The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life
Reprinted from The Sunday Telegraph
August 6, 2017
As Diana speaks from beyond the grave, Prince Charles will continue to swallow his pain, says his biographer, Sally Bedell Smith
As millions tune in to Diana: In Her Own Words on Channel 4 this evening, the Prince of Wales will be in the northernmost part of Scotland, at the Castle of Mey, formerly the home of the Queen Mother. He stays there for a week every year to mark his beloved grandmother’s birthday on August 4.
Since his arrival last Tuesday, after a holiday on Corfu with the Duchess of Cornwall, his schedule has been the same as the previous 14 years since the Queen Mother’s death. Engagements in Caithness; mornings ploughing through documents; afternoons fishing in the Thurso and Laxford rivers.
Charles will undoubtedly follow his routine, tending to correspondence, scrawling his “black spider” letters until midnight. It is highly unlikely he will watch the controversial broadcast of Diana unloading her thoughts in videotaped conversations made by Peter Settelen, her speech coach in 1992 and 1993, after the couple’s marriage had imploded.
Nor is Charles likely to look at the coverage of his late ex-wife’s intimate disclosures about their sex life (“once every three weeks, and then it fizzled out”); his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles; Diana’s love for Barry Mannakee, her protection officer who died in 1987; and a string of dubious allegations (that the Queen said her son was “hopeless”, that he cynically told Diana he refused “to be the only Prince of Wales who never had a mistress”). As a self-protective measure, he avoids reading about his first marriage.
Much has been said of the potential harm to Princes William and Harry from Settelen’s revelations. Yet for Charles, the embarrassment and pain of Diana’s words from beyond the grave will be significant, and certainly akin to the mortification he suffered in the Nineties – Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story in 1992, based on secret tapes Diana recorded; “Camillagate” in 1993, of racy transcripts in tabloids of a mysteriously tapped phone call between Charles and Camilla; and Diana’s explosive 1995 interview with Martin Bashir on BBC’s Panorama.
As in the past, Charles can be counted on to remain silent about Diana’s assertions and characterisations of him, not to mention her behaviour during their marriage. His only effort to explain himself came in Jonathan Dimbleby’s official biography and documentary in 1994. Dimbleby quoted letters Charles sent describing his anguish over the collapse of his marriage: “How awful incompatibility is,” he wrote in 1986. “How dreadfully destructive it can be for the players in this extraordinary drama.”
What lingers in the public memory of that project – which Charles later regretted – was his admission on camera that he had resumed his affair with Camilla in 1986 after his marriage with Diana had “irretrievably broken down”. Yet “Prince Charles never judges Diana, directly or indirectly”, Dimbleby told me. “The only words he has said in public have been to praise her. For the book, he was obsessed that I not reveal anything that would reflect adversely on her. I honoured that.”
Dimbleby had no doubts about Diana’s intimate relationship with Barry Mannakee, which he withheld because he “didn’t want to draw attention to it.” Close friends of the Prince showed Dimbleby letters in which Diana thanked them for their support, but he kept these private after Charles instructed them not to discuss her. The book emphasised the Prince’s philanthropic work and his thoughts on a range of issues, but Charles also detailed his unhappy childhood, his love for Camilla, and the distress over his failed marriage – for which the press dismissed him as “self-pitying and self-righteous”.
In Her True Story, Diana’s most wounding charge against her husband was that he was “a bad father, a selfish father”. In Panorama, she doubled down, adding in that Charles was unfit to be king, and blamed Camilla for his “devastating” infidelity. Panorama prompted the couple’s divorce, but Charles made no rejoinder. By then it was impossible to combat Diana’s version of events, and her mythology was deeply embedded – “the queen of people’s hearts”, as she put it. In the year following her death, Charles had a sign saying “Be patient and endure”.
He spoke of her publicly only once, during a trip he and 13-year-old Prince Harry made to South Africa. At a state banquet hosted by President Nelson Mandela, Charles praised his late wife for her work to combat Aids, poverty and the use of landmines in Africa. She had made a “real difference”, and he called her death “tragic and untimely”.
From then on, it was up to William and Harry to talk about their mother. It wasn’t until the 10th anniversary of her death in 2007, that they began to “take back ownership” of her memory, an adviser said, with a private memorial at the Guards’ Chapel in London on August 31, the day she died. The Queen and Prince Philip came down from the Scottish Highlands to join the congregation, which included Charles but not Camilla. It fell to Harry, then 22, to praise his late mother as “our guardian, friend and protector”, who shared her “unrivalled love of life, laughter, fun and folly”.
The shutters then dropped until this spring, with Harry’s admission to the Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon that it had taken him 20 years to seek counselling for his grief, followed by a highly emotional Newsweek interview in June discussing his turmoil during her funeral. Recalling the walk with William, his father, Prince Philip and uncle, Charles Spencer, behind her casket, his tone hardened as he said, “I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances”.
A month later, Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy on ITV, featured interviews with William and Harry; now 35 and 32. They wanted to “remember all the good things about her.” They also spoke of how they tried to cope with grief, and expressed regrets that their final phone call with Diana, the day before she died, was hurried and short. Their tributes were heart-warming, sensitive, thoughtful, and have earned widespread praise for their honesty, but they served to re-mythologise their mother and to at least implicitly slight their father.
Tonight’s documentary is of a different order altogether. Friends of Diana have condemned Channel 4 and Settelen for exploiting her memory, while the Princes have refrained from commenting.
For Morton and Panorama, the Princess planned what she would say, and even rehearsed her answers. The Settelen tapes are unfiltered and raw, which give them greater power to wound and undermine Charles.
Diana could be premeditated in her assaults on her husband. She had “difficulty telling the truth,” as her brother himself once said. No one knows better than Charles that it is perilous to take her words at face value. His best hope is to demonstrate that he is a devoted father and a serious future king.
Next year will be his 70th birthday, the sort of occasion that calls for a documentary tribute, perhaps with William and Harry expressing the same gratitude and devotion that they accorded their mother.
Sally Bedell Smith is the author of Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, published by Michael Joseph. To order for £25 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk