meet the young people who made even more of a racket when he walked on stage.

His aides invited me to shadow Philip as he toured the theatre, talking to them. It was a masterclass in the almost magical ability of a Royal visit to raise spirits.

Philip made each of those youngsters feel special and that they mattered personally to him. And I think they did. He was lightning-quick on the uptake, grasping what each was doing and where they were from, immediately framing his conversation to them alone.

I spoke to quite a few afterwards, and the response of one girl stays with me: “It’s like having another grandad”.

I’ve thought of that afternoon in Sheffield often in the past few days, and wondered what she felt on hearing that he’d gone. Maybe she’s now a mother, and told her children about the day he stopped to talk and how much she liked him.

I saw Philip on duty any number of times over the years, on walkabouts, performing official openings, and at the funerals of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother.

But never at such close quarters as at the Crucible. And what I saw was the architect of the longest and most successful reign in British history putting into practice the close and affectionate engagement with the public that he pioneered and which has served and sustained the monarchy so well.

With no recent precedent to guide him, Philip worked out how the new young Queen, and he as her consort, should bond with their people.

He wrote the rules on how it should be done, striking the perfect balance between the formality necessary to give meeting royalty the touch of magic it needs, and being approachable enough to make the encounter uplifting rather than daunting.

Before him, there had been a stiffness and standing on ceremony to walkabouts, for all that they were rapturously greeted. Philip humanised them.

The enthusiasm with which engagements by the younger Royals, particularly William and Kate, is greeted owes everything to his example of how they should be conducted.

He didn’t want any of those young people in the Crucible to be intimidated or tongue-tied by his presence. He wanted to encourage them to tell him their stories and hopes for the future.

So he joked and boosted their confidence, just as he did on thousands of other engagements.

It was once observed of Philip by one of his closest friends: “No one has a kinder heart, or takes more trouble to conceal it.”

Well, he didn’t conceal it that day. It was there in all he said and did.