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Happy Birthday, Charles! Di's Spilling the Beans on the Telly

November 17, 1995|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — What do you give an adulterous husband for his 47th birthday?

The Princess of Wales knows, and all Britain thirsts to share her secret.

In the latest episode of what haughty British newspapers deride as a royal soap opera (as they sing every aria), Princess Diana has secretly granted "an astonishingly frank" hourlong television interview about her family, her royal life and duties, and her separation from Prince Charles, Britain's future king.

The interview airs here Monday night.

Fewer than a dozen people have seen it so far, but the consensus among British royal watchers is that it will be a princess's prime-time revenge.

The 34-year-old Diana gave the interview to investigative reporter Martin Bashir of the British Broadcasting Corp. without the knowledge of even her closest aides. Outraged and humiliated, two of them are expected to quit, British newspapers said Thursday.

In a glaring affront to official protocol, Diana withheld all word of it from mother-in-law Queen Elizabeth II. She finally told the Royal Family on Tuesday, the same day that the BBC announced it would air the interview on "Panorama," its premier public affairs program.

Tuesday just happened to be the 47th birthday of the Prince of Wales, from whom Diana has been separated since 1992. And who confessed in a TV interview of his own last year that he was sleeping with another man's wife.

Broadcasters from around the world lined up at the BBC on Thursday to buy the rights. ABC reportedly won the American bidding at $1 million.

"Britain will see it first, but others may broadcast within seconds. We are in discussions with every major broadcaster around the globe," a BBC spokesman said Thursday. There will be no advance copy for the queen, the BBC says.

For the photogenic princess Britons call Lady Di and regard with endless fascination, the interview is unprecedented, and it is risky: a breathtaking gamble that flies in the face of tradition.

Will she come across as a wronged woman fighting back against the stifling, cast-iron coils of the British monarchy? Or as a manipulator who has decided that revenge is a dish best eaten cold through a camera's lens?

Diana's magnetism is such that even in the absence of all specific information about the interview's contents, everybody's an expert about it--and nobody's neutral.

"Has she gone mad?" shouted the royalist Daily Mirror. "She cannot forever remain a mass of contradictory legends," said admiring columnist Libby Purves. "Another nail in the coffin of the monarchy," sighed Harold Brooks-Baker, editor of Burke's Peerage.

Bemoaned the Daily Telegraph, beacon of the British Establishment: "The BBC took advantage of a lonely and unhappy woman who mistakenly believes that her skill before the camera ensures her success in every media appearances."

Riposted critic Melanie McDonagh: "The BBC did not take advantage of the princess. If anything, it's the Princess of Wales who has taken advantage both of the BBC and the tabloids."

When she separated from Charles after bearing future King William and another son, Diana presented her side of the royal trauma in a 1992 book written about her that portrayed her as a suicidal, bulimic woman trapped in a desperately unhappy marriage.

A familiar figure around London as a socialite and as a ceremonies-working princess since then, Diana has been linked by the British press--always circumstantially--to four different men.

Charles, for his part, last year admitted adultery with Camilla Parker Bowles, a longtime lover whose 22-year marriage to an army brigadier ended last January.

Since then, Charles and Parker Bowles have appeared separately at the same public functions, and newspapers say she recently spent a week with the prince at Balmoral, one of his country estates.

"What is surprising is not that it happened, but that one of the prince's aides had no compunction in confirming it," says Charles watcher Geoffrey Levy.

Word of Diana's interview broke like thunder Tuesday while Charles toured a jet engine factory on an official visit to Germany. By Thursday, Diana was the only one not talking about it.

Court reporters for big British newspapers say that Diana was urged to tell her story in a sober TV interview by relatives including her sister-in-law, Duchess of York. The duchess, Sarah Ferguson, is the estranged wife of Prince Andrew, younger brother to Prince Charles.

Reporter Bashir, not one of Britain's better known TV journalists, reportedly met Diana while on assignment from "Panorama" investigating reports that MI-5, Britain's secret service, had been spying on her and monitoring her phone calls.

While Londoners enjoyed Guy Fawkes Day bonfires and fireworks on Nov. 5, Bashir, accompanied by a cameraman and a soundman, visited Diana at her heavily guarded private apartments in Kensington Palace. The visit did not arouse security concerns--or royal concerns.

No royal aides were present, and Diana imposed no constraint on the questions or the content of the wide-ranging interview, the BBC said Thursday.

On Tuesday, Diana called the queen's private secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes, to announce the interview. Her private secretary, Patrick Jephson, learned of it secondhand that same day while at her side on a royal visit to a hospital.

Buckingham Palace is reported to be coldly furious at Diana, who leaves Thursday for a visit to Argentina latterly downgraded from "official" to "working."

At the BBC, the interview tape, locked away at a secret "safehouse," has become as precious as the crown jewels.

A handful of top executives have seen it, but not Marmaduke Hussey, chairman of the governors of the public corporation; his wife is a lady-in-waiting to the queen.

Reporters from British newspapers are offering up to $100,000 for a glimpse of the interview, but the BBC says the lid is on: There will be no hint of specific contents before show time.

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