It took Prince Andrew a little over 50 minutes to do more damage to the British Royal Family than had been inflicted upon it by 50 years of tabloid sensationalism – or five seasons of The Crown on Netflix. That was how long he sat down with Emily Maitlis for a 2019 Newsnight interview in which he discussed his friendship with sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein – alongside such subjects as his lack of sweat glands and a visit to his local Pizza Express.
Why on earth did he agree to such a car crash? Everyone wondered – not least Maitlis herself, who, together with her Newsnight producer Sam McAlister, had pursued the Prince for an interview for over a year.
“I had to deal with the fact I was about to ask this man, this royal, this prince ... about his sex life. I started to feel really sick,” Maitlis says towards the end of the first episode of Andrew: The Problem Prince (Channel 4 at 9pm), a compelling documentary about one of the most extraordinary interviews in the history of British television.
Channel 4 has commissioned the two-part film as part of its “alternative” coverage of the Coronation of King Charles. With Andrew re-emerging from purgatory to attend his brother’s big bash, the documentary is undoubtedly timely. It also reminds us of the extraordinary privilege in which the royals are raised – and explains how someone could reach 60 – Andrew’s age when he sat down with Maitlis – and think that life can be breezed through without consequences.
The royal was a spoiled prince. The Queen had been too busy getting to grips with the job to lavish any attention on Charles and Anne, her two eldest children. When Andrew came along, she made up for it in spades. And with gifts: for his seventh birthday he received a £4,000 custom-built replica of James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, complete with rotating license plates and an exhaust that spewed smoke bombs (no ejector seat – more’s the pity).
A spoiled child grew up to be a glib adult. The film acknowledges the risks he took piloting helicopters during the Falklands War. “He wanted to learn and wanted to be treated the same as everybody else. His mother just happened to be the Queen,” one colleague says, who recalls Andrew staying cool in fraught combat situations.
In civilian life, he seems to have been intolerable. A playboy in his 20s, the papers dubbed him “Randy Andy”. But he was an Anxious Andy too – fretting constantly about money, especially after his marriage to Sarah Ferguson. At that time, Andrew’s stipend from the British taxpayer was £260,000 – not a lot if you have to pay for private jets and your new wife’s love for ski holidays.
Following his divorce he fell in with the monstrous Epstein, who appears to have mesmerised the prince. Buckingham Palace tried to put Andrew back on the straight and narrow by inventing for him a job as a diplomatic envoy. But while he enjoyed the travel, hard work was not to his liking.
“He refused to stay at the ambassador’s residence – only at the royal suite at the best hotel,” recalls a one-time deputy ambassador to Bahrain, who hosted Andrew for trade talks. “He arrived at the Ritz Carlton with an ironing board. His valet said, ‘no one else can iron his royal highnesses trousers like I can’.”
The next day, Andrew was wheeled in the meet to Bahrainis, to whom Britain was hoping to sell fighter jets. “Why are you bothering to buy these aircraft?” Andrew wondered. “It’s fair cheaper to lease them.”
The rest of the delegated watched incredulously. “He was completely unaccountable,” the ambassador says. “He wasn’t interested. Nothing was done to rein him in.”
The episode finishes as Maitlis is about sit down with Andrew. Negotiations around the interview had been protracted, with the Prince having first sought a puff piece where no hard questions would be posed. Newsnight refused – and, following Epstein’s suicide, Andrew and his team realised he needed to do something about this image.
We all know what happened next. But Andrew: the Problem Prince grippingly fills in the backstory. It will also remind Irish viewers that no matter how much we may complain about Ireland we at least aren’t propping up an institution which produces creatures such as “Randy Andy” – and then asks us to pick up the bill.