‘Set up for failure’: the wild story behind the car crash interview which destroyed Prince Andrew
From Beatrice attending his meetings to proposing cinema get-togethers at Buckingham Palace, a new documentary digs into how the Newsnight debacle happened
Thu 27 Apr 2023 06.00 BST
A Pizza Express in Woking. The inability to sweat. A tendency to be “too honourable”. Prince Andrew’s 2019 Newsnight interview was a bonanza of bizarre excuses – in which he disastrously tried to defend himself from allegations that he had sex with a 17-year-old girl trafficked by his friend Jeffrey Epstein. Greeted with a riot of disbelief, anger and meme-making by the public, it was the most explosive royal interview of the decade. But how on Earth did it happen in the first place?
A new documentary, airing as part of Channel 4’s alternative coronation coverage, is lifting the lid on this remarkably misguided interview. But Andrew: The Problem Prince kicks off with an entirely different TV appearance. It’s 1985 and the prince is primarily known as a pin-up, playboy and the Falklands hero who risked his life for his country. He is also known as Randy Andy, a nickname referenced by his interviewer on this occasion, a giggling Selina Scott. Andrew shrugs it off with remarkably easy charm and humour. The audience howls in approval. “It was a badge of honour then – the idea of this young prince cutting a swathe through the aristocratic women of London was something to be admired,” says James Goldston, former president of ABC News and one of the documentary’s producers. “There was zero conversation at the time about: are there ethical or moral issues involved in this?”
Fast-forward three decades and Sam McAlister, a guest booker on Newsnight, receives an email from a PR company offering an interview with Prince Andrew about his charity work. She declines on the grounds that it sounds like a puff piece, but the exchange prompts months of negotiations about a more wide-ranging interview, which is again rejected by McAlister because the palace has a single stipulation: all questions about convicted paedophile and financier Jeffrey Epstein are off the table.
But then Epstein is found dead in his New York prison cell. Until that point, the man Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis describes as “America’s Jimmy Savile” had been a peripheral figure in the public consciousness: now he is centre stage, and the prince’s friendship with him is under the media’s microscope. Eventually, Andrew’s team change their minds. McAlister – whose book Scoops: The BBC’s Most Shocking Interviews from Steven Seagal to Prince Andrew, was the inspiration for this documentary – can barely believe her luck.
It only gets weirder from there. Andrew brings his daughter Beatrice to a meeting with McAlister and Maitlis. He seems delighted after the interview, inviting the Newsnight team to stick around for a cinema night at Buckingham Palace. It’s only when the Queen receives the transcript, and Andrew receives a “tap on the shoulder” from the palace (according to Maitlis), that the catastrophe becomes clear to him. The interview then prompts Virginia Giuffre – who claims the prince had sex with her on several occasions when she was 17 – to pursue Andrew legally. The lawyers interviewed for the documentary “are very specific”, says Goldston. “What he said opened the door to bringing that legal action which ultimately destroyed him.” In 2022, Andrew settled out of court.
Andrew: The Problem Prince is expressly not a “hatchet job”, says Sheldon Lazarus, another of the programme’s producers. Instead, it’s an attempt to anchor Andrew’s behaviour and decisions within the broader context of his life: despite his status and knack for making headlines, Lazarus believes there has never been an in-depth documentary about him before. We hear how the Queen indulged him as a child, and how Andrew’s finances meant he could never afford the lavish life he had become accustomed to. While Charles had an annual income of £20m, Andrew had to make do with a yearly allowance of £249,000 from the Queen. “By most standards that’s a lot of money, but to live a royal lifestyle, it’s obviously not enough. You feel that he’s being set up for failure,” says Goldston.
One of the most notorious moments in the Newsnight interview sees Maitlis ask Andrew whether he regrets consorting with Epstein. No, he replies, because the opportunities he got from it “were actually very useful”. According to Lazarus, the producers found themselves asking a question: “If he had been wealthier, would he have made better decisions, and not got into this crowd in order to keep up with the Joneses – or the Windsors?”
Tonally, the documentary team had to tread carefully. While the Newsnight interview was inescapably comic in content, its subject was a set of extremely serious and disturbing crimes. “I think you can use humour in the most serious of circumstances, as long as it’s done appropriately,” says Goldston, whose other job at the time was overseeing the coverage of the January 6 committee hearings in Washington DC.
After all, much of what goes on with the royals veers between farce and something far more troubling. One of the standout moments from the documentary is an interview with the former – yet still palpably annoyed – deputy British ambassador in Bahrain, who recounts Andrew’s freewheeling and ultimately very damaging input as a trade envoy in the early 2000s. “I love the line that ultimately his boss is the Queen – there was just no accountability,” says Lazarus. The diplomat also tells of how the prince refused to stay in ambassadorial residences, instead hiring out luxury hotels to house his thank-you letter-writer and valet.
The Problem Prince isn’t just about the titular royal, however. It’s “a celebration of the power of journalism,” says Goldston, who admits to feeling “kind of jealous” about the Newsnight scoop at the time. It’s also an insight into a rather mysterious job: that of the celebrity booker. “I’ve worked in journalism for 30 years and been involved in a lot of big gets: presidents, prime ministers, celebrities,” he says. “The art of the booking has always fascinated me – how does that happen?” Goldston ran Good Morning America “at the height of the morning wars and watched these bookers go after these things every day. It’s a phenomenal feat of endurance.”
It’s a world Lazarus is also familiar with, having started his career booking guests for Paula Yates’s On the Bed segment on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast – a job he admits wasn’t beholden to the same journalistic ethics as Newsnight. “I definitely wouldn’t have said no to Andrew,” he says. “He could have come and juggled – he could have done whatever he wanted!”
The documentary provides an intimate insight into the big-name interview, but its headline question – why Andrew decided to appear on Newsnight in the first place – is ultimately left unanswered. Maitlis suggests it may have been an attempt to clear his name for his daughters’ sake, while Goldston thinks the media pressure meant “he was going to have to confront it head on and that’s how they end up saying yes”. That, however, doesn’t explain why he went against the guidance of trusted advisers, including media lawyer Paul Tweed, who claims in the documentary that he warned Andrew not to do it.
Instead, you come away with the sense that it was driven by a heady cocktail of yes-men-powered delusion and extreme naivety (he was “not intellectual”, according to royal biographer Andrew Lownie, while Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers claims that Epstein called the prince “an idiot”). Yet this cluelessness wasn’t limited to Andrew himself. Goldston recalls McAlister telling him that as the interview concluded, a member of the prince’s staff leaned over to her and muttered, “‘Isn’t he marvellous?’ That lack of understanding of what had just happened was pretty profound.”
The documentary ends with a portrait of an underemployed Andrew living in the shadows. And yet Tweed, who appears in the documentary with the blessing of the prince and his family, suggests something that seems currently unthinkable: the idea that the prince might make a return to public life. Is there any world in which this could happen?
“I think they live in hope that they can still turn this round, which is actually a very interesting idea,” says Goldston. “[Tweed] has seen a lot of these cases. Who knows?” Never say never, but if the royal family wants to survive until the next coronation, it seems that Andrew – utterly tone-deaf, entitled beyond belief and morally dubious, at best – is everything it must leave behind.
Andrew: The Problem Prince airs on Channel 4 on 1 May at 9pm.
Andrew: The Problem Prince on Channel 4 review - same old, same old gets you no closer to understanding
This documentary explores the story behind the Newsnight interview - while leaving juicier stones unturned
By Robbie Smith
01 May 2023
Who would be a prince? Apart from the glamour, the riches, the fast cars, and the fame, that is. Well, you might end up as Prince Andrew. Disgraced, detested, and derided the world over – doesn’t sound so fun now.
The Problem Prince indeed. This two-hander from Channel 4 claims it “tells you everything you need to know about that interview”.
Yet it emerges that what we need to know about that Newsnight interview is not what we learn from this documentary. The central mystery of it is why on earth Andrew gave it and what it is about him that led him to that point.
Sadly for every illuminating minute spent on Prince Andrew’s character, it feels as if we have two minutes exploring the genesis of Newsnight’s interview – and from the less interesting perspective.
Presenter Emily Maitlis and producer Sam McAlister (who has already written a book touching on the interview) dominate proceedings. We learn that McAlister comes from “market people” (and duly see her duly pictured in a market). We hear about how she was “relentless” and charm is “my superpower”. We see the star power of Emily Maitlis and what a presence she is. No doubt all of these things are useful in securing top guests. But as it turns out, they were not needed here.
It was Prince Andrew’s people who came to Newsnight. The BBC show said no. Andrew’s people tried again and eventually, thanks to their persistence, Newsnight said yes. The driving force behind the trainwreck interview – both in its setup and then in its contents – was not especially clever or charming work from Maitlis and McAlister, but Andrew himself. Andrew is the author of his destruction, as are brave women like Virginia Giuffre who came forward to allege sexual abuse (Andrew and Giuffre settled out of court, despite Andrew denying the allegations).
Why the logistics of the Newsnight interview from their side take up so much space in this documentary is, as a result, a real puzzle.
Far more interesting are the insights from those who had to work with Andrew. Simon Wilson, then our deputy ambassador in Bahrain, describes Andrew as having a “split personality”.
Wilson had seen Andrew, who was acting as a trade ambassador for the government, ruin the government’s own sales pitch for the military hardware he was supposed to be flogging. Wilson despaired: “he was completely unaccountable… was his line manager?”. That, more than the Newsnight team taking photos in Buckingham Palace, is genuinely intriguing.
Excellent archive footage early in the first part of the documentary shows a child showered with gifts (including a miniature James Bond Aston Martin, complete with toy guns behind the headlights) and adored by Britain. The film opens with what is now, in retrospect, deeply cringeworthy but enlightening footage of a flirtatious Andrew charming the socks off a female interviewer, asking him about his “Randy Andy” moniker as the audience giggle and cheer along.
Andrew was the freewheeling second son. Where Charles was made prematurely old by the weight of his future responsibility, Andrew was the opposite. A sort of permanent, Peter Pan boyhood afflicted him, his development and life frozen in the dazzling brilliance of youth, at the moment when he still had a ‘purpose’ and before the line of succession moved away from him with the birth of Prince William.
Andrew could have grown out of this. Instead, as the documentary shows, he embraced a playboy lifestyle he could not afford (despite a yearly allowance of £250,000 from the Queen) and was unsuited to. His disastrous association (even friendship) with the paedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein continued even after Epstein’s convictions for sexual offences. What a dreadful decision – and series of decisions. And yet, as Simon Wilson had asked, who was Andrew accountable to? Who told him no? And would he listen?
This documentary fails to pursue Wilson’s question. Instead it feels as if the McAlister/Maitlis story (which itself is soon to be dramatised by Netflix) takes up much of the focus. It is Andrew, not them, who is interesting. How did the problem prince get made? After watching this, I can’t say I’m much the wiser.
Episode 1 will air Monday May 1 at 9pm on Channel 4; Episode 2 will air the following week
Andrew: The Problem Prince review – a deliciously vicious reminder of the dire state of the monarchy
This gripping documentary unpacks the dodgy truth about the king’s paedophile-affiliated brother. Is this really the sort of thing you want to pledge allegiance to?
Mon 1 May 2023 22.00 BST
Context is all, they say. And when you broadcast a documentary about the king’s paedophile-affiliated brother five days before the former’s coronation, they may be right. Context is certainly the greatest ally of Channel 4’s Andrew: The Problem Prince. It is based on an anatomisation of the before, during and after of the now and probably for ever infamous interview that Prince Andrew gave to Emily Maitlis on Newsnight in 2019. I know. Four years ago. And still the memory of him claiming to be unable to sweat as a result of trauma in the Falklands, and taking the kids to Pizza Express in Woking on the evening he was alleged to be having sex with a trafficked 17-year-old, is as crystal-clear as it ever was. Time has not done its gentle work. If it catches you unawares, you still jack-knife unstoppably in horror as it unleashes all the rest of its vicarious humiliation. “It was a convenient place to stay.” “A very ordinary shooting weekend.” “I’m too honourable.” Amazing.
The same disbelief clearly still attends the even more extensive recollections of Maitlis and her producer, Sam McAlister. The latter received the first approach from Amanda Thirsk, the prince’s chief of staff, in 2018, which was before Jeffrey Epstein – though by then a convicted sex offender – had come into UK public consciousness. When Newsnight declined the offer of what was essentially a puff piece, word came back that they were open to “a wider discussion”. He would talk about anything except his friendship with Epstein. Newsnight didn’t fancy being dictated to, so declined again. “Best decision ever,” says McAlister. It is clear that, quite rightly, the joy will never leave her. The prince and the “playboy” – AKA man-arrested-for-20-years-of-sex-trafficking-in-plain-sight – became headline news and Andrew became determined to use the interview to clear his name. It is not overtly stated but it is obvious that from then on, the main task of McAlister and Maitlis was to tread softly and not shatter the man’s illusions.
Others tried to – notably Andrew’s lawyer Paul Tweed, a twitchy man quick to affirm his advice to the prince to say nothing to no one about nothing, nothing at all – but the hubristic heart wants what it wants. Andrew went on telly and told everyone everything about all of it.
Various talking heads explain the man and his decision, first to become close to Epstein and then to chat about it on national television. The former press secretary to the queen Dicky Arbiter and the royal correspondent Valentine Low limn the extra-privileged childhood as the queen’s favourite, the inescapable resentment at being the spare not the heir, and the compensatory pleasures of being a handsome young prince about town (“Girls on tap,” explains Dickie, succinctly) without having to worry about his reputation too much.
The most powerful testimony, though, is wordless and comes from contemporary footage of him in interviews. The easy charm (if you allow for 80s social mores) of the twentysomething prince being interviewed by/flirting with Selina Scott curdles into something more smug over the years until you can see the monstrous entitlement lurking beneath, threatening at any moment to break the bounds of decorum. The trade envoy years showed there was no beginning to his talents, and when he was stripped of his titles by the queen after pictures of him strolling through Central Park with a post-conviction Epstein hit the papers, Low (deliciously viciously) points out that this is bound to hit a man “without a hinterland … no rich inner life” particularly hard. Whatever judgment or willingness to take advice he might have had was eroded further, and his loss was Maitlis’s gain.
This is not a documentary in which Epstein’s victims are central, and the claims of Virginia Giuffre about having to have sex on three occasions with the prince are only just given enough attention here, most of it in the second episode. What saves Andrew: The Problem Prince – although it’s still a close-run thing – from being an unforgivable media masturbatory session, allowing the people involved with the interview to cover themselves in further glory and pontificate about the power of journalism to hold the privileged and protected to account, is the proximity of its broadcast to the coronation. It reminds us all that the monarchy contains and tolerates the likes of the Duke of York. He isn’t the first dodgy royal and he won’t be the last. That’s how they roll, and Charles would like us to pledge public allegiance to it. Good luck with that, fella. Good luck with that.