When Netflix series The Crown gets around to recreating the day in 1995 that Diana, Princess of Wales sat down with journalist Martin Bashir for her infamous bombshell Panorama TV interview, they won’t need to amp up the drama one iota.
By the time Bashir, a cameraman and a producer arrived at Kensington Palace on Sunday, November 5, 1995, the princess had been negotiating with the young journalist for months. Using allegedly mocked up bank statements, purporting to show that a staff member of her brother Charles, Earl Spencer, was selling information, Bashir had months earlier finagled an initial meeting. From there, the royal’s trust had grown such that finally, she was willing to unburden herself to the British people, once and for all.
The BBC trio were ushered into Princes William and Harry’s sitting room, with Diana having given all of her staff, including her butler Paul Burrell, the day off.
Once the explosive interview was shot, a copy of the tape was put in a bank vault before the production team rented a room in a London hotel, blacked out the windows and proceeded to edit the truly dynamite conversation in utmost secrecy.
“This could bring down the BBC or the monarchy or both,” Richard Ayre, BBC’s controller of editorial policy, commented, according to biographer Andrew Morton.
On November 20 the interview aired and 23 million Brits watched the woman who would have been Queen discuss her bulimia, postnatal depression, and self-harm.
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Diana’s Panorama outing was a radical, seismic and unprecedented paradigm shift of the boundaries between the royal family and the press; there had never, ever been anything like it before in royal history and until recently, nothing even vaguely comparable.
Here was a princess laying her soul – and her emotional struggle within the royal family – bare for the whole world to see, any potential blowback on the house of Windsor be damned.
The princess’ frank admissions rocked not only Britain and the world but the royal family and the establishment, her hour’s worth of blunt revelations the PR equivalent of setting off a dirty bomb in the Throne Room.
Given the incendiary nature of it all, there was always going to be fallout and a month later it was revealed that the Queen had written to Charles and Diana urging them to begin formal divorce proceedings. Diana had crossed a line it would seem and there was just no going back. Within nine months, their union had been dissolved.
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The lesson here for princesses, HRHs and anyone on the Sovereign Grant is that soul-baring TV tell-alls come at a steep, personal cost.
It would seem that this is a particular message that Diana’s son Prince Harry and her daughter-in-law Meghan Duchess of Sussex have failed to quite heed.
This month marks the first anniversary of the Sussexes’ own bombshell small screen outing when Britain’s ITV broadcast an hour-long documentary about the royals’ official trip to Southern Africa.
While ostensibly the show was meant to highlight Harry and Meghan’s ten-day tour, instead the only thing anyone remembered was that they both took their one-on-one’s with journalist Tom Bradby to wear their hearts very dramatically on their sleeves.
Harry said of his relationship with Prince William, “inevitably stuff happens”.
“I never thought that this would be easy, but I thought it would be fair,” Meghan told Bradby. At another stage, emotionally, she said “not many people have asked if I’m OK … it’s a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes”.
The immediate response to the Sussexes’ TV outing was an outpouring of sympathy: No matter what anyone thought of the duo and their (at times) renegade approach to royal life, they were clearly suffering.
However, first Diana and then later the Sussexes faced the same trajectory: An initial vast outpouring of sympathy soon gave way to a growing clamour of criticism.
For Diana, her stoic silence prior to doing the Panorama interview had translated to dignified strength; her emotional unburdening sacrificed that.
She soon faced accusations that the entire episode had been a contrived means of very public vengeance against Charles after his previous public admission of infidelity, that this was the Princess Norma Desmond-esque and ready for her close-up.
Acclaimed novelist Hilary Mantel later wrote that she thought the interview was a “stupendous piece of theatre” in which “the pauses were everything”.
“Her clever line, ‘there were three of us in this marriage’, was surely rehearsed, but delivered with a careful appearance of spontaneity,” Mantel wrote.
In Harry and Meghan’s case, they were taken to task for choosing this particular moment to speak out. Was a documentary about Africa the best vehicle for two wealthy members of the royal family to have a bit of a grumble about their emotional wellbeing?
How dare they use a moment that was meant to be about Queen and country to carp about not “thriving”, the chuntering went. And, why use an official overseas engagement, where they were representing the crown, to have this heart-to-TV interviewer moment?
Here’s the thing: For both Diana and the Sussexes and both of their confessional tele moments, they might have won the battle but they definitely did not win the war. Similarly, not long after each all three made hasty, unwanted exits from royal life.
Less than three months after Harry and Meghan’s interviews were broadcast they had quit as senior members of the royal family, sparking one of the biggest crises in contemporary royal history. (Don’t worry, no one has forgotten about Prince Andrew and his ties to a convicted sex offender.)
Nine months after the Panorama broadcast, Diana’s divorce was finalised.
In hindsight, it is hard to get past a sense that Diana, Harry and Meghan all went public with their personal pain when they had reached a certain breaking point. In both instances, it is hard not to wonder how much impulsiveness, festering hurts, and perhaps even a need for emotional retribution played a part in their decisions to speak out.
And here’s the thing: For Diana and the Sussexes, for all that their interviews cost them, what did they gain? What did they actually achieve or change?
I honestly don’t know if there is a single thing.
Perhaps both sets of interviews offered the respective HRHs desperately needed catharsis, perhaps having struggled in silence cosseted away in palaces they simply needed their distress to be seen. But the bigger picture is that neither interview improved their royal lot or their dynamic with the wider royal family. Both interviews, whether coincidentally or not, marked the beginning of the end in terms of their careers as working members of the royal family.
It is fitting that the date Diana recorded her interview – November 5 – also happened to be Guy Fawkes Day, a man who similarly tried and failed to blow up the establishment.
Fawkes would surely have known the risks when he stashed the gunpowder under Westminster; but for Diana, the minute the camera rolled, it was an act of self-immolation, whether she quite realised it or not.
Let’s hope that’s a lesson that no more members of the house of Windsor need to learn the painful and hard way.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.