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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jonathan Maitland

‘It’s what Princess Diana said off-camera, not on, in the Bashir interview that inspired my play’

Screen grab of Diana, in a blazer and shirt, with layered short hair and hands folded on her crossed legs, looks at Martin Bashir during the 1995 interview
Princess Diana opened up in the revelatory 1995 BBC programme with journalist Martin Bashir on which Jonathan Maitland based his play The Interview. Photograph: PA/BBC screen grab

Let’s talk morality and art: do you feel ambivalent when you hear a Michael Jackson song? How do you react to a Picasso? And did you sympathise with the bloke who took a hammer to the BBC’s Eric Gill sculpture?

Arguments about the great art of deeply dodgy artists now dominate the cultural conversation. Should the value we put on art consider the artist’s morality? Can we hate the artist but ignore their crimes sufficiently to champion their art? And more practically, does Gill’s rape of his daughters mean his carvings should no longer take pride of place above the entrance to our national broadcaster’s HQ?

Close-up screen grab of Diana, Princess of Wales, with layered hair and a spherical gold earring, smiling and looking up, head inclined down
Diana pauses during the infamous Panorama interview. Photograph: BBC-TV Video/PA

This, although I didn’t realise when writing it, is the issue at the heart of my play The Interview, about the famously controversial Princess Diana and Martin Bashir head-to-head. OK, so Bashir was no artist and the interview no work of art, but the issues involved are similar.

Two of our most powerful institutions, the BBC and the House of Windsor have decreed that because of Bashir’s foul play, one of the most significant pieces of broadcast journalism ever made must effectively be banned for ever. Prince William felt the interview fuelled his mother’s “fear, paranoia and isolation” and, in an order which the BBC felt it couldn’t refuse, declared it was his “firm view this Panorama programme holds no legitimacy and should never be aired again”.

There is deep irony here. William silenced his mother, who brought him up to have the courage to speak out, because she had the courage to speak out. It’s fertile territory for a play but also, according to many industry observers, alarmingly draconian. Not that you’ll hear them say so in public: they value commissions too much to piss off the BBC.

A former BBC manager – one of the most influential executives of his generation – reckons the edict handed down by the royals and the corporation is “one of the most blatant acts of censorship of recent times”. What sort of regime, the argument goes, bans important journalism of such historical significance, apart from the likes of North Korea and China?

To be clear: I am not defending Bashir or justifying what he did. It was wrong. He forged documents which helped him win Diana’s trust and filled her head with deeply damaging allegations about much-loved members of the royal household. But should such behaviour – which, incidentally, he has apologised for – mean we should never again be allowed to see or hear what she said?

Perversely, the ban means we are now in danger of forgetting how much the interview was in the public interest – which it’s the BBC’s primary duty to serve, of course – and how groundbreaking it proved to be.

It wasn’t the headline stuff about “three of us in this marriage”. It was what she said about bulimia, postnatal depression and self-harm that was sensational, but in a good way. Few if any public figures in 1995 had the courage to speak so bravely and openly. She paved the way for today’s more enlightened attitudes to mental health. This is not to canonise her: she was definitely no saint, as the play makes clear. But she was ahead of her time, a trailblazer and a force for good.

Jonathan Maitland, in a blazer and button-down shirt, smiles holding a glass of wine
Playwright Jonathan Maitland drew on his experience of having Martin Bashir as a BBC and ITV colleague. Photograph: Stuart C Wilson/Getty Images

My play is about more than just this issue, though. It’s about journalistic ethics and manipulation: did Bashir exploit Diana or vice versa? It’s also about how the establishment punishes those who displease it. It’s a tragedy, too: one of the main characters ends up dead, the other professionally ruined.

Talking of which, the first thing everyone asks about the play is: “Have you spoken to Martin Bashir?” To which the paraphrased answer is: “Yes. I worked with him for six years when we reported for ITV’s Tonight with Trevor McDonald, and we were BBC colleagues before that.”

Not that we talked about Diana much: whenever I mentioned her, he would change the subject to sport or music, the latter being such a shared passion he once joined my covers band Surf ’n’ Turf on percussion to play Walk on By during a gig at a restaurant in the early 2000s.

I brought the subject up again recently because of the play. Initially he was helpful and even suggested who might play him – Idris Elba was one idea and, er, Martin Bashir – that is, him playing himself – another. We were emailing, so I couldn’t tell if he was joking. Then communication ceased.

But that wasn’t a problem. Having seen Martin operate and having read countless books (most notably Shadows of a Princess by Patrick Jephson, Diana’s private secretary) and having had access to several hours of untransmitted TV interview transcripts as well as talking to key figures in the scandal, I had more than enough to work with.

The issue of not being allowed to use the interview – anyone using substantial chunks for commercial purposes could be sued by the BBC – turned out to be less of a problem than anticipated. Necessity proved to be the mother of invention. Researched invention, that is. As a result, the relevant scene focuses on what Diana said off camera, rather than on, and includes fascinating stuff said on camera but which didn’t make the final cut.

So are the BBC and the royals wrong to ban the interview? You might say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

And anyway, it’s not a playwright’s job to tell the audience what to think. Having said that, my iPhone tells me my sixth most played song ever is I Want You Back, the truly joyous piece of popular art by the Jackson 5. The singer? Michael Jackson.

The Interview is at Park theatre, Finsbury Park, London, from 27 October to 25 November

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