Some speculated that it would be bland. It wasn’t. Others said it would be dynamite. It was far more powerful than that.
What the palace feared most would happen – that the Princess of Wales would let fly the pent-up grievances stored for 14 years – happened last night. And it was devastating.
In just one hour, in front of a viewing public of 15 million, she destroyed the image that generations of sovereigns have strived to create for more than 100 years – of a contented, caring and united royal family. By contrast, the picture she painted of life in Buckingham Palace was of isolation, jealousy, and cruel scheming.
The first option is likely to be difficult. To add to the looming nightmare that hangs over the palace in the aftermath of the Panorama interview this morning, the princess made clear that she had no intention of “going quietly”, and that she had no desire for a divorce.
She also stated in no uncertain terms that she wanted a settlement to the problem that would give her an enlarged role in public affairs – as a carer at home and an ambassador abroad.
How Prince Charles, backed up by palace lawyers, will find squaring that circle is hard to imagine. But, viewed from their perspective, they must, and fast.
With a battle instantly raging last night between supporters of the prince, attempting to discredit her testimony as paranoid, and the princess’s backers, who praised her for a courageous performance, her intervention also raised large questions about the future of the heir to the throne. Whether Prince Charles can succeed having been effectively denounced by his wife, who even doubted his ability to cope with the restrictions of life as king, must be seriously in doubt.
She went far beyond the barriers of previously accepted royal behavior, coming perilously close to an open declaration of war. “I am a free spirit,” she said in the glorious understatement.
The programme’s timing, for a start, could not have been more unfortunate or poignant. It was announced on Prince Charles’ 47th birthday and broadcast on the Queen’s 48th wedding anniversary.
That was bad enough. As a palace insider put it before the interview went out: “Forget what the Princess of Wales says. The reaction from the palace is that she has let the Queen down – and that has come across loud and clear.”
But what she said does matter. The tabloids will no doubt focus on her on-air confession that she had had an extra-marital affair with James Hewitt – a confession as dramatic as, though arguably less significant than, her husband’s admittance of his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles last year.
But that was the section of the interview that will damage the monarchy least. Far more serious a blow to its reputation and standing is the image she painted of life inside the palace, a dark world where an innocent 19-year-old entering the royal family for the first time was left to fend for herself.
Where she faced a husband jealous of the press interest she excited, and where his circle labeled her as “unstable” when she first became depressed. She revealed that during a long spell of bulimia lasting several years the only reaction she was given from those closest to her was that she was “wasting food”.
The public’s response to Diana’s interview could go either way: she could reach new heights of popularity as an honest princess and caring mother who just wanted the best for all concerned. Or she could be loaded with that most punishing of criticisms – that she was motivated by sour grapes.
Only one thing is sure in the shattered landscape of the British monarchy – it will never look the same again.
·This report appeared in the Guardian the day after the interview was broadcast by the BBC on its Panorama programme.