Diana loved pizzas, videos and Dodi - Michael Cole on what the princess told him
- Credit: AP
Michael Cole, former BBC royal correspondent and director of public affairs for Harrods looks back on the Princess Diana he knew
I heard her before I saw her. There was a peal of laughter followed by a snatch of happy conversation and then an attractive giggle.
I was outside the door of the grandest room in the residence of the British ambassador in Washington. Together with the other journalists covering Princess Diana’s first visit to the United States, I was standing in line to be “received” by the royal couple.
As we filed in, Prince Charles stood there stiff as starch, hating the necessity of shaking hands with the enemy. Not Diana. “You again!” she exclaimed, recognising a familiar tabloid reporter. Next, a famous photographer. “Why do you always make me look so silly?” she asked him, playfully.
This was unlike any royal reception I had ever attended. A reporter with an expanding waistline got a gentle poke in the tummy. “Nice shirt “, said the Princess. “Showing too much of it as usual”.
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The BBC camera crew and I had arrived in Washington from covering a tour of the Caribbean by The Queen. “Hey, look at these sun tans,” said the Princess as we stepped forward. “I can see that no work was done in the West Indies”.
“It’s not a tan”, I said. “It’s rust. Rain every day”.
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I was rather pleased with this lame joke and came away thinking what a clever chap I was. Diana had the effect on people. She made them think they were brilliant. But she was the one who sparkled.
Her laughter was real, the smile sincere. Her jokes were sometimes naughty but always nice. She saw the funny side of things and would double over with laughter if anything amusing happened.
She was different from any Princess we had known. Princess Margaret was so grand that the word haughty hardly did her justice. As for Princess Anne, a reporter at the Burghley Horse Trials would be lucky to get away with the instruction to “Naff off!”
A different princess
Diana was different. She liked people. And people loved her. From her apparent happiness and willingness to step off her pedestal at that media reception, no one would have guessed her troubles.
She and her husband had just completed a troubled tour of Australia. Then they had visited America’s west coast. At an exhibition, the Princess was seen to faint or collapse. It wasn’t clear what was going on.
Their Canadian press secretary Vic Edwards, a former gridiron football player, had been filmed snarling at reporters: “The Princess is not pregnant”.
So what was ailing her? We wondered why she had become so thin. In the royal press pack, it was common knowledge that Prince Charles had gone back to his mistress, Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles.
When the princess left the family home at Highgrove, Camilla would drive in while the exhaust fumes left by the princess’s car were still hanging in the Cotswold air.
In America that November, there was tension in the air. The princess’s arrival at the White House in a midnight blue velvet gown was a defining moment.
Nothing would ever be quite so spectacular again: President Reagan and his wife Nancy welcoming Charles and Diana at the pinnacle of their reign as “The Most Glamorous Couple in the World”.
We filmed the scarcely less glamorous guests arriving at the back door of the White House: cosmetics queen Estee Lauder, exiled Russian ballet dancer Mikhael Barishnikov and America’s own Emperor of the Dance Floor, John Travolta.
I asked Travolta if he would be dancing with the princess: “Do you think she’ll have me?” he asked.
They did dance. No one who saw them would ever forget it. At the National Gallery of Art the following morning, there was a news conference. But ‘Topic A’ was off the agenda. Reporters were informed that the princess would not be answering questions and warned against mentioning her fling around the White House ballroom with the star of Saturday Night Fever.
It was a stupid imposition. It had to be ignored. What was a news conference for, if not to ask about the story that was on every front page, with official photographs of the couple dancing featured by every morning TV show? I stood up.
“Would the Prince of Wales tell us how the princess is enjoying her first visit to the United States”, I asked. “And in particular how she enjoyed dancing with John Travolta last night?”
Prince Charles was livid. His face coloured with anger. He just about managed to say that she was enjoying the visit and of course, she enjoyed dancing with John Travolta, adding, through gritted teeth, “She would, wouldn’t she?”
Sitting beside him, in her enforced silence, the Princess nodded but looked down. These were the days before the Princess found her voice. She was not allowed to speak in public. She kept her thoughts to herself but we knew she held some worthwhile opinions. She was far from being “as thick as two short planks”, as she sometimes claimed.
Finding her voice
When she started to speak out, much later, she always demonstrated good sense and great sensitivity. I wondered at the time why she was being kept away from the microphones, because she clearly had a greater understanding of the world and the lot of ordinary people than some member of the family within which she lived for 15 years, too many of them unhappy.
The princess was a star. She could trace her royal pedigree back to the Stuart kings and, like the best of English monarchs, had the impeccable breeding that meant that she could walk with ordinary people without diminishing her royal status. She raised people to her level.
Did Diana play to the cameras? Yes. But show me a woman who does not like to see herself in a flattering photograph. But it wasn’t always vanity. If the princess arrived to watch polo wearing white ankle socks with red polka dots, it would drive the photographers crazy and there would be a spread about “Dotty Di” in the tabloids.
But when she arrived in Japan wearing a white dress with large red polka dots, like the rising sun, it was taken by the Japanese as a great compliment. The most famous woman in the world had come dressed in their national flag. So, a fashion shot one day, a diplomatic triumph the next.
Welcome to Di’s World.
When I think of her, I see a series of snapshots that capture mainly sunny days. Diana twanging the red braces of the President of Portugal because she felt he looked too glum. Diana shaking with laughter as she walked down a street in Spain because she had seen something saucy in a shop window.
I recall her daring Fergie to fight on the ski slopes at Klosters in Switzerland. “Let’s stir it up,” she said. The princess and the duchess barged each other, hip to hip, before falling over in the snow, laughing and ignoring Prince Charles’ urgent pleas for them to stop.
But I also remember Prince Charles turning on the crowds in Vienna who were screaming, “Diana! Diana!”. “She’s on the other side of the street”, he hissed, “You’ll have to put up with me”. He was truly furious.
When they went to see the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy, it was as embarrassing as witnessing a middle class couple having a row in public. The prince informed his wife how long the tapestry was.“But you are not interested in that, are you?” he snapped. The princess sighed and looked down. She clearly wished she was somewhere else.
Going around an art gallery in Spain, he ordered her to stop rubbing her back and stand up straight. She looked hurt but did as she was told. She was always careful to lean over a little, so as not to further offend him by being taller than him.
It was painful to watch a marriage coming apart in front of our camera. In Berlin, we filmed the prince and princess taking the salute at a parade of British Troops.
Most German film editors are women. It was a woman, in white gloves, who edited my film. “You have such pretty soldiers,” she said, as she viewed the footage of the Scottish Borderers marching past. “But Lady Di, I worry about her. She is unhappy.
“She knows her husband loves another woman. It hurts her. It is clear. You see it in her face”.
At that time, the truth about the Wales’s troubles was unknown to the general public. But a German woman, who spent her professional life looking at people’s faces in the darkness of an editing suite, saw the depth of the despair that was rapidly engulfing the princess as her married life became intolerable.
The family woman
Lady Diana Spencer was an East Anglian country girl. She was not always rich. That’s why her family lived in a house owned by The Queen on the Sandringham Estate. As a child, she hardly ever visited the Spencer family’s stately home at Althorp in Northamptonshire. She did not live there until she was a teenager, when her father succeeded his irascible father as Earl Spencer.
With her two older sisters and younger brother, Diana was brought up largely by her father, after her mother walked out of the family home in order to marry a former cavalry officer. This sparked one of the most notorious divorce cases of the 1960s. Society was scandalised.
For the rest of her life, Diana wanted only to recreate the happy family life that had been shattered when her mother walked out on her when she was only six years old.
Princess Diana had known Dodi Fayed for more than 10 years before they began their romance in the summer of 1997. I am convinced that what initially attracted Diana to Dodi was his wonderful way with his own half brothers and sisters. He was the perfect older brother.
During the family holiday that Diana and her sons enjoyed with the Al Fayed family in July, Dodi surprised and delighted everyone by reserving the most fashionable disco in St. Tropez for one whole evening. The booking was exclusive, so that everyone could go dancing and invite their friends without having to worry about paparazzi gatecrashing the scene.
When the princess and her sons returned from that first holiday, the princess telephoned me. My wife answered and asked if they had had a good time. The princess said it had been the most wonderful holiday ever and they were all now sitting in “KP” (Kensington Palace) suffering from withdrawal symptoms.
Dodi was deeply in love with Diana. He told me so. The last time I saw the princess she was full of joy and happiness, on top of the world, despite the relentless media harassment they were both suffering and which was eventually led to their deaths.
People say that their love was just a holiday romance, a summer fling. They know nothing. Diana enjoyed three holidays with Dodi, in addition to a weekend in Paris people never knew about. There were also evenings and afternoons when the princess and Dodi just hung out at his apartment, sitting on the floor, eating pizza and watching videos.
Her love affair with Dodi was her first following her divorce. She was a free woman again. The affairs we know about before she met Dodi, or that have come to light since, were carried on in secret, when she was married to Prince Charles or legally separated from him.
But with Dodi, she and he were the only people on board the yacht Jonikal, apart from the crew, the maid and valet. There could be no doubt in anyone’s mind about the nature of their relationship. Neither attempted to hide it, though they both found the media intrusion hard to bear.
Diana the mother
I am sure that the princess would never have exposed her sons to the teasing they might have had to endure at school had she not intended that the relationship should become a permanent one. The princess told her butler Paul Burrell that he and his wife Maria should get ready to fly to California, because they were all going to live at the house Dodi had recently purchased on the beach at Malibu, near Los Angeles.
They were also planning to live for part of the year in Paris, as irony would have it. The princess did not want to live in England any longer, because of media harassment, but wished to be not too far from her sons.
The princes William and Harry were the most important men in her life. And they are the ones I think most about now, as this new series of The Crown begins to tell Diana’s story.
Their mother adored them. She was proud of both sons and would have been so upset to see them pulling apart. There was no greater patriot than Diana. She would have wished both to serve this country and help each other.
I once remarked to the princess that Prince William had grown as tall as she was. “You have certainly bred some height into the royal family”, I said. She smiled. “And good looks, Michael,” she said. “And good looks”.
The woman who was closest to the princess in the weeks before her death, her stepmother, Raine, Countess Spencer, told me that Diana had said that her love affair with Dodi was the most fulfilling of her life.
On their last holiday, they were completely happy. On what turned out to be their last evening, they drove off from the rear entrance of L’Hotel Ritz with the prospect of a last night together in Paris before returning to London and the start of an exciting new stage in their lives.
The whole world misses Diana. I have often wondered why she made such an impact on people’s lives and why she still has such a hold on people’s minds.
In a way, she was like us. She was not perfect. She was not a saint. She didn’t want to be seen as one. But she was a good person. She showed us how much good one person can do. She was a walking, dancing, laughing, embodiment of the better side of humanity. And she put us in touch with the best bits of ourselves.
That is why Diana, Princess of Wales will never be forgotten. I hope the two actresses playing her in The Crown will convey the true Diana.
Newcomer Emma Corrin, playing the young Diana, certainly has the “Shy Di” faun-like appeal. Elizabeth Debicki, playing the older princess, has the height and stature.
I just hope the show’s creator Peter Morgan allows them to embody the strong, sensitive and above all good Diana who deserved to live so much longer than her 36 years.