First of all: what got you interested in writing celebrity biographies?
I used to work in journalism years ago and realised that I enjoy spending more time on this subject. When you write a book you get much closer to someone than you do when you are writing newspaper articles. My first biography was Andrew the Boy Prince, which was a biography of Prince Andrew after he came back from The Falklands in 1982. It was described by The Observer as the worst book ever written! So after that the only way was up… My next biography was of The Duchess of York – Fergie – because I had done stories about her and got to know her family reasonably well. And I was doing both biographies and general royal books. I was inspired to do a book on the royal yacht Britannia when I saw the ship arrive at San Diego harbour in 1983.
So aside from all your celebrity biographies about people like Tom Cruise and the Beckhams, there is a very strong royal theme to your work. What do you think it is about British royalty which gives them such global appeal?
One word: Diana. During the 60s and 70s, the royals were a very domestic, home-counties family. Then Diana came along, and there was something about her that had this charisma that appealed worldwide. I think it was the way she seemed so accessible and approachable – and then you invest in the drama of the unfolding story of her life. The comedian Eddie Izzard did a stand-up routine about her in which he said something along the lines of, ‘Hang on – she didn’t die. She is not supposed to die… there are more episodes to go.’ And the reason he got a laugh is that it hit a nerve. Celebrities become celebrities, not necessarily because they are good at anything, but because people get invested in their stories.
Let’s move on to your five books. Your first choice is Sarah Bradford’s book about George VI – who’s been talked about a lot recently, on account of the Oscar-winning film, The King’s Speech
I like Sarah’s work; she is very diligent and a thorough and a very skillful writer. I think this is perhaps her best book because she got a degree of distance from the subject – obviously through time. And she was given a lot of access to documents. I thought she painted a vivid portrait of the man. The response to his death was very touching. We forget that people lined the railway track as his coffin was taken from Sandringham back to London.
What about his relationship with Churchill, which was described in the book as a great wartime partnership?
For me, the book goes further than that. It’s the relationship between George VI, the Queen Mother and the Roosevelt family. I would always argue that their visit to America in 1939 was probably the most important Royal visit in the last century. In the face of American isolationism, it helped push the American elite away from their tender warmth toward Nazi Germany and feel closer to the British. So that, for me, was a turning moment. The whole abdication crisis is also described, as well as the relationship with Churchill that you mention.
Your next choice is Ben Pimlott’s biography of the Queen, in which he sets out to show her more personal side.
Yes. Ben was the head of Goldsmith College and I got to know him a little bit before his sad and premature death. For a Labour Party man, he had a very keen and sceptical eye of the royal scene. He was also given very good access, for once, by the Palace.
Why do you think they let him in, considering his credentials?
Because his credentials were both left-of-centre and academic. He was a worthy adversary, very much up to the job. I think he painted a very skillful portrait of the Queen, who has always been quite an enigmatic, elusive character. He painted in rather more subtle shades than the caricatures – for example, he looked at her relationship with Prince Philip, and I think he was particularly good at looking at her relationships with politicians and the wry way in which she observed these things.
She is meant to have a good sense of humour and to be a great mimic as well.
Yes exactly – but obviously we never see those qualities. She is someone who is always slightly stony faced.
What do you make of her and in particular her relationship with Princess Diana?
She found Diana just puzzling; she couldn’t really make her out. Diana was always very respectful of the Queen. When I was asking her questions about the Queen, she would never dream of criticising her. But there was this feeling that the Queen should have been tougher on her son and his relationship with Camilla. Diana always felt that she inevitably sided with her son in the face of overwhelming evidence that he wasn’t behaving properly.
What about her relationship with her grandchildren? In particular William, whom you’ve been writing about.
She is very indulgent of her grandchildren in a way she wasn’t with her own children, which is a typical way for grandparents to behave! I know – I am a grandfather. When William was at Eton, he would go off to what he called WC, which was Windsor Castle, to have tea with his granny every weekend. He used to tell his chums he was off to the WC!!
I’m glad someone gets to go and have tea with the Queen!
Yes. And obviously as a little boy he didn’t know who the Queen was, so she has always been granny to him.
I’m interested in your next choice: Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles. Considering you are widely considered to have written the definitive book about Diana, what did you make of this one?
I thought Tina did a good job. She didn’t come up with anything new, even though she worked very hard to get something new. But what she did was to come up with a compelling portrait that put Diana in a social milieu which was certainly accessible to Americans.
I thought she set out to do some muckracking.
If Tina was muckracking, she didn’t rack much muck! I think it is a nicely written, well-judged analysis that didn’t turn up much in the way of new material. I met her at Charles and Camilla’s wedding and she told me she was doing this book, and I said: good luck getting anything new. What she came up with was the portrait of someone who knows and understands the social scene in Britain and was able to explain it in a vivid way to an American audience.
What about you, when you were writing your book on Diana? After her death you were able to disclose that the book was based on interviews you did with her, so it was written in her own words, but you couldn’t tell people at the time. What did it feel like when she was telling you all these personal things?
It was an extraordinary experience. I felt very privileged and very honoured to be asked to write her story. I think that I did a pretty competent job of it.
But what was it like when she was telling you some of those things that had never come out before?
I’ll give you a parallel. Kate Middleton did her university thesis on the author of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll. I felt like a male version of Alice in Wonderland – that I had entered a parallel universe where nothing was as it seemed and everything was very unusual. I remember the first time I was ever told anything about Diana’s bulimia, about this woman no one had ever heard of called Camilla Parker-Bowles, about her suicide attempts and about her unhappy marriage… it was like literally going into a parallel universe. And I remember going back from that first meeting with the go-between and stepping further back from the edge of the subway than normal. It was like being in a spy drama where you now know a secret that nobody else knows. And I held that secret for a year – which was quite remarkable.
That must have been so hard. I don’t know if you drink or not, but if you do, surely after a few glasses of wine you would want to tell all your friends?
Well exactly. I was under enormous pressure in those first few weeks from members of Parliament, from member of the House of Lords, the Palace and elsewhere, because of the controversial nature of the book. And it would have been very easy to say well actually, chaps, Diana was behind this. These are her words and her thoughts. But I kept quiet and kept on with the same mantra: that she wasn’t involved but her friends and family were. A few more perceptive journalists like Mark Lawson were duly sceptical but most of them accepted the story.
And what about when you could finally say it was her words? What kind of a reaction was there to that?
Oh, outrage. Britain was in the grip of what people would call floral fascism, where I was damned for bringing the book out in the first place and not saying Diana was involved, and then damned for saying she was involved afterwards. So I couldn’t win. It was very much a case of ‘have a go at the messenger’.
Your next choice is Patrick Jephson’s Shadows of a Princess, which was written by Diana’s private secretary. Do you think he is accurate in his descriptions of Diana?
Well I think (and I have said this to Patrick face-to-face, so I am not telling him anything he doesn’t already know) that there was a degree of weariness with Diana that conveys itself in the book, which fails to appreciate the charismatic qualities that she had. And I think Patrick would now agree that, like a good roast, he should have let his memories rest for a while before carving them up into a banquet for us all to feast on.
He got a lot of hostility for bringing out his book. The traditional thing for a biography is that you have the official line, you have the memoir, and you have an unauthorised biography. And taken as a whole, those three methods of analysing someone’s character will yield an approximation of the truth. Patrick Jephson’s is a memoir of his time spent with Diana – just as Lord Moran wrote very colourfully about Churchill.
What about the weariness; how did that show itself in the book?
I thought he was overly critical because at the time he was fed up with her. The element he missed was the fact that she was more than the sum of the parts – and that is the key to her. If you want to understand Diana, you need to know that, just like anyone else, she was a series of contradictions. Rather like Paul Burrell, the butler, in a role like the Private Secretary you tend to want people to do what you want them to do, and when they don’t, they are being a pain. So it is the usual complaint of intimate members of staff.
Before we move on to your final book, I am interested to know what kind of reaction Prince William and Harry had to the book you did about Princess Diana. Does their reaction affect the book you are doing about them now?
I have never heard what they felt about it. In terms of the book I am doing about William and Kate, I don’t have anything like the access I had to Diana. But writing about the royals is like putting on a comfortable old shoe. Since doing the book on Diana, I have written about the President of Kenya, Tom Cruise, the Beckhams, Madonna and Angelina Jolie. But going back to the royals… a lot of the people I spoke to for the book about Diana have become friends, so it is easy getting back in contact with them. And also, over the years I have got to know the royal landscape – and when you know the Royal landscape, you know where to go for information.
But what about being able to speak to William and Kate?
No, I can’t do that. I think one of the interesting things about them is that they say very little in public. But you can always talk to the people around them. There are lots of students who knew “Big Wills” and “Babykins”, as they were known at St Andrews University.
So in the process of all your research, what things struck you?
Several things struck me. One was how the phone tapping scandal affected them. That was when News of the World over a long period of time tapped their phones. It really affected their day to day life. It bled into their dealings with everyone and made them paranoid. And you can see that through the way they are organising the Royal Wedding. The BBC presenter Huw Edwards is doing the commentary and as part of his preparation he has asked for a list of the guests but they just won’t give him one. So this kind of boneheaded secrecy is still as much in place today as it was years ago.
Your last book is a move back to the past. You’ve chosen England Under the Tudors, by G R Elton. Do you see any kind of connection between the Tudors and modern-day royalty?
If there were any connections between the Tudors and Windsors I would not be sitting here talking to you. I would be sitting in the Tower or with my head chopped off for all the things I have written about the Royals! The reason I chose this book is that G R Elton is the father of modern historians. He has inspired a whole generation of people, from David Starkey to Philippa Gregory.
The Tudors were the antithesis of today’s royal family. Henry VIII was a swashbuckling character, a Renaissance man. He wrote things for the Pope. The nearest equivalent is Peter the Great of Russia.
One of the criticisms of the current Queen is that she has not really introduced much in terms of royal anything into the national consciousness. At least Prince Charles has had a go with architecture and organic farming. He has tended to be on the right side of the argument about the environment. Even the Queen opening up Buckingham Palace was done on sufferance because of the fire at Windsor Castle. So I look forward to seeing what William and Kate do.
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