Her voice continues to reverberate down the years. Even now, the phrases she uttered that night are unforgettable — ‘There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded’, ‘A queen of people’s hearts’, and that third-person warning, ‘She won’t go quietly’.
Princess Diana’s 60 minutes on Panorama remains the most hypnotic and spellbinding interview ever seen on British television. As its 25th anniversary approaches next month, the fascination with this most remarkable piece of TV history is undimmed.
Three major documentaries have been commissioned to mark the milestone: Channel 5 was first out of the blocks last weekend, next week Channel 4 will air its programme and there is still a retrospective from ITV to come.
Even now, with the benefit of a quarter of a century of hindsight, the words ‘Diana’ and ‘Panorama’ send a shiver down the spine of courtiers. The spotlight that the programme shone on both the monarchy and its individuals was forensic and shocking.
Princess Diana’s 60 minutes on Panorama remains the most hypnotic and spellbinding interview ever seen on British television. As its 25th anniversary approaches next month, the fascination with this most remarkable piece of TV history is undimmed
No one and nothing was off limits; Diana didn’t even spare her own reputation. In one gripping exchange with BBC journalist Martin Bashir, she admitted she had been unfaithful with Army officer James Hewitt.
‘Yes, I adored him,’ she said. ‘Yes, I was in love with him.’
For Prince Charles the examination was excoriating as his estranged, but not yet divorced, wife questioned his credentials to be king, while publicly placing Camilla Parker Bowles front and centre as the reason their marriage broke down.
Ever since the night of the broadcast on November 20, 1995, with Diana speaking in that soft, well-modulated voice, the film’s content and consequences have been endlessly discussed.
The credits on Panorama’s blockbuster had barely stopped rolling when, over on BBC2, Newsnight assembled a panel to tell us what it all meant.
No one and nothing was off limits; Diana didn’t even spare her own reputation. In one gripping exchange with BBC journalist Martin Bashir, she admitted she had been unfaithful with Army officer James Hewitt. ‘Yes, I adored him,’ she said. ‘Yes, I was in love with him’
Charles’s old friend Nicholas Soames could scarcely contain his contempt for an interview that he described as ‘toe-curlingly dreadful’ and suggested the Princess was in ‘the advanced stages of paranoia’, an observation for which he was later rebuked by the then Prime Minister John Major.
With typical high-minded-ness, Newsnight declined to discuss Diana’s sensational admission of adultery. The fall-out from it all was swift and unsparing. Within a month the Prince and Princess of Wales were instructed by the Queen to divorce and the BBC was stripped of its cosy exclusive arrangement as the Palace’s broadcaster of choice as punishment for keeping the programme secret.
With the shattering breach between Prince Harry and the Royal Family over his and Meghan’s exile in Los Angeles, the lessons of Diana’s interview seem as relevant today as they were two-and-a-half decades ago.
Speculation about the programme — why Diana did it and what she hoped to achieve from it — continues to enthral. As Channel 5’s documentary reported, many aspects of the operation are still cloaked in mystery.
With typical high-minded-ness, Newsnight declined to discuss Diana’s sensational admission of adultery. The fall-out from it all was swift and unsparing. Within a month the Prince and Princess of Wales were instructed by the Queen to divorce and the BBC was stripped of its cosy exclusive arrangement as the Palace’s broadcaster of choice as punishment for keeping the programme secret
The most intriguing question is: what happened to all the footage the Panorama team shot and never used? The crew were locked in Kensington Palace with her for many hours. Were disobliging remarks made by Diana about other members of the Royal Family — possibly, it has been suggested, of the Queen Mother — left on the cutting-room floor?
Some figures connected to the programme have suggested 20 minutes of the interview disappeared. If so, whatever happened to the master tape and where is it now? The extraordinary secrecy surrounding the making of the documentary has, of course, contributed to its legend.
But its power to intrigue us still lies in the woman who was at its centre. No public figure in living memory has enthralled the nation as much as Princess Diana.
Her decision to conceal her collaboration with Bashir and his team was met with almost universal criticism. She was accused of being deceitful and underhand.
It was an astonishingly well-kept secret and all the more incredible because Diana was a woman who loved gossip and sharing it. This was the paradox at the heart of the whole story.
She told nobody, not her family, not her friends, not her staff. As someone who knew her well at that time, and saw and spoke to her often in the weeks leading up to the broadcast, I understood her thinking. Had she confided what she was up to, both she and the BBC would have been put under intolerable pressure.
‘It would either have been pulled completely or turned into something completely different,’ she told me. ‘They just wouldn’t have allowed it.’
On the evening of the filming — November 5, Bonfire Night — Apartments 8 & 9 at Kensington Palace, Diana’s home, was empty of domestic staff. Only the Princess was there to open the front door to Martin Bashir and his two colleagues, a cameraman and a sound man-cum-producer.
Engineers had already visited the palace and, under the guise of installing a new hi-fi system for the Princess, had scouted out the optimum place for the interview and what technical equipment such as lights would be required.
Diana, seen as a wronged woman after the explosive Andrew Morton biography which laid bare the misery of the royal marriage, always had more support than her husband. But the Establishment lined up behind Charles as heir to the throne. Mud-slinging was the order of the day and some of it was downright sinister
A few weeks later when I was at the palace, evidence of the interview remained in the form of a forgotten camera tripod. Diana had made a feature of it, placing it in the window overlooking her neighbour Princess Michael of Kent’s courtyard, and draped a black wig over it. By then, of course, she was happy to talk about the cloak-and-dagger nature of the filming. But the story reached back many weeks.
So what was going through the mind of the separated but still married Princess of Wales in the late summer of 1995? It was three years since the day John Major had risen in Parliament to solemnly announce that the heir to the throne and his wife were to separate. The shock was not so much that they were to part but rather that, according to Major, there would be no impediment for Diana to be crowned Queen in due course at Charles’s side.
The events of the next few years followed a pattern as both Prince and Princess competed for public approval. Diana, seen as a wronged woman after the explosive Andrew Morton biography which laid bare the misery of the royal marriage, always had more support than her husband.
But the Establishment lined up behind Charles as heir to the throne. Mud-slinging was the order of the day and some of it was downright sinister.
The leaking of two illicitly recorded tapes in particular: Squidgygate, in which Diana was heard in conversation with her friend James Gilbey, and another of Charles and Camilla in a deep and intimate conversation. Both tapes were highly damaging to the royal couple.
As the attrition between the two intensified, the so-called War of the Waleses reached an epic point when the Prince agreed to give an interview to Jonathan Dimbleby in the summer of 1994.
Ostensibly to mark the achievements of his Prince’s Trust charity, it became notorious for the moment he admitted his infidelity with Camilla. Suddenly, a gulf in support for the couple opened up. Charles’s admission appeared to validate Diana’s claim that he had betrayed his marriage vows with Camilla and the public overwhelmingly backed the Princess.
But when reports emerged of Diana’s apparently obsessive relationship with art dealer Oliver Hoare, a married man, and the claims she had bombarded his wife with silent phone calls — something she insisted in an on-the-record interview with me she had not done — perceptions changed once again. Then, in the summer of 1995, more headlines relating to Diana’s alleged inappropriate behaviour surfaced. This time it was claimed she had formed an extremely close friendship with then England rugby captain Will Carling, who was newly married.
Diana told me often at this time that she felt she was being followed and her movements noted. She frequently changed her telephone number, had her apartment swept for listening devices and asked me to do the same at my home. She believed our conversations had been listened to by eavesdroppers and our meetings spied on.
I had every reason to believe her and a security specialist who once worked for Scotland Yard checked out my home and office.
Enter Martin Bashir, a young reporter with Panorama. The chance to speak directly to the country was, for the Princess, beyond tantalising. Even so, she was cautious and it took some time for her to be persuaded.
To this day the BBC man — now its religious affairs correspondent — has been reluctant to shed much light on how he came into Diana’s life. And why should he? His was one of the great journalistic scoops of all time.
He wanted to make a programme about the constitutional position of the monarchy and the implications of the royal separation. Coincidentally, another figure at the Corporation, Nicholas Witchell, was also exploring a potential film about the future of the monarchy and he had also made approaches to Diana.
Bashir initially made contact with Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, who had himself been in a media storm over his private life and was alarmed by the number of leaks about intimate family details which had appeared in the tabloid Press. According to Diana’s friend Simone Simmons, who was at Kensington Palace the day the Princess first met Bashir, the original plan had been to make a film about charity work.
Simone says: ‘She wanted to expose the sums of money that went to the people who ran the charities rather than being spent on work they were set up to do.’
The bespectacled and serious reporter and the Princess hit it off. Diana was excited. I recall how she rang me one day in early September 1995 to say that she had some big plans — but didn’t say what.
She was constantly being asked to do TV interviews around this time. The now defunct London network LWT had put in a bid, and Barbara Walters, the veteran American presenter, was desperate for Diana to appear on her show, 20/20, on the ABC network.
It was too late. Diana was now deeply involved in her collaboration with the BBC and wanted to be patriotic in any case. Some did know of her plans; her royal sister-in-law Fergie was aware of some of the details, for instance.
There is little if anything in the finished film about her charity work and nothing at all about other senior members of the Royal Family, apart from Charles. Might there have been remarks about the Queen Mother, as has been suggested? Well, why not? The Princess had made her views known about the royal matriarch on that infamous Squidgy tape. She talked of the strange looks she said she got from the Queen Mother: ‘It’s not hatred, it’s sort of pity and interest mixed in one’
By now secrecy enveloped the project. Bashir insisted that, if she let it out of the bag, the whole thing would be cancelled. It was being kept under wraps at the BBC too. The filming went on late into the night. How many takes were involved is not known and the BBC has never said. Industry experts suggest that the Princess’s polished performance and accomplished answers mean that it must have taken several run-throughs.
According to Steve Hewlett, the Panorama editor, the questions were not given to the Princess in advance and nor was she shown the interview before it was screened. Asked why there were no questions about Will Carling, who had been so much in the headlines, Hewlett insisted it had been his decision. Hewitt, Gilbey and Hoare all featured. ‘I said ‘enough boyfriends, Ed . . .’ ‘ Hewlett revealed later.
For her part, Diana told everyone — from the Queen’s private secretary Sir Robert Fellowes to her own staff and friends — that the content would be entirely familiar to them. She told me: ‘It’s nothing to worry about, you’ll know everything in it.’
Many said it was revenge for Charles’s Dimbleby programme. For my part I am not so sure. She was desperate for people to know how she felt and the only way she could do it was by going over the head of the Palace, her advisers and the media.
She wanted people to hear her own words and her own voice. It was not about betrayal, she told me, or settling scores. ‘I am not a victim.’ But one thing she said did resonate above all. She used the phrase: ‘There is no better way to dismantle a personality than to isolate it.’
This, she maintained was what was happening to her, why she had no privacy and why she felt so vulnerable. I did believe then, and I do today, that there was a grain of truth in this.
Storm clouds were gathering elsewhere. Geoff Crawford, Diana’s unflappable Australia-born press secretary, announced his resignation, although he remained in post for her upcoming trip to Argentina. Others were to follow him out of the door. And close friends who she had not told were horrified by what she had done, fearing the damage it might do to her sons William and Harry
Diana struck a deal with Panorama that before the news broke she would let the Palace know. It was a week before the broadcast and courtiers there were aghast. ‘We have no idea of the content,’ an aide told me, before adding sardonically: ‘We assume that means everything.’
After a text from Diana, the BBC made the announcement public the following day. It was a piquant date: Prince Charles’s 47th birthday. He was abroad on a tour of Germany and Latvia.
With their scoop in the can and after drinking champagne provided by the Princess, Bashir and his two colleagues had left Kensington and headed to a hotel in Eastbourne, East Sussex, where an editing suite had been set up.
Hewlett justified the choice of a location so far from BBC HQ by telling colleagues that he was working on a highly sensitive film about police corruption.
According to him, the finished film was 65 minutes long. After a screening for senior figures, including then director-general John Birt, one executive said of Prince Charles: ‘Well, he’ll never be able to marry Camilla now.’
No more than eight people were in on the secret and Birt made the hugely controversial decision not to tell his boss and BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey. Crucially, Dukey, as he was known, was married to the Queen’s lady-in-waiting and close friend Lady Susan Hussey. This decision had a profound effect in the aftermath.
Birt also made some suggestions about how William and Harry might react to some of their mother’s words. This might have been the moment when editing began.
There is little if anything in the finished film about her charity work and nothing at all about other senior members of the Royal Family, apart from Charles.
Might there have been remarks about the Queen Mother, as has been suggested? Well, why not? The Princess had made her views known about the royal matriarch on that infamous Squidgy tape. She talked of the strange looks she said she got from the Queen Mother: ‘It’s not hatred, it’s sort of pity and interest mixed in one.’
Friends of the Princess were later worried about the whereabouts of what they were convinced was untransmitted material from the interview.
Some told me that Diana kept a tape of it herself, hiding it in a hat box in her dressing room in case she ever needed it as ammunition in the future.
A few months after Panorama, stories emerged that Bashir had had fake documents made up to suggest that an employee of Earl Spencer had received money for information about the Earl which Bashir had shown to him.
In private moments, Diana later told me she did regret elements of the interview: questioning Charles’s suitability to be king and, especially, confessing her affair with copper-haired cavalry officer James Hewitt (above), writes Richard Kay
The BBC began an inquiry amid newspaper reports that suggested the Princess might have been coerced into co-operating with the programme. They approached Diana. She wrote and signed a letter that at no stage had Bashir shown her any documents.
As someone who knew her well, I believe that nothing — and certainly no amount of coercion — could have persuaded her to do it unless she wanted to. The fact is her mind was set on it.
If anything, the programme entrenched views among those who loved or loathed Diana. ‘Joan of Arc had an easier time than me,’ Diana quipped to me as we drank a coffee a little while later.
But it was not just fans or enemies who tuned in to Panorama that Monday night. An incredible 23 million people were watching and the majority sided with the Princess. Poll after poll suggested huge levels of public support for her.
Letters flooded in to Kensington Palace. She read one to me. It was from former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Praising and flattering, it ended: ‘You are the most intelligent woman in the British Isles.’
But storm clouds were gathering elsewhere. Geoff Crawford, Diana’s unflappable Australia-born press secretary, announced his resignation, although he remained in post for her upcoming trip to Argentina. Others were to follow him out of the door. And close friends who she had not told were horrified by what she had done, fearing the damage it might do to her sons William and Harry.
Within 48 hours of the broadcast she was in Buenos Aires but she wasn’t herself, taking her meals alone in her room at the British ambassador’s residence.
‘She’d asked to have a telephone line installed and spent most of her private time on the phone,’ an embassy source told me.
The big question, as true today as it was then, was did she regret it? Diana was stubborn but she was not foolish.
She came to realise her words had exposed certain truths about matters that had previously been under wraps and thus gave rise to all sorts of attacks that she had previously been protected from. It also fuelled the enmity of those critics in Charles’s circle who were convinced that she was not only dangerous but also unbalanced.
Diana scoffed at such talk, but in private moments she later told me she did regret elements of the interview: questioning Charles’s suitability to be king and, especially, confessing her affair with copper-haired cavalry officer James Hewitt.
She believed it was a strategic mistake because the public already believed she had had an affair with Hewitt anyway. What really hurt was that it upset the then 13-year-old Prince William.
Diana herself did not see the programme live. She was at a gala dinner in St James’s, Central London, sitting at a table with Suzy Menkes, then the doyenne of fashion writers. ‘Are you not afraid of what you have done today?’ Ms Menkes asked.
Diana replied: ‘When you say the truth in life you should never be afraid.’