In his search for an escape from the frustration of playing monarch-in-waiting, Prince Charles is carving out a niche as an improbable but of-ten effective "Voice of the People."

His sorties into issues like ocean pollution, unemployment and inner city decay bring him about as close to political controversy as the strictly neutral British monarchy can go. By stretching the bars of his gilded cage, this child of privilege faces the irony of becoming a darling of the left, monarchy's traditional foe.Charles Philip Arthur George turns 40 on Nov. 14, and the Bonnie Prince Charlie of younger days has grown more somber, the sense of guilt at all his privileges more apparent.

There's still a lot of the fun-loving jetsetter left in him, but the solemn face looks more lined and lived-in. The pate that will one day wear the crown is balding. His taste in clothes runs to conservative double-breasted suits. If he owns a pair of jeans, no one in the outside world has seen him in them.

Moving among his fellow citizens - particularly the young, urban unemployed who are his biggest concern - he takes on what a biographer, Alan Hamilton, calls "the faintly puzzled air of a bishop in a betting shop."

At times, the heir to the throne could pass for just another 1960s survivor coasting into middle age: married with two small kids, he's into organic farming, alternative medicine, health food, Jungian philosophy and the fate of ozone layer.

What lifts him above the ordinary is that as Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland, his destiny is to become King Charles III.

That destiny looks far off. His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, is healthy and vigorous at 62, and shows no inclination to abdicate in favor of her son.

Meanwhile, perhaps mindful of an earlier Prince of Wales who frittered away 59 years waiting to be crowned King Edward VII, the prince has made it clear that "I am determined not to be confined to cutting ribbons."

Charles' story, writes another biographer, Anthony Holden, "is one of constant struggle against the limitations placed upon him by the genetic accident of his birth . . . a confused and tortured soul trying to come to terms with a claustrophobic, if comfortable life of inherited imprisonment . . . a caring and thoughtful man in search of good to do."

That search has taken him on clandestine visits to London slums, into the cowsheds of his tenant farmers, to the peatlands of the Western Isles of Scotland and as far afield as the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa's Botswana.

His attempts to articulate what he has learned have suffered from clumsiness, but as his themes become more polished, they tell as much about his own state of mind as they do about the state of Britain.

Simply put, Charles stands for consensus in a society divided by the uncompromising anti-consensus politics of Margaret Thatcher.

Where the Conservative prime minister is embarked on a capitalist revolution to create what she calls "a go-getter society," Charles gives voice to the fears of the losers in this race for a leaner, tougher Britain.

A devotee of the small-is-beautiful ethos, Charles believes in good works on a small, individual scale, and runs two charitable trusts that dispense grants of up to 3,000 pounds ($5,000) to unemployed people 18 to 25 years old to start a small business.

About 1,800 people a year get grants, and the trusts have created some 4,300 businesses.

Blessed with a private $39-million fortune, Charles is the first royal heir to forgo his annual entitlement from taxpayers' funds.

"I cannot just sit there and do nothing," he told a BBC radio interviewer a year ago. "That's the way I've been brought up. I am driven by the feeling I have had for a long time, by traveling around this country and using my eyes, that I mind about the conditions in which people live."

Last year he made a secret trip by van around a destitute district of London's East End.

Another time, after visiting immigrant workers from India's Bengal in a garment sweatshop, he looked shaken and angry.

"This is really terrible," he exclaimed. "All we are managing to do is replicate some of the conditions these people have left behind. It is really not acceptable. We must do something."

Attacking modern architects on grounds that they put people in what he described as termite colonies, he said: "Large numbers of us in this country are fed up with being talked down to and dictated to."

A bland ceremony opening a movie museum becomes a diatribe against "the palpable nonsense" of experts who say screen violence does no harm.

Charles defines his role as being "to stir things up, to throw a proverbial royal brick through the plate glass of pompous and professional pride."

What aggravates him most is a sense that his serious endeavors are eclipsed by the media's obsession with royal trivia and the state of his seven-year-old marriage to Princess Diana.

They are 12 years apart, and their frequent separations have led to newspaper speculation about a possible divorce - a notion ridiculed by most royal insiders.

The couple make no secret of the fact that they live partly separate lives and have widely different interests - she likes fashion and pop music, he enjoys gardening, solitary walks and painting in watercolors.

As Hamilton points out, separate lives are not unusual among British upper-class couples, for whom a primary purpose of marriage is to produce "an heir and a spare."

Charles and Diana have discharged that duty by having two sons.