Make no mistake: the then 34-year-old Diana, a woman at the height of her professional powers and seasoned by years in the media spotlight, knew exactly what she was doing when she agreed to be filmed by Panorama.
It’s why I struggled to recognise the portrait of Diana painted in last week’s Channel 4 documentary, which purported to be an investigation into the legitimacy of that landmark interview watched by 21 million viewers in the UK and countless others across the world.
This Diana was vulnerable, caught between the oppressive twin pillars of the paparazzi cameras and dictatorial in-laws and all too open to external pressures and coercion. Earl Spencer, Diana’s brother, had been presented with forged bank statements allegedly showing payments from the tabloids to informants – a question mark may remain over whether these were used to encourage her to speak out for herself (which the BBC denies), but I believe Diana knew exactly what she was doing.
The fuse had been lit 18 months earlier, on that summer night in 1994 when the Prince of Wales publicly admitted to adultery in a televised interview with Jonathan Dimbleby.
I was dressing the Princess that night for a party at the Serpentine Gallery that, in her alternating rage and embarrassment at this public admission that their marriage had been a sham, she had become determined not to attend. She was little short of mortified to step out in public in the wake of what she saw as her husband’s trashing of their marriage. I told her she had to wear the daring Christina Stambolian number that would later become known as the ultimate ‘revenge dress’.
In the weeks that followed, her anger bubbled still, matched only by a growing determination to have her say. It is against this backdrop that she began her friendship with Martin Bashir, then a little-known Panorama journalist.
For months before their interview was broadcast, I would bring Martin to Kensington Palace under a blanket in the back of my car for their many meetings. At the time, I thought Diana was merely cultivating a new contact at the BBC, an organisation that she saw as a pillar of the establishment she had come to loathe, underlined by the fact that its then chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, was married to the Queen’s lady-in-waiting.
Now I know that she was laying the foundations for her television appearance, one she pointedly chose to conduct not with a BBC powerhouse interviewer like David Dimbleby or David Frost, but a relative underdog.
This Diana knew what she was doing. She was rehearsed, and fully in command of what she wanted to say.
It’s another reminder that whatever was going on behind the scenes, Diana was calling the shots. She was a far cry from the bewildered young woman I – then working as the Queen’s footman – had encountered 15 years earlier, lost in Balmoral’s maze of corridors, waiting to meet the extended Royal family of which she was soon to become a central member.
This Diana knew what she was doing. She was rehearsed, and fully in command of what she wanted to say. And while I don’t think even Diana knew that her interview would become so explosive, nor do I believe she regretted doing it, a fact underlined by the fact that she continued her friendship with Martin long after the cameras stopped rolling. If there was one tiny bit of regret, then it was of the impact that her admission of her love for James Hewitt would have on her boys.
“Did I say too much?” she once anxiously asked me. She worried about the possible repercussions for William and Harry: her boys, after all, were her world – she always put them front and centre – and I know she would have been devastated by the tensions between them. I cannot help but reflect that if she were alive today, she would never have allowed their rift to happen – but if it had, she would be in the gap between them, doing everything in her power to bridge that void.
Perhaps, in some way, she will do that next July, when both boys will come together in Kensington Palace Gardens to unveil the statue of their mother that they commissioned for what would have been her 60th birthday.
So much has happened since then, not in the least her younger son’s decision to step away from his royal duties – a decision I think Diana would have applauded: she passionately believed in following your heart.
She would have recognised something of herself in Meghan, too. Two very different women from very different backgrounds they may be, but Diana would identify all too well with the struggle Meghan had adjusting to royal life and the nauseating snobbery embedded in its archaic system – snobbery which does not emanate from the Queen or members of the Royal family but some of the courtiers who surround them.
It’s a system with which Diana continually battled, and which has been echoed decades later by the woman who would be her daughter-in-law. She may not have seen eye to eye with her on everything, but I think she would have enjoyed Meghan’s decision to step out wearing pieces of her jewellery, and embraced the decision to carve a new life for themselves – even if it took them away across an ocean. She would have one arm around them, and the other around William and Kate, a couple whose public service and common touch owes much to her. More than anything, she would have been a hands-on grandma. Diana was always at her best among children, whose natural joy and purity of heart always touched a chord with her.
Of course, Diana was no saint. She was a complicated person and she could be difficult and volatile – qualities that, along with her compassion and charisma, we will no doubt see brought to life in the forthcoming series of The Crown, which portrays her introduction to the Royal family and her early years with Charles.
I confess it will be a little strange for me to watch a time that I remember and know so well, and while I do not expect a fully accurate depiction, I hope they capture the flavour of it.
It’s a flavour I don’t think was entirely captured by last week’s documentary, with its intimations of a naive princess duped into opening her heart. The Diana I knew, who spoke to Martin Bashir, was a woman who had calmly planned what she was about to do for many months – and if, as her former private secretary, Patrick Jephson, told the programme, it “burnt her bridges” with the Royal family, then she was ready for that.
Hearing him say those words, I could not help but reflect on the words of a Buckingham Palace lady-in-waiting when I left the Queen to work for the Prince and Princess of Wales. “You’re backing the loser,” she told me. “She’ll be forgotten in a couple of years.”
Yet here we are, a quarter of a century on, talking about a television programme made about a television programme – a reminder of the power of Diana’s legacy.